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Aboriginal title upsets B.C. forest policy

Forest products are mostly harvested from Crown land in B.C., subject to aboriginal title over large areas of the province. - Black Press files
Forest products are mostly harvested from Crown land in B.C., subject to aboriginal title over large areas of the province.
— image credit: Black Press files

VICTORIA – The Supreme Court of Canada's decision upholding aboriginal title in the Nemiah Valley in B.C.'s Southern Interior has major implications for provincial government policy, and the most immediate may be to forest licences.

The ruling comes as the B.C. government considers the results of a province-wide consultation on converting volume-based timber cutting permits to area-based permits, to encourage longer-term forest stewardship by licence holders on Crown land.

About 40 per cent of B.C.'s timber is harvested under 180 volume-based forests licences on Crown land. Private land is not subject to these licences, and was also excluded from the Tsilhqot'in Nation aboriginal title case that struck down a forest harvest licence issued in 1983.

B.C. Attorney General Suzanne Anton said it will take some time for the province to consider amending the Forest Act and other legislation that has been affected by the decision.

More than 90% of B.C. is Crown land, and much of that is subject to forest licences as well as unresolved aboriginal land claims. In the Tsilhqot'in territory west of Williams Lake, the high court's landmark ruling negates the cutting permits that triggered the legal case in 1983.

"Now that title has been established [in the Tsilhqot'in claim area], the timber on it no longer falls within the definition of 'Crown timber' and the Forest Act no longer applies," wrote Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin in the unanimous judgment released June 26.

McLachlin wrote that the B.C. government can still enforce "general regulatory legislation" such as that dealing with pest invasions or forest fire control in areas of proven aboriginal title. But a timber licence in such an area is "a direct transfer of aboriginal property rights to a third party" that would have to be agreed to by aboriginal title holders or justified as an intrusion of their constitutional rights.

The judgment left it open to the B.C. government to amend the Forest Act so it conforms with aboriginal title as it is declared.

In recent years the province has begun negotiating resource sharing agreements with aboriginal communities, including forest tenures and shares of provincial royalties from mines.

Two weeks before the Tsilhqot'in judgment, the B.C. government announced a three-year "stewardship agreement" with five of its member communities.

The province is providing $670,000 per year for projects to address forest and wildlife effects from the mountain pine beetle epidemic in the region.

 

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