Estimates 2023: Water, Land & Resource Stewardship

Jun 30, 2023 | 42-4, Environment, Estimates, Governance, Indigenous, Legislature, Sessions, Video

For several years now the BC NDP government has been promising species-at-risk or biodiversity legislation but to date they have failed to deliver. Now with the new Water, Land, Resource Stewardship Ministry up and running I asked Minister Nathan Cullen when we can expect to see the provincial government finally act. Additionally in this session, I asked Minister Cullen about the timeline and next step on the coastal marine strategy and watershed security strategy consultations, the restoration economy, 30% protected areas by 2030, and support for Indigenous Conserved and Protected Areas.

I look forward to the important work of this Ministry and seeing it turn from words to actions.


A. Olsen:
I look forward to the opportunity and this exchange with the minister.

We’ve seen United Nations reports warning about global biodiversity declining at an unprecedented rate. We’ve got about one million species facing extinction. Our province needs to establish conservation and management of biodiversity. It had been in the previous mandate letter of the Minister of the Environment, going back, I think, to the beginning of 2017, maybe 2018 as well.

I asked the Minister of formerly LandWRS now WaLRS about biodiversity legislation and the priority within the ministry, knowing that the ministry had only been around for about 50 days. So it was early days for that. The minister basically suggested that she felt next year’s estimates might get a better answer.

Well, we’re now at next year’s estimates. So I’m just wondering if the minister could describe what progress has been made in this past year on biodiversity legislation and conservation and management of ecosystems with sensitive biodiversity needs.

Hon. N. Cullen:
Welcome to my friend from the Green Party. In terms of this question, as we all know, but it bears repeating, within the Canadian context, B.C. is the most biodiverse-rich province. By extension, then, we have a large number of the species that are of concern — some that make the news, some that don’t. As one ecologist friend of mine said, if they’re not sexy megafauna, don’t have the big eyes and make the posters for fundraising, they’re still equally important because of the requirements that we have.

A couple of things. Even as of this week, I was just told we’re in the consultations with First Nations on a two-step process. Right now our commitment is through our partnership with the First Nations Leadership Council to do that consultation, not just with First Nations but a number of other interested parties, and by June, to have co-developed the framework.

We used to call it the declaration. We were asked not to call it the declaration anymore, understandably. It might be seen as a diminishment of the Declaration Act. So fair enough. Just in case folks at home are wondering, for those that follow this. The language change doesn’t change the substance of it. The language change was out of respect, which felt more than appropriate to me and to others.

The framework will prioritize conservation and management of ecosystem health and biodiversity across all sectors and ecosystems. That framework — June is my expectation, unless something comes up otherwise — then leads to the co-development of the legislation. The framework is brought out of those more than 300 conversations that we’ve been having, and again, as recent as yesterday. Then we move to the legislation right after that. So I’m feeling encouraged by it. I’ll leave it at that. It’s incredibly important.

Outside of the actual framework and then legislation around biodiversity health, there are enormous efforts the government is making into conservation, habitat restoration, a whole number of things, but I won’t canvass them all today, just in the interest of time.

This is a good structure around which to talk about biodiversity conservation. The things we need to do as that is being built is to also do the work, because some of the species that we’re talking about don’t have time.

A. Olsen:
One of those non-sexy megafauna species that is in trouble is the specklebelly lichen, for example — the many lichens that there are.

I appreciate the timeline and look forward to debating that legislation as soon as possible. I would say that as we’re going through this process, as much as the conservation efforts are needed and necessary, the reality is that every single decision that’s made by this ministry and perhaps mostly by other ministries is having an impact on those listed species that we know are in trouble and, indeed, the many species that we might not know are in trouble because we haven’t identified the situation that they face. So the timing is very important. That was the point of that comment.

The government has recently concluded, just this month, the coastal marine strategy and watershed security strategy consultations. Can the minister provide, in a similar way, what the timeline is and the next steps that the public can expect with those two important consultations?

Hon. N. Cullen:
Thanks for the question on both. Following a somewhat similar past, both the watershed security strategies…. It’s gone out. It’s come back. The public have had the opportunity to engage on that. The B.C.–First Nations Water Table has been co-developed, this part. We’re going to co-develop the next stage, which is to develop the policies.

We’re hoping this all fits within this mandate — to actually develop the policy for a watershed security strategy and launch it prior to the next election. That is also true for the watershed security strategy. So it has gone out to some public.

