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Pauquachin First Nation asks North Saanich for additional help to restore shellfish harvest in Coles Bay

Closure of shellfish harvest marks violation of Aboriginal Treaty rights, public heard Monday
North Saanich is currently preparing a response to Pauquachin First Nation on resuming shellfish harvesting in Coles Bay. (Black Press Media file photo)

The spectre of a ground-breaking court decision concerning Aboriginal rights and the cumulative effects of development hung in the air Monday as North Saanich council heard from a delegation representing neighbouring Pauquachin First Nation.

The local First Nation wants to resume shellfish harvesting in Coles Bay and last year Chief Rebecca David asked the municipality for assistance in these efforts. Specifically, she asked the municipality to investigate what it can do to regulate pollution from entering the bay, having previously identified residential onsite septic systems in North Saanich as one of the upland bacterial sources that led to the closure of shellfish harvesting more than two decades ago.

Council heard Monday again from the Nation, this time through a delegation led by Octavio Cruz, marine reporting supervisor at Pauquachin. The delegation also included Alicia Gordon, a co-ordinator with the Canadian Shellfish Sanitation Program; Calvin Sandborn, legal director with the Environmental Law Centre at the University of Victoria; as well as Christa Croos and Camille O’Sullivan, both also with the centre.

Like David last year, Croos said the shellfish closure marks a violation of Aboriginal treaty rights but also appeared to offer a more specific critique of North Saanich.

“Local government decisions related to zoning, development approvals, septic systems and stormwater management have resulted in a poor water quality in Coles Bay,” she said. “And as you all know, poor water quality makes shellfish inedible. Because of this, Pauquachin’s ability to harvest shellfish has been significantly diminished. This is a treaty violation and a violation of fundamental Aboriginal rights to fish.”

RELATED: Pauquachin First Nation calls on North Saanich to help restore shellfish in Coles Bay

She cited the case of Yahey v. British Columbia, which saw the B.C. Supreme Court rule in favour of the Blueberry River First Nations, who had argued that the cumulative impacts of industrial development in their traditional territory had infringed treaty rights.

The court found, in that case, that development had significantly diminished that Nations’ ability to access their primary food.

“And the very same can be said for Pauquachin First Nation,” she said. “However, we can do something about it. That is the good news.”

The public heard later from Cruz that Coles Bay offers some of the best potential for restoring shellfish harvesting in the region as the pollution is only coming from certain sources that can be tracked.

The reaction of councillors varied. Coun. Murray Weisenberger noted North Saanich finds itself at the lowest rung of the jurisdictional ladder that also involves the provincial and federal governments. “The most meaningful changes certainly involve the province and the feds,” he said. “It is going to be tough to get anywhere, but that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t attempt to get there.”

Coun. Celia Stock struck a comparable tone, noting multiple factors including emissions from other municipalities on the Saanich Peninsula contribute to local water quality.

Mayor Geoff Orr signalled a preference for action but pushed back against the claim that pollution sources can be easily traced. Efforts so far have not specifically identified the pollution sources, he said, adding that additional efforts may be needed. He added any action on this file would require planning and sufficient resources from all parties.“This will go nowhere unless that happens,” he said.

Council unanimously asked staff to prepare a report in response to the presentation and the specific asks from the delegation.

Those include North Saanich council hosting an hour-long special session to discuss immediate and long-term project solutions to reduce sanitary pollution in Coles Bay from storm water; a written commitment to collaboration between Pauquachin First Nation and stakeholders on partnership-based solution, with 2024 as an improvement goal for stormwater drains leading to traditional harvesting sites; and long-term integration of stormwater solutions into the municipality’s liquid waste management plan, with a focus on First Nation traditional food re-openings and traditional practice integration.

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Wolf Depner

About the Author: Wolf Depner

I joined the national team with Black Press Media in 2023 from the Peninsula News Review, where I had reported on Vancouver Island's Saanich Peninsula since 2019.
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