Two landmark deals in western Canada could reshape the role of Indigenous nations in resource development projects, placing greater power in the hands of groups that have long been excluded and signalling a possible shift in how industry and governments negotiate with communities on the frontlines of environmental degradation.

In recent years, a string of fierce battles over pipelines have put a spotlight on the fractious nature of resource extraction projects, often pitting First Nations communities against powerful companies.

But this week the Yaq̓it ʔa·knuqⱡi ‘it (YQT), a community in south-eastern British Columbia, signed an unprecedented agreement with the mining company NWP Coal Canada that would give Indigenous leadership a “veto” over the proposed project, dramatically reshaping the power Indigenous nations have over their territory.

Under the deal, the YQT will become the “regulator and reviewer” of the proposed C$400m (US$300m) Crown Mountain project.

“For too long, Indigenous nations have not been brought to the table in decision-making directly affecting our rights and interests,” Chief Heidi Gravelle said in a statement, adding that her community would finally have the change to regulate projects in their own territory.

“We see this as the right thing to do – treating the Indigenous title holders as governments and taking their word seriously,” said Dave Baines, director of project development at NWP, who pointed to dissatisfaction in communities who felt they were inadequately consulted or promises were broken.

“Industry likes to do what has worked in the past rather than try new things. But sometimes you have to not do what’s been done before and make that change.”

With past projects across the country at times facing criticism for a lack of meaningful consultation, Baines said the decision also makes good business sense.

“We’re watching projects get rejected they’re not in alignment with the Indigenous peoples in the area. Is it a bigger risk for us to formally accept them as a regulator and to work with them to get to a yes? Or is it a bigger risk to do the same old thing and possibly face a lawsuit down the road?”

The proposed metallurgical coal mine would open in 2025 if approved by both federal and provincial regulators.

The region is currently the site of coking coalmines with a poor environmental track record: in March, a provincial court fined Teck Resources C$60m after its Fording River and Greenhills operations polluted local waterways with selenium. Other mines have been proposed but faced stiff opposition.

In her statement, Gravelle said the company had committed to a “consent-based environmental assessment”, meaning NWP would require YQT’s permission for the project to move ahead, as well as oversight of the project through the mine’s expected lifespan and remediation efforts.

“Getting a permit for a project is like a marriage: the hard work isn’t standing up in front of the minister, it’s the next 30 years living in each other’s pockets,” said Baines. If we’re going to work with these nations … it’s a journey together. It’s not a single approval.”

In recent years, Indigenous leadership in western Canada have advocated for a greater say in – or even full control over – resource projects that affect their territory.

The deal comes as the Blueberry River First Nations, a community 1,200km away, announced its own historic agreement with the province of British Columbia. In landscape scarred by a relentless push for new industrial development, the deal would see new protections for wildlife, a halt to logging in old-growth forests, new compensation for the community. Any new resource extraction projects will be limited in how much land they can disturb.

“For a long time, First Nations were put aside, not engaged with or listen to,” Chief Judy Desjarlais told reporters as she and the premier announced the deal. “Today marks a new direction. First Nations will be participants in all stages of development. Blueberry now has a say every step of the way.”

The provincial government has also agreed to establish a C$200m restoration fund by to support “healing” of the land from years of industrial disturbance.

In 2021, the British Columbia supreme court sided with Blueberry River, finding the province had violated the nation’s treaty rights by allowing fossil fuel development in the region that had prevented the nation from being able to live off the land.

More deals on revenue sharing and land rehabilitation between the provincial government and First Nations are expected in the coming days.


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