UPDATE: This story has been updated to include additional statements from Blueberry River Chief Judy Desjarlais.

FORT ST. JOHN, B.C. – Blueberry River First Nations Chief Judy Desjarlais has responded to a letter from Charlie Lake and Red Creek residents who voiced their concern over TLE Land Settlements.

Energeticcity received the letter last week in which some residents of Charlie Lake and Red Creek accused the province of engineering conflicts between Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities under the guise of reconciliation.

“We know that change is coming as the Treaty Land Entitlement (TLE) claims process plays out. We want to co-exist peacefully and constructively with the Blueberry River First Nation, our valued neighbours with centuries of history on the land,” the letter reads.

Desjarlais says that the Blueberry River nation shares the author’s sentiment to co-exist peacefully, but their letter misrepresents vital facts of the negotiations.

“Blueberry has gone to such great lengths to not only engage and consult its own members on TLE land selection over the years but also to engage and accommodate the legitimate interests of non-indigenous residents of Red Creek, Charlie Lake, and other residents,” Desjarlais said in a statement.

The letter continues by saying that the government is “throwing Blueberry under the bus to avoid responsibility for its own ineptitude and inconsistency in the land settlement process.”

It claims that when land negotiations were first made public, a consensus emerged among residents in Blueberry and others in the area that a few land parcels in the Red Creek and Charlie Lake areas would remain off the table.

“That approach would have reduced community tensions over outdoor recreation and watershed conservation. But after the 2017 election, this NDP government reversed course and put those parcels back on the table,” the letter claims.

Desjarlais rebukes this claim, stating that there has never been a “consensus” and that there was never a discussion of “better alternatives” for TLE lands.

B.C.’s Ministry of Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation also responded to the claim, stating that parcels were chosen after significant negotiations.

“The provincial and federal governments have been negotiating with the five First Nations in Northeast B.C. since 2004. The location of the selected land and the reasons for the various parcels were determined as a result of these in-depth, decades-long discussions,” the ministry said.

Energeticcity spoke to a member of the group who wrote the letter, who chose to remain anonymous. They said a key issue for the group is that stakeholders and residents feel the province didn’t adequately consult them.

They take issue with two parcels of land that will be transferred to Blueberry, one of which is in Charlie Lake and allegedly hosts a watershed reserve. The other is located near the Red Creek subdivision.

Image of the Charlie Lake and Red Creek Land Parcels that will be transferred to Blueberry River First Nation – Maxar Technologies CNES/Airbus Landsat/Copernicus Province of British Columbia

The ministry provided information on land transfers. Energeticcity then took data available on the webpage and uploaded it to Google Earth to make the data more accessible for readers and confirmed the location of the parcels.

To learn more about land transfers in Northeast B.C., click here.

The resident says the group is concerned about environmental and water quality impacts on the Charlie Lake parcel should Blueberry decide to develop the land and claims there will no longer be backcountry access through the Red Creek subdivision.

Desjarlais says Blueberry is aware of the watershed reserve that covers a significant amount of Crown Land surrounding Charlie Lake.

“BRFN and their ancestors have a long history of cultural and spiritual connection with Charlie Lake and surrounding areas, and [the nation’s] vision and objectives for the Charlie Lake parcel are consistent with overall protection of key ecological interests in Charlie Lake.”

“BRFN has been seeking environmental stewardship at Charlie Lake for decades. In fact, it has been non-indigenous oil and gas exploration, agriculture, urban development and over-fishing that have been the primary contributors to decreased water quality and ecological values in Charlie Lake,” Desjarlais continued.

She asserts that as land owners for that parcel, the nation will be seeking higher standards of stewardship for the lake moving forward, and will be an “important ally” to those that seek the same.

Desjarlais adds that Blueberry looks forward to working with other stakeholders in and around the lake to advance ecological stewardship objectives.

