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B.C. First Nations seek action on sturgeon deaths, after court blamed declines on dam

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B.C. First Nations seek action on sturgeon deaths, after court blamed declines on dam

VANCOUVER — Three British Columbia First Nations want the provincial and federal governments to live up to a nine-month-old court decision that said there is “overwhelming” evidence a dam on the Nechako River is killing endangered sturgeon.

They are highlighting the ruling after scientists asked the public in September for help in solving the mysterious deaths of 11 adult sturgeon found in the Nechako River in central B.C.

The Ministry of Land, Water and Resource Stewardship said the fish showed no visible external injuries and their deaths were not caused by disease, chemical exposure, angling or gillnet fisheries.

However, the Nechako First Nations claim mismanagement of the river and the dam reservoir are behind the deaths, saying quick action is needed to protect their rights and the sturgeon, which the court said were in “a decline so severe that the species is currently at risk of imminent extirpation.”

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In the 1950s, the B.C. government authorized the Aluminum Company of Canada, now Rio Tinto Alcan, to build the Kenney Dam and a 233-kilometre-long reservoir on the river for hydropower generation to smelt its product.

Two of the Nechako First Nations, the Saik’uz and Stellat’en, sued the governments and Rio Tinto Alcan for the decades of losses to their fisheries, the lands, waters and rights.

The B.C. Supreme Court ruled in January that while Rio Tinto Alcan has complied with every contract it signed and abided by all terms on its water licence, the “failure” came from the governments who settled on insufficient requirements to protect the fish of the Nechako.

The judge ruled the Saik’uz and Stellat’en nations have an Aboriginal right to fish for food, social and ceremonial purposes in the Nechako River watershed and that both the provincial and federal governments have an obligation to protect that right.

Justice Nigel Kent said it was a fact that the Kenney Dam’s installation and operation were behind the “recruitment failure” of the Nechako white sturgeon, referring to the survival of fish larvae into the juvenile stage.

Sturgeon, with their long snout and shark-like tail, can grow up to six metres long and live for over a century. The Nechako white sturgeon are a distinct population.

Priscilla Mueller, elected chief of Saik’uz First Nation, said the community living along the river has watched water flow decline over the last several years.

“Right now, the Nechako River received less than 30 per cent of the water that it would naturally receive. So, when you look at the river today, the water level is very low. It would be very difficult for the sturgeons to survive in very low water,” she said.

“It’s not only affecting the sturgeons, but it’s also affecting our salmon and other fish habitats.”

Mueller recalled fishing with her grandparents as a child and said the salmon and sturgeon thrived on the river.

“And now like in Saik’uz, I haven’t heard of anybody getting a sturgeon for years since I was a child .… The (Kenney) Dam really affected the river in a big way,” said Mueller.

The Saik’uz, Stellat’en and Nadleh Whut’en First Nations said in a news release that the recent deaths are the “latest blow” to the endangered species, which numbers between 300 and 600.

“Given the population’s conservation status, these mortalities have very serious implications for the Nechako white sturgeon’s ability to recover, and will drive the population closer to extinction,” they said.

The nations have since filed an appeal of the January ruling, seeking a court order for the restoration of flows on the Nechako that would re-establish “the natural functions of the river.”

Mueller said it’s not just in the First Nations’ interests to restore the river — the health of the river would benefit the whole community on the waterway.

The nations said they now look forward to discussions with all parties to create a new water management regime.

Mueller said one of the first steps is to invite Rio Tinto to their community to see who they are and how they live.

“So, for our community, building relationships is very important. And when you think about a relationship, it’s not just one-sided. If we were gonna co-manage the river, that means all parties need to be involved,” said Mueller.

The Ministry of Land, Water and Resource Stewardship said no more dead sturgeon have recently been observed on the Nechako River, which it saw as a “positive update.”

“We are cautiously optimistic that this mortality event is over. The province is focusing on understanding the cause and what can be done to prevent potential future events,” the ministry said in an email statement.

No cause of death was immediately apparent, but analyses and lab tests would continue, with water temperature and oxygen stress studies also underway through a partnership with the University of British Columbia, said the ministry.

“The province understands there is interest from First Nations and stakeholders in a water release facility at the Kenney Dam in the Nechako watershed,” the ministry said, adding that it was discussing sturgeon stewardship “to ensure it meets the interests of Nechako First Nations.”

