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Rob Shaw: NDP minister urges resolution of Joffre Lakes park closure, unclear what that is

Environment Minister George Heyman calls on parties to discuss resolution
NDP Environment Minister George Heyman was caught off-guard by the Joffre Lakes park closure.

B.C.’s environment minister is urging two First Nations to negotiate the reopening of Joffre Lakes provincial park, saying it should not have been unilaterally closed in the first place and that everyone must come together to find a way to restore public access.

George Heyman said he was caught off guard to hear about the frustrations of the Líl̓wat Nation and N’Quatqua First Nation when they jointly announced last week they were shutting off public access to the park until Truth and Reconciliation Day, Sept. 30.

The two nations cited the need for privacy on their traditional territories to conduct ceremonies and hold harvest celebrations on their overlapping territories.

“I do not think it is necessary to completely close the park to meet the cultural and food gathering and privacy needs of the two nations,” Heyman said in an interview.

He called on leaders of both First Nations to sit down with provincial officials, and himself if requested, to negotiate a solution that would reopen the park but also give Indigenous residents the land access they require for their cultural practices.

“I think there is a resolution that could work for the nations, that could work without completely cutting off access for many British Columbians,” said Heyman.

“I’m very eager to see those discussions with the two nations take place. We have some potential solutions in mind, I’m sure they do as well, but the only way we’re going to find that is to sit down with both nations and have frank discussions.”

Líl̓wat Chief Dean Nelson told CBC News his nation had been trying to meet with B.C. Parks to discuss crowding in the parks and land use.

“We've been requesting, we need to have time there as well ... but it's never been granted,” said Nelson. “It's never been talked about.”

That frustration boiled over to the closure, which the nations backstopped in a press release alongside references to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and previous court decisions on rights and title.

“It was a surprise to me,” Heyman said. “I was not aware of the level of frustration until they gave notice, and then I talked immediately to Chief Nelson on Friday.”

The province has for now committed to cancelling day-use passes to the park, refunding camping reservations, and deploying B.C. Parks officials to the site to turn away anyone unaware of the restrictions, said Heyman. But there is no government agreement with the Sept. 30 closure timeline.

“As I said to Chief Nelson I want there to be a sense of urgency about this from our perspective and B.C. Parks, and I hope the nations will respond as well so we can reach a solution that works for everyone,” said Heyman.

Joffre Lakes is one of the most popular parks in the B.C. system, and a frequent spot for social media photos of its turquoise-blue lakes. The number of visitors spiked so quickly in recent years that the province brought in a free day-pass system in 2021 to try and limit the traffic jams on the side of the highway and overcrowding in the park.

The government had also developed visitor use and land management strategy with the two nations, to try and set aside space and privacy for traditional use of the land. But the Líl̓wat and N’Quatqua nations say that has proven insufficient.

Heyman said there must be some kind of resolution that can give all parties what they want.

“The point I’ve made to Chief Nelson, and continue to make, is we are all here, we all have to live here, and yes we respect rights and title as has been determined by the courts and UN Declaration that we recognized in legislation, but the way to move forward is to come up with solutions together,” he said.

Heyman declined to say what the government would do to reopen the park if negotiations fail, saying he’d prefer to remain focused on a positive outcome first.

Rob Shaw has spent more than 15 years covering B.C. politics, now reporting for CHEK News and writing for Glacier Media. He is the co-author of the national bestselling book A Matter of Confidence, host of the weekly podcast Political Capital, and a regular guest on CBC Radio.