The only element that might be different is on the coastal marine strategy. We’re hoping for some local town hall engagements, as well, as we go ahead, opportunities for people to come together as communities and talk about the coastal marine strategy.

As my friend would know, because I think we’ve talked about this, B.C. somewhat doesn’t stand alone but stands somewhat apart from other maritime provinces in not having a coastal marine strategy, and decision by decision, permit by permit is not ideal in terms of landing on something that feels and is much more sustainable with regards to the increasing complexity and pressures that are on our coastal environment. I don’t have to tell him.

So this is something that I’m very keen on seeing. I don’t want to say as quickly as possible, but as I said, within this mandate, to have it developed, co-developed with First Nations and then launched, and real and on the ground and tangible, and also get it right. If this is our first opportunity on the coastal marine strategy to do this, getting it right matters a lot for its durability and people’s sense of confidence that we’re moving away from a transaction-by-transaction piece.

I’ll probably leave it there. My friend might have more specific questions on either, but I’m feeling good about it. Of course, the watershed security fund and the work that was done in the healthy watersheds initiative are good indicators of the government’s commitment to this work, and the community buy-in has been so incredibly high. The interest level is so high to do the actual work, on the ground, of restoration, which, in too many of our watersheds, is long overdue.

A. Olsen:
As an MLA that represents a lot of coastline with a bunch of islands making up most of that coastline, really, the challenge that we face is the interaction between the different governing bodies: the federal government, the provincial government, the local government, the First Nations governing bodies. All of the space between them becomes very, very challenging to where we’ve got situations in our communities where there are pieces of water that seemingly, apparently, are completely and totally unregulated. And if there is regulation, they’re completely and totally unenforced.

We were just having the conversation here about how oftentimes we face the cross-pointing of fingers where, “You should go over there” and then, “You should go back over there,” and we end up just going around and around and around in circles until we’re dizzy. Nothing is solved. The problem continues to grow. My hope is that the federal government is at that table as well in terms of what our coastal marine strategy is. There’s no end of frustration trying to address these kinds of grey areas of jurisdiction where we need and, I think, would benefit from clarity.

I remember my dad saying when I asked him: “What happened to the Saanich Inlet? What happened?” He’s been around a lot longer than I have, so I tried to get an understanding from him. He was about 70 at the time that I was asking him. And he said: “Well, as soon as they figured out that they were going to manage this place from Ottawa was when we started to see the decline.”

I really think from the coastal marine…. The communities that I represent really want to have a say in what’s happening on their shorelines. They really want to be involved, to some extent. So the idea of going out to communities is great. The idea of solving these problems sooner rather than later is even better. I recognize that it’s complex, and you can’t just solve it without having those conversations.

But we run into challenges all the time. In Saltspring, the number of live-aboards, for example, that have taken harbour in Ganges. It is a form of housing, and we recognize that it’s a form of housing, but in some cases, these are dangerous and very, very marginal in terms of housing. There are no services there to provide septic removal. There are all sorts of problems and challenges with it. And there’s just nowhere to look for money. There’s nowhere to look for support. Nobody wants to enforce it. So it ends up just being this place where nothing happens, and that becomes incredibly frustrating.

I’m just going to switch gears here a little bit. The minister has said a couple of times now that the healthy watersheds money is sought after by communities. I think that it is an indication that this fund was greatly needed. We talked about this in budget estimates previously. But it’s also an indication of just how hard we’ve hammered nature in this province and how far we’ve degraded that. There have been no resources in place previously for this kind of restoration.

We’ve been talking about the restoration economy. The minister mentions it. We’ve seen a lot of degradation of our forests. We see landslides and those landscapes now threatening the communities that are around them. Other than the $100 million that was previously approved in the watershed fund, in the supplementary budget estimates a couple of weeks ago, in Budget 2023, can the minister maybe profile how we’re building on that investment to continue to invest in restoring nature and biodiversity in our systems outside of watersheds?

We’ve got the watershed fund, but it’s more than that. I’m just wondering how Budget 2023, from the minister’s perspective, continues to build this restoration economy, an economy that’s going to be so important over the next decades.

Hon. N. Cullen:
Thank you to my friend for the question. It’s an incredibly important one. I was just reminded that in part of our work as a government, towards conservation, there is an implicit and stated desire and need to do restoration as well. I think traditionally, conservation was seen as stopping an activity or managing for certain interests. But because of the degradation of so many of our — particularly in some regions, which I’ll talk about — areas of the province…. Just allowing it to conserve, nature will often bounce back, recover itself. But some of the degradation has been so significant that we have to put investments in.

I’ll start in the northeast, which I think is a pretty important example. We’ve talked about this a little bit earlier, the Blueberry River First Nation and the Treaty 8 First Nations. One will see the contemplation of all sorts of aspects of that agreement — the recognition of cumulative impacts and what that has meant, which was, of course, the core of the court case that was brought by Yahey to the province successfully. I believe it’s a $500 million restoration fund that we’ve stood up now to heal back the land because of the impacts there. I don’t know if it’s global setting, but certainly I can’t think of another restoration fund within Canada of that size and scale, so it’s outstanding.

As well, the much-anticipated Canada-B.C.-First-Nations nature agreement is well on its way. I’m headed to Ottawa in a little bit. We’re feeling confident. I went and sought mandates from all of the First Nations Leadership Council partner groups. They all endorsed their representatives working with B.C. and Canada to land that fund, which has a strong conservation element but also a restoration piece.

We also doubled the BCSRIF, the salmon restoration fund, very specific restoration work to bring back salmon. The happy conclusion on that is that for every dollar B.C. puts in, we’re getting $1.60 from Canada, which is not bad, in terms of what the magnitude is.

My friend is right. We spent $57 million on the healthy watershed initiatives already out the door, run by a number of different groups, but one of them was the Real Estate Foundation, which was co-developed with First Nations, and then the projects were done in partnership, either exclusively by a First Nation or a local interest group along with First Nations.

A very interesting…. No, more than interesting. It’s a quite revolutionary development of restoration work, which is as much about relationship as it was about the work itself. Those are the reports that we were getting back. New relationships formed, and new commitments formed at a very localized level, which is outstanding.

I think I’ll leave it there. There’s $2 million a year we spend on caribou habitat restoration. Again, it’s not just conservation but knowing that…. What we hear from the biologists and First Nations is that in order for caribou to come back in certain regions, it’s just not enough to stop activity. You have to do the restoration work back.

Those are some pretty significant examples, along with the $100 million fund — which we anticipate to grow, by the way — for the watershed security. We’ve heard from the feds and we’ve heard from philanthropic groups that the structure of that fund is very attractive as a place to put restoration and conservation money because the impact of each dollar is so significant. So we feel very proud about that program.

A. Olsen:
I recognize that some of this ground might have already been covered by my colleagues here, and I’m only going to slightly hazard to step on some ground that may have been covered.

The minister will answer it how it is, but we’ve got the ministry that’s responsible for water, land and then resource stewardship, and then we’ve got other ministries that are responsible for, basically, the extractive aspects of it. I don’t want to just suggest that energy and mines are only about extractive or forests is only about extractive. Their policies require there to be, also, kind of a stewardship relationship with nature, but less so. It is the primary focus of this ministry.

I’m just wondering how, with the extractive and the stewardship parts of the work that government’s trying to do…. We’re, on one hand, spending money in WLRS here, in the stewardship aspect of it, to try to rebuild nature, to protect biodiversity and to rebuild biodiversity in areas that it’s been denuded. But then there are also decisions that are being made about forests that are being cut and mountaintops that are being removed for the minerals.

There are all of these things going on all at the same time in different ministries and in different silos across government. Then there’s also B.C. Parks, which is actually the protected areas. This minister that I’m talking to today is responsible for 25 percent by 2025, 30 by 2030. These commitments are in WaLRS’s mandate letter.

I’m just wondering exactly how we are coordinating all of this in a way so that we’re not, on one hand, spending money to build something when maybe a decision in a different ministry is being made to reduce it. I guess further to that, what’s the tracking system within government to ensure that we are protecting…?

We’ve set a specific number — 25 percent by 2025, 30 percent by 2030. So on one hand, we’re trying to protect this, and on the other hand, we’re also undermining that work, to some extent, because there is going to be some economic development and resource extraction. So how is this all balanced?

Hon. N. Cullen:
We did canvass a part of my friend’s question earlier. It’s okay to go back, but I’ll maybe be a bit shorter than I was in the first section, in the interest of time.

The word “stewardship” is in this ministry quite intentionally. That actually came from the first engagement we had on how to build this ministry. It came predominantly from a coastal First Nation’s leader who said: “You guys are all about the extraction. You’ve got to talk about the stewardship more. Put it in the name.” So we put it in the name. Words matter. Names matter. The implication is to think about the province, the land, the water in a different way.

What I’d say is that we talked quite a bit about modernized land use planning earlier. We have 18 tables set up across the province that are government-to-government tables at various stages of advancement, as my friend would know. The reason I point to that, in terms of the balance question, extraction versus conservation and restoration, is that my faith goes there, in that government-to-government engagement, when talking about the entire land use question within a territory.

Nations will have different interests in terms of extraction. My experience has been that it’s quite typically different than historical extraction policies and practices. But when we do those land use planning tables, all the ministries and interests that my friend mentioned — Mines, Forests, Environment and Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation — are present. This goes back again to the DNA of this ministry, which is to convene.

If you’re going to do proper land use planning from the Crown side, the government side, we have to bring a convening mentality so that when we engaged with Blueberry River First Nations to negotiate that settlement, it wasn’t just WLRS at the table. Clearly, it had to be the other ministries, as well, so that we could talk about extraction. We could talk about remediation and healing of the land and then enable the resources to be brought to bear that we now see.

That was a court-mandated activity. Not ideal. We have other examples. We’ve talked around the province. The courts are an important function but are not great at doing land use planning. That’s not what judges are there for, generally speaking, but they’re an important place for rights and title to be established.

The last thing I would say is that on the 25 by ’25 and 30 by ’30, which sits within my mandate and which people were very happy to see codified, black and white, all of that is through Indigenous-led conservation. It’s a very easy thing for me to talk about, regardless of the group.

I said this to the B.C. Business Council in the exact same way I said it to a group of ecologists and philanthropists: Indigenous-led conservation. It’s very consistent. It’s very easy, but hard for some groups to understand, frankly, because conservation mentalities, historically, many have said, and I think quite accurately, are colonial in nature. We draw a line on the map. It’s not all that different than extractive policies, just different outcomes, same theme, which is the terra nullius and all the rest.

We’re feeling it’s an ambitious target — we can talk about those targets if my friend would like — but I believe possible and only possible through things like IPCAs, Indigenous protected and conserved areas. I’m feeling positive about that.

Changing that philosophical practice, I may be…. No. Modernized land use planning is the pathway forward. I really sincerely believe it. We’ve got examples where we can see how predictability comes out the other end for local interest groups. As an action of DRIPA….

Oh, the last thing I would offer is the collaborative Indigenous stewardship forums. These are the ESIs and CSFs that existed in the past. This is where there are multiple nations sitting down together with the Crown. There are a number of them. There are four ESIs around the province; 32 nations sit at those four tables.

This is where we do the data. This is where our technicians sit down from the province and First Nations and agree on that. I’m getting this from Wet’suwet’en friends and Gitxsan friends of mine, who have been quite skeptical when they see the word “reconciliation.” They’ve said that is the best activity that they have seen so far in terms of resolving something that has historically been always in dispute. How many moose? What’s the strength of the forest? What’s the resiliency of the watershed? Arguing over the data, and whose data is believable. How do you incorporate Indigenous knowledge?

It’s happening at those forums. I’m very glad that we’re continuing to support them. I want to get more because that’s where you can then settle the data question, incorporate the knowledge that’s from different cultural perspectives. Then have the debate about the land use, right? As opposed to trying to have that debate at the same time, which is what we’ve done in the past. The suspicion and fear and cynicism are understood when the data points haven’t been agreed to.

Sorry if I went on a little bit. This is good stuff.

A. Olsen:
Yeah. I appreciate the response. Thank you, Minister.

You’ve kind of led into the next question that I had around IPCAs. We will leave it for a conversation maybe in the hallway or somewhere else, just around Indigenous-led conservation. I know I’ve had the conversation with your staff previously, as well as with members of your team, in various briefings that we had. The minister noted that it’s not…. The relationship with nature, the one that I grew up in, wasn’t: “We’re going to protect this over here so that we can go and eviscerate over there and everywhere else that’s not here.” That’s kind of the conservation mentality. We’ll conserve so that then we can…. It’s the soft pillow that we lay our on at the end of the night.

The ideas of Indigenous-led conservation — I have this natural reaction to it. “Oh, that’s putting together two things that whole world view is different.” So how do we reflect that world view in the decision-making? I appreciate the minister noting it.

One of that is Indigenous sovereignty. The former Premier mentioned it a lot. We had lots of conversations, talking about inherent rights and title and sovereignty. We have some experiences with the Taku River Tlingit and the Simpcw First Nation declaring IPCAs and then the provincial government saying: “Well, we’re going to continue to make land use decisions as we have over these territories.”

I’m just wondering: what is the approach for the for the government on IPCAs? When a nation claims that this is now an IPCA, what’s that process? Does the province just agree, or does the province just disagree? What happens from there once that declaration is made?

Hon. N. Cullen:
My friend brings up some important examples when it comes to Indigenous protected and conserved areas. We will have to have that coffee shop conversation about conservation. That is a different thing, a different notion, in terms of…. The soft pillow comment was well taken.

Our approach so far, and it’s been noted in the media as well, is that the first declaration, the self-declaration, of an IPCA is the beginning of a conversation. It’s an intent from a nation saying that this is a desire that they have. The reason it begins the conversation is that, as we would know, there might be multiple interests in certain territories. I’ve had some examples — Taku would be an example — around the province where other nations have strong and declared interests as well.

Our effort, then, as the Crown is, if required — and it’s different case by case, by the way — is to play a convening role in which we participate in the conversation between nations. There are other examples where nations want to have the conversation amongst themselves on an IPCA or other land use planning initiatives.

One’s ideal is that an IPCA or any other land designation coming from a First Nation exists within the broader territorial conversation. That can be complicated, depending on which nation we’re talking about. I would say…. The Gitxsan, for example, have a complex governance system. One might not wait for an entire Gitxsan strategy before one moved ahead on some IPCA initiatives and conservation efforts. We see it as the beginning.

The last thing I would add is…. It’s often overlooked, within the public, maybe, not so much conservation groups, although some…. IPCAs — conservation, in general — are not cheap, not only in the initiation of it, the negotiation of it, the input, the biology, the Elders’ knowledge, all of those things that you have to bring in. But even once established, it needs to be sustained.

I’ve seen, through the old federal park system, for example, the propensity to just declare things and then barely minimum fund and all the rest. Just another bit of the colonial legacy, frankly, for me. They just weren’t thoughtful about what it is to be more incorporated into a place. That’s my philosophical rant on that.

We see it as very much a starting point. We’re seeing some desire from First Nations for some legal structure around this. So some predictability on their end. What is it? How does the province view these legally?

Again, our preference is very much within a larger land use planning conversation, which is sometimes the same thing. A nation declares an IPCA. What they’ve said they’re asking for is to start the conversation and to have a much larger land use dialogue and negotiated settlement with the province.

A. Olsen:
My time is coming to an end. I appreciate the opportunity.

With the amount of paper that I see over here…. We’re not going to get to the number of questions that we have for the minister. So I’m just going to rest my case for this time now.

I’ll just say, I guess, for the record, in the context of the different world views…. My dad has always said: “You only take what you need.” I think it’s a fair statement to make that that has not been the policy of resource extraction for the provincial or federal governments. We’ve taken much more than we need. We’ve taken much more than, perhaps, we should in some areas and in ways that don’t reflect that principle.

My dad told me a story about his grandson, my nephew, who’s six or seven years old, standing in a creek, fishing in the fall for some winter fish. There are some Cowichan community members, much older, adults, standing in their hip waders in the creek as well. My nephew turns to them and says: “Now, you remember. You only take what you need, right?” My dad is: “Well, the teachings have set in pretty strong.” I think that’s what the reflection is.

I’ll, finally, just say this. It is encouraging to know…. In the past, things only happened if the province brought these initiatives to have a conversation. That was where, in the past, 100 percent of the conversations started.

Now there are mechanisms, which are put in place, where Indigenous nations can request a table. They can make a public declaration, a public statement. There’s a number of tools, which are evolving through this difficult process, that are balancing the conversation and providing First Nations, Indigenous communities, options that were not there in the past.

As sharp as some of my criticisms are on the finer points, and always will be in this to keep things moving, I think it’s always important to acknowledge the really important and progressive steps that we’ve been taking to have a conversation that is more reflective of the way it should be. I appreciate that and just want to acknowledge that.


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