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Popular B.C. park shut down by First Nations gets reopening date

After three weeks of uncertainty, an agreement has been reached to reopen a popular B.C. park to the public.

Joffre Lakes Provincial Park will reopen for regular public access on Sept. 19 and will remain open for the rest of the backcountry camping season, with the exception of the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation on Sept. 30, when it will be closed.

The provincial government announced the reopening plan in a statement Thursday afternoon.

The park has mostly been closed since Aug. 24, when the Lil'wat and N'Quatqua First Nations announced that they would be "shutting down" access to the area, which they call Pipi7iekw and say they have occupied since time immemorial. 

The nations' announcement seemed to catch the province off guard.

The Lil'wat and N'Quatqua initially said they intended to keep the park closed until Sept. 30 to harvest, gather resources and engage in other cultural activities.

In a gesture of goodwill, the nations reopened the park for Labour Day weekend, before closing it again amid ongoing negotiations with the provincial government. 

Lil'wat acting chief Chris Wells said in the provincial government's release that his nation "greatly appreciates the time and attention" B.C.'s ministries of Environment and Climate Change Strategy and Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation gave to the negotiations.

"The Nation will continue to guide discussions to ensure that Pipi7iekw is being used in a matter that is consistent with our values and those of our ancestors," said Wells. "Pipi7iekw continues to be a spiritual place for our people and one that can support our Nation rebuilding efforts."

The province said it has agreed to continue to have regular discussions with the nations through spring 2024 "to develop a plan for park access, park management, and cultural protection for future camping and recreation seasons."

"The agreement reached between the Lil'wat Nation, N'Quatqua Nation and the Province is an example of our strong commitment to reconciliation and collaboration," said George Heyman, Minister of Environment and Climate Change Strategy, in the statement.

"It is a critical step forward and an important building block for future conversations on park management and access." 

In its statement, the province says the nations will gather on the land and the park will be inaccessible to the public on Sept. 30. Day use passes will continue to be required to access the park until Oct. 9, and the backcountry camping season will close on Nov. 13.

In recent years, Joffre Lakes has grown into one of B.C.'s best-known and most popular provincial parks, largely thanks to Instagram and other social media sites, where users have flocked to share photos of the lakes' turquoise-blue waters.

The park drew more than 196,000 visitors in 2019, a 222 per cent increase from the number who visited in 2010. 

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Joffre Lakes has been one of several popular parks subject to day pass requirements aimed at avoiding overcrowding. 

The province says it has been "formally engaging" with the First Nations on "park and visitor-use management" since December 2018. 

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