Fisheries and Oceans Canada said in a written statement it had been engaged with Indigenous groups, Rio Tinto, B.C. and others in Nechako River white sturgeon recovery initiatives since 2000. A key objective was to ensure Rio Tinto operations “do not impact Nechako white sturgeon and facilitate their recovery.”

Andrew Czornohalan, director of power and projects at Rio Tinto BC Works, said in an email statement that the company is “deeply saddened” by the sturgeons’ deaths and it is working with partners, including the Nechako white sturgeon recovery initiative and the province.

“We are aware of the sturgeon mortality that occurred this summer in the Nechako River and in other rivers in B.C., including the Fraser River. We have offered technical capacity via the water engagement initiative to identify the possible causes of this unprecedented event.”

He said the company has contributed over $13 million to the recovery initiative since 2000.

Over the past two years, Rio Tinto has been working with the First Nations and local communities to improve the water flow into the Nechako River while still monitoring for flood risks in Vanderhoof, a city in northern B.C., said Czornohalan.

“We will continue to collaborate with First Nations, governments and other stakeholders to review all aspects of the Nechako Reservoir management process in hopes of improving the health of the river and ensuring Rio Tinto can remain a driver of economic opportunities in B.C.,” said Czornohalan.

He said on top of powering its smelting plant, the dam provides hydropower for around 350,000 residents in B.C.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 13, 2022.

This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Meta and Canadian Press News Fellowship.

 

Nono Shen, The Canadian Press

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Afghan refugees: Government delays increasing financial pressure – CTV News

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Refugee advocates are raising concerns that Afghan refugees granted asylum in Canada are being burdened by escalating costs stemming from the government’s delay in processing their claims.

Before they board their flight to Canada, all refugees are required to sign a loan agreement to pay back the cost of their transportation and pre-arrival expenses which can include hotel stays.

Some Afghans identified by Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada as eligible for resettlement have been waiting months for exit permits while living in hotels arranged by the government. The hotel bills can add thousands of dollars to their debt.

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The Canadian Council for Refugees says Afghans are being forced to pay for an inefficient bureaucracy.

“It seems like the Canadian government is taking advantage of the vulnerability of people,” says Janet Dench, executive director of the Canadian Council of Refugees. Hotel bills can add thousands of dollars to their government debt.

Dench says refugees have no choice but to accept a “legally dubious” contract that doesn’t stipulate a precise loan amount.

“If they want a permanent home they have to sign on to whatever the terms of the agreement are. There’s no negotiation room, so people are forced into this situation.”

LONG WAITS AND BIG BILLS

Because Canada doesn’t recognize the Taliban government Afghans must get to a third country with consular support to complete their refugee applications. Many flee to neighboring Pakistan where Canada has a High Commission in the capital of Islamabad.

Nearly all Afghan refugees deemed eligible for resettlement are placed in the care of the International Organization for Migration while they are overseas.

The IOM organizes both charter and commercial flights to Canada and coordinates hotel stays for refugees as they wait for their exit permits. IOM doesn’t book flights until after IRCC has completed security and medical checks of its applicants. The organization bills the Canadian government approximately $150 per day to house and provide three meals a day for one family.

Of the 25,400 Afghans who have arrived in Canada since August 2021, IOM spokesperson Paul Dillon told CTV News in an emailed statement Friday the organizations has arranged travel for more than 22,000 of those refugees.

The claims of another 15,000 Afghans Canada committed to accepting after the Taliban took over the country have been delayed.

Irfanullah Noori, 28 and his family of five stepped off a plane at Pearson International Airport less than two months ago at the end of October. Before the Taliban took over his homeland in Noori worked as a logistics coordinator at the Kabul International Airport. He qualified for asylum because his brother served as an interpreter for Canadian soldiers.

Before being issued travel documents to Canada, Nouri, his wife and their three children, all under the age of five – stayed in an Islamabad hotel arranged by IOM for three months.

Irfanullah Noori poses with his youngest daughter on October 25, 2022 at the Pakistan International Airport before he boarded plane bound for Canada.

Before boarding his flight he signed a loan agreement. Nouri says IOM staff told him he would need to repay hotel expenses that added up to more than $13,000. That amount does not factor in the cost of flights for his family that he will also have to repay.

MISLEADING COSTS

IRCC says 96 per cent of refugees are able to pay back the loans. Monthly payments on the interest free loans are scheduled to begin one year after refugees arrive in Canada and costs can be spread out over nine years.

The federal government puts a cap of $15,000 on each loan per family, but the Canadian Council for Refugees says this is a misleading number.

Refugee families who have older dependents may have to pay back more than the cap. That’s because dependents over the age of 22 years old, can be considered a separate family unit and required to take on a new loan. Dench says this policy puts refugees in a precarious economic position. She’s seen families fight over finances and hopes and dreams put on hold.

“You have young people who should normally be going to university and pursuing their education but they feel that they’re morally obliged to get down to work, even at a minimum wage job in order to pay off the family debt,” said Dench. She argues the Canadian government should stop requiring refugees to repay the costs of getting them to safety, no matter where they come from.

SIMILAR CLAIMS, DIFFERENT TIME FRAMES

Since the fall of Kabul in August 2021, the Veterans Transition Network has helped raise funds to get interpreters and others out of Afghanistan. Oliver Thorne, VTN’s executive director says he’s frustrated that there are huge variations how long it takes for claims to be approved between applicants with similar profiles

“Some migrants are left in the dark. They don’t know why it’s taking them an additional two, four or six months compared to another interpreter who worked with the Canadian armed forces.” Thorne says IRCC needs to hire and train more staff to speed up the processing of claims.

He’s also calling for the removal of loan requirements, especially for Afghans who assisted the Canadian armed forces.

“They protected our men and women in uniform at great risk to themselves and their families. And secondly, these are going to be Canadians. They’re going to live here in our society down the street from us, and we have nothing to gain by making their transition more difficult,” Thorne said in an interview from Vancouver.

NO DEBT RELIEF

CTV News asked the Immigration Minister if it was fair that the Canadian government was burdening Afghans with additional costs due to the government backlog.

On Friday, Sean Fraser blamed a complicated process, but acknowledged that some refugees had been stuck “for a significant period of time.’ But the minister offered few solutions other than a vague reassurance that his department was “working with Pakistani officials to make sure we’re facilitating the smooth transportation of people to Canada.”

Meanwhile Noori is struggling to make ends meet in his new Ontario home, despite finding a job a few weeks ago at the General Motors plant in Oshawa.

Hired as a data-entry clerk, Noori earns $19/hour and is trying to pick up extra shifts on the weekend so he can make his $2,000 monthly rent on a one bedroom apartment.

Even though he won’t have to start paying back his refugee loan until next year, he’s daunted by the impending bill.

“It’s expensive (here.) I work 8 hours a day and six days a week. It will be very hard for me to pay back.”

After surviving the Taliban, Noori now faces subsistence in Canada.

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Children’s hospital in Newfoundland and Labrador is cancelling some surgeries

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A children’s hospital in the capital of Newfoundland and Labrador is cancelling some surgeries and appointments starting Monday.

Health officials say it’s due to a high level of respiratory illness.

It is unclear how many surgeries and appointments at Janeway Children’s Health and Rehabilitation Centre in St. John‘s will be affected.

Residents who are not experiencing a medical emergency are being asked to avoid visiting an emergency department.

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Slain RCMP Const. Yang cleared of wrongdoing in shooting: B.C. police watchdog

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Slain RCMP Const. Yang cleared of wrongdoing in shooting: B.C. police watchdog

British Columbia‘s police watchdog has cleared a slain Burnaby RCMP constable of wrongdoing after she shot a man in the altercation that led to her death.

The Independent Investigations Office says after a review of all available evidence its chief civilian director determined that there are no reasonable grounds to believe Const. Shaelyn Yang committed an offence.

It says the matter will not be referred to the Crown for consideration of charges.

Yang, a 31-year-old mental health and homeless outreach officer, was stabbed to death on Oct. 18 while she and a City of Burnaby employee attempted to issue an eviction notice to a man who had been living in a tent at a local park.

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Yang shot the suspect before she died, and the IIO later said Jongwon Ham underwent surgery for his injuries.

Ham has since been charged with first-degree murder in Yang’s death.

“Due to concurrent court proceedings related to the incident, the IIO’s public report will not be released on the IIO website until that process has concluded,” the IIO said in a news release.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 3, 2022.

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