As for the Red Creek parcel, Desjarlais says BRFN heard residents’ interests in accessing the backcountry and natural spaces adjacent to their properties and made significant efforts to accommodate those interests.

“[Blueberry’s efforts include] significant reductions in overall TLE parcel size to accommodate existing private and other interests, and through agreement to multiple Crown land buffers at both the Red Creek and Charlie Lake parcels to address residents’ stated interests and concerns,” Desjarlais said.

“In particular, BRFN agreed to hundreds of acres of “carve-outs” for the purposes of access corridors and buffers at Red Creek to accommodate local residents,” She continued.

The ministry says they held a significant engagement process.

“Provincial staff engaged with the local communities and stakeholders over three years, which included meetings and presentations with focus groups, local governments, the North East Roundtable, open houses, mail and email, and provided accessible information online,” the ministry stated.

“As a result of this engagement, the Province has taken steps to mitigate concerns in practical ways, such as ensuring road access while also balancing the interests of the First Nations.”

The letter’s authors claim that the provincial government left residents of Blueberry one option: a “take it or leave it” settlement package, including the previously mentioned land parcels.

“Government created huge pressure and dangled a $50,000 payment in front of every band member to ratify a flawed deal. Both indigenous and non-indigenous leaders know that the resulting “yes” vote will unnecessarily stoke tensions with adjacent landowners and long-time land users,” the letter said.

The ministry says they aren’t providing any financial incentive to the nation to ratify their TLE agreements.

Desjarlais also rebuffed the claim.

“Blueberry rejects the idea of its TLE settlement being a “take it or leave it” settlement forced upon it by the province. This is a settlement that leaders and the membership of Blueberry have created, advanced and realized together over many years and one that the Nation is incredibly proud of.”

She adds that the nation has made significant efforts to work with the province to initiate an in-depth consultation and information-sharing process with residents, which began in 2017. The process included public open houses on TLE lands and attendance at provincial Northeast Roundtable meetings, which resulted in significant alterations to TLE parcels, according to Desjarlais.

Desjarlais says residents must consider the context behind the TLE claims, which leads back to the Treaty 8 signing in 1899.

“As a starting point in thinking about the TLE claims, Blueberry strongly urges all residents in the Peace region to consider the fact that it is Treaty 8 and the promises made by the Crown under it that allowed non-indigenous settlement of this territory, which was previously occupied by Blueberry’s ancestors,” Desjarlais said.

The ministry echoed Desjarlais’s statement, stating that TLE agreements address the historic shortfall of lands promised to five Treaty 8 First Nations 100 years ago and they are committed to providing “a tangible demonstration of reconciliation in action.”

“The province of British Columbia will provide the five First Nations with the shortfall of lands and provide the five First Nations with the opportunity to purchase additional crown land within their territories for their use. The Federal Government will provide a financial settlement that recognizes the historic nature of the specific claim and the length of time it has taken to resolve this issue.”

After nearly two decades of negotiation with provincial and federal governments, Blueberry River First Nation and Doig River First Nation leaders signed a Treaty Land Entitlement settlement Monday afternoon.

Desjarlais told Energeticcity that Blueberry will be receiving five parcels of land through the TLE Land Settlements which are located in Pink Mountain, Dancing Grounds, Red Creek, Charlie Lake and adjacent to Blueberry.

Blueberry River First Nations membership ratified a historic TLE settlement on June 15th, with almost 80 per cent of members voting in favour.

As part of the settlement, Blueberry will receive lands that it should have acquired over 100 years ago based on a sacred promise from the Crown in Treaty 8.

View the full letter from the residents below.

Spencer Hall is a news reporter for energeticcity.ca and a recent graduate of the British Columbia Institute of Technology’s Radio Arts & Entertainment program. Growing up in Northwest B.C. made Spencer aware of the importance of local journalism, independent media, and reconciliation. In his spare time, you can find Spencer reading, playing video games, or at the FSJ dog park with his dog, Teddy.