B.C. First Nations Denounce Liberal Rhetoric

By Lloyd Dolha

BC First Nations leaders voiced their disdain at BC Liberal leadership hopeful Christy Clark’s who promised if elected premier she would encourage PM Stephen Harper to overturn the federal government’s decision to reject Taseko Minie’s proposed Prosperity mine project in central BC. On February 7th, the former deputy premier said she would use her first meeting with the prime minister to demand a reversal of the drawn-out decision to halt the $800 million open pit copper and gold mine near Williams Lake. Clark went also suggested that reversing the decision could win support for Tories from BC voters in a spring federal election.

“This isn’t the final decision as far as I’m concerned,” said Clark in an interview after outlining her “Families First” policy platform, which included a commitment to make the Prosperity mine project a top priority and facilitate a solution among all parties regarding the project. “I think [Ottawa] does want to change it. At the political level, they see how dumb the decision is, so I think there’s an appetite to change it,” said Clark.

First Nations leaders in the province, however, saw this as a self-serving effort to woo support among the BC Liberal party’s electoral base. “Ms. Clark’s shameless pandering to Liberal delegates support serves her political aspirations and does not serve the majority of British Columbians who share the environmental values reflected in the federal independent panel’s decision,” said Chief Stewart Phillip, president of the Union of BC Indian Chiefs. “The federal panel and environmental assessment process took the time to hear the many concerns of Tslihqot’in elders, women, families, and leaders about the land, water, fish, and wildlife.”

The UBCIC leader noted that rejection of the project was supported by all three of the province’s major First Nations groups, including the UBCIC, the First Nations Summit, and the BC wing of the Assembly of First Nations. Chief Phillip compared the aspirations of the Liberal leadership hopeful with the rhetoric of failed US vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin. “Ms. Clark’s self-serving efforts to popularize the message, in essence, ‘drill baby drill.’ Ms. Clark utterly fails to acknowledge the vast level of support the Tsilhqot’in and Esketemic have across British Columbia, Canada, and overseas,” said Phillip.

Clark also promised to set up a provincial investment board comprised of business leaders to measure the success of major projects, such as the Propserity project, as they navigate the convoluted government regulatory and environmental processes. A relatively new group, the BC First Nations Women Advocating Responsible Mining (FNWARM), called on Clark to reconsider the brash campaign promise and meet with them to develop a more harmonious approach to mining development. “We urge Ms. Clark to meet with First Nations and others who are seeking a responsible way forward that avoids conflicts over unacceptable projects and allows all of us to focus on positive projects,” said FWARM chairperson Anne-Marie Sam. “To revive this mine project would be a disaster for anyone who hopes to see a fair resolution to the mining conflict in which BC has been embroiled in for decades.”

Clark correctly noted that the issue highlights a need for reform of federal and provincial environmental assessment approval processes, something the mining sector and BC First Nations have been trying to do for years. Recall it took five years of duplicative assessment and review by those processes to ultimately reject the Prosperity mine project. “We are now in the 21st century and the need for meaningful reform and relationship-building to create certainty in mining and generate jobs,” said Xeni Gwet’in Chief Marilyn Baptiste. “We do not need to resurrect a project that has caused nothing but conflict and is rooted in a destructive grab-all approach to mining.”

Industry organizations such as the Association for Mineral Exploration BC have been calling for a single, timely, effective environmental review process. In an op-ed piece to the Vancouver Sun last month, AMEBC president and CEO Gavin Dirom noted that according to the BC Environmental Assessment Office, 47 projects (representing a potential investment of $15 billion, plus 27,000 construction and 52,700 operational jobs) could have been created in the province since 2000. As a result of the current process, only 22 projects have made it through the first stage, qualifying for an environmental assessment certificate. The remaining 25 projects represent lost or delayed opportunities equal to $10 billion in investment and 68,000 jobs.

FWARM points out that for most British Columbians, the environment, protection of water, and fairness to First Nations are very important. What they have learned from the failed Prosperity project is that the provincial system is so biased in favour of mining companies that it took the federal environmental review process and a Conservative government to prevent a potential environmental disaster and a major abuse of First Nations rights from occurring.

“First Nations and others who want to find a positive way forward are following the leadership race carefully for candidates who are prepared to show real leadership in this matter,” said FWARM chairperson Anne Marie Sam. “FWARM is disappointed that Ms. Clark appears to be basing her position purely on what she has heard from proponents of a rejected and discredited proposal. We really need to put this project behind us if we want to focus on creating responsible mining—not mine fields—in BC.”