By Lloyd Dolha
In light of escalating fears of possible violence to stop contamination of a pristine lake within their traditional territory, the Tsilhqot’in National Government (TNG) of the central BC Cariboo region sent a letter to members of the Mining Association of BC to ensure they understand the facts behind their opposition to the proposed Prosperity mine. “Proponents of this proposed mine, which would kill Teztan Biny (Fish Lake), have tried to portray us as extremists who are opposed to mining period, but this is totally false,” said Tl’etinqox-Tin Government Chief Joe Alphonse of the Tsilhqot’in Nation.
The September 14th letter to MABC members points out that despite recent media reports to the contrary, First Nations are not opposed to mining as such. The Tsilhqot’in say they are fully aware of a number of mining projects where First Nations and companies are working together, establishing trust in identifying culturally and environmentally sensitive projects. Progressive junior companies, backed by major industry players, recognize they must find new ways to establish meaningful partnerships in the absence of the resolution of longstanding First Nations’ claims to Aboriginal title and rights throughout the province. Such progress toward positive relationships with the mining industry is now threatened by the Prosperity mine, which informed observers have dubbed “the poster child for all that’s wrong with the [mining] system in BC and a textbook example of how not to proceed with a proposal.”
The Tsilhqot’in fear that approval of the controversial project would undo much of the progress made by some First Nations and progressive mining companies and “create a climate of mistrust and confrontation.” They point out that the federal government’s own Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency’s (CEAA) review panel report indicates the government should honour its constitutional duty to protect First Nations rights and its responsibility under environmental laws to protect the environment by rejecting the proposal.
The damning CEAA report released on July 2nd found that the proposed project “would result in significant adverse environmental effects on the fish and fish habitat, on navigation, on the current use of lands and resources for traditional purposes by First Nations,” as well as infringing on potential or established Aboriginal rights and title and disturbing threatened grizzly bear populations. The report also pointed out the mine would permanently destroy the lands and waters that are an “important cultural and spiritual area” for the Tsilhqot’in people, as well as an important source of sustenance. “Should the federal government ignore these findings and approve this proposed mine, it would be a message to First Nations everywhere that the environmental review process has no credibility or validity,” states the letter.
Xeni Gwet’in Chief Marilyn Baptiste said, “If the government was to approve this proposal in defiance of these findings, it would have abandoned its constitutional duty to protect First Nations rights, its responsibility to the environment, and would leave us no choice but to defend our land against the mine proceeding.” The Tsilhqot’in hope the mining association will acknowledge their serious concerns about the Taseko Mines project and recognize the need to reform the mining system in the province.
Under the terms of reference for the CEAA panel review, the Harper government agreed to deliver a decision 70 days after the report was made public (the deadline was September 10th).
National, regional, and local Tsilhqot’in chiefs were in Ottawa that day to demand the proposed Prosperity mine project be stopped. They warned of a “volatile and protracted confrontation” should the mine be approved.
Randy Hawes, the minster responsible for mining, said he’s heard some First Nations members talking about using shotguns and giving their lives to prevent the project. Nevertheless, Tsilhqot’in leader Chief Joe Alphonse still hopes for a peaceful resolution. “First Nations would prefer to work with industry to find ways forward, but as the support for the TNG from First Nations leaders across BC and Canada demonstrates, this cannot happen if this ill-conceived, destructive, and unacceptable project receives federal approval,” said Chief Alphonse. “Our experience is that far too many companies have not been willing to engage First Nations in meaningful consultation and act as if the law is there to help them only,” he added. “We need more companies who recognize that the old style of decision-making no longer works, and it is in the industry’s interest to engage on a level playing field with First Nations.”