B.C.’s environment minister is providing more details about talks with two First Nations that led to the reopening of one of the province’s most popular parks.
The province moved to close the park after the two nations announced they were shuttering it to public access for more than a month in order to conduct traditional harvesting and ceremonial activities.
The province announced Thursday that it had reached an agreement with the nations to reopen the park on Sept. 19, with a one-day closure on Sept. 30, the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation.
Minister George Heyman told Global News that the province and nations have been engaging on conditions in the park since a 2019 letter of understanding on controlling visitors, amid a massive surge.
“So we have agreed to limit the numbers based on science, on experience and on Indigenous knowledge so we ensure we’re protecting the natural value and ecosystems of the park as well as the visitor experience,” Heyman said in an interview.
“But also they felt we weren’t moving fast enough, and they essentially announced they were implementing a unilateral closure.”
Heyman said the agreement reached with the nations will see the park reopen for public access, but more importantly moves the needle with regards to ongoing talks about park management and Indigenous use of the land.
He said a critical component of that was making sure the nations understood they’d been heard and that the province was committed to working with them.
“We’ve also reached agreement with the two nations on meeting over the fall and winter to define and reach agreement on what days will be closed in 2024 and going forward to allow the nations to engage in their fruit harvesting activities, their cultural practices relating to those activities in peace and harmony and in privacy for a certain period of time during which there will be closures,” Heyman said.
“The difference of course will be that will be known in advance, rather than the last-minute surprise that people were unfortunately subjected to this year.”
Heyman said the province had “guaranteed” the nations will have some time of privacy in the future, and in turn, the public will have certainty about when the park is open.
The park, located between Pemberton and Lillooet, has become a massive tourist attraction — in part because of its Instagrammable views.
A provincial report found that there were nearly 200,000 visitors in 2019, an increase of 222 per cent from nine years earlier.
BC Parks subsequently implemented mandatory but free day passes in order to help control crowds.
The nations, however, have complained about a lack of respect from the public including parking issues and an accumulation of litter — leading to the closure.
One B.C. lawyer who specializes in Indigenous law said he’s watching the latest developments, and said while we haven’t seen a situation like this before, it may not be precedent-setting.
“Based on everything I’ve read in the case law, there’s no basis for a First Nation to close a park. I understand a First Nation may take that position, and you know that’s fair enough but the legal authority doesn’t exist under the Park Act,” Robin Junger told Global News.
“Will it be a precedent in other ways? It’s not a legal precedent, it’s not like a case law from the Supreme Court. Will it affect expectations? Possibly.
Junger said that the Minister of Environment has the power under the Park Act to enter into agreements with First Nations related to the use of park lands for the exercise of their Indigenous rights.
Whether the agreement reached with the nations was done so under those powers, the terms of that agreement and whether it will be made public are fair questions to ask, he added.
“This sounds like legal details and technicalities, but on the other hand this is the framework under which these discussions are to occur, and that’s why the legislation exists,” he said.
“I think if these discussion occur through the mechanisms of the legislation and they involve proper input for interested parties and consideration of the public interest, then things should work out.”
Heyman, meanwhile, hailed the agreement as a step forward in the ongoing process of Indigenous reconciliation.
“Reconciliation is a journey. we’re not going to get there tomorrow, but we’re going to continue to take steps,” he said.
“For people who are looking for a magic bullet or giant significant action after which it’s all done, they’re not going to find that. What they’re going to find is relationship building, steady progress.”