The Tsilhqot’in Nation is urgently searching for ways to block an exploratory drilling program for the New Prosperity mine, a controversial gold and copper project that was formally rejected by the federal government on two separate occasions.
An injunction preventing the exploratory drilling — permitted by the outgoing BC Liberal government on its final day in power — was lifted Friday after B.C. Supreme Court Justice Ward K. Branch dismissed the Tsilhqot’in Nation’s legal bid to stop exploration in the remote area 125 kilometres southwest of Williams Lake.
Drilling equipment and road building machinery can now move into sacred Tsilhqot’in territory despite the project’s lack of federal environmental permits.
Earlier this month the Tsilhqot’in called on the B.C. government to quash provincial permits for Taseko’s exploratory drilling program.
“It is one of the most sacred places we have and some of our most significant archaeological finds come out of that area so having them clear trees, build highways and roads will destroy centuries of culture,” Chief Joe Alphonse, Tsilhqot’in National Government tribal chairman, told The Narwhal.
Exploratory permits allow for 122 drill sites in tribal park
The exploration — which includes 76 kilometres of roads and trails, 122 geotechnical drill sites, 367 trench or pit tests, 20 kilometres of seismic lines and a 50-person work camp — would take place in traditional Tsilhqot’in territory, adjacent to the only area in Canada where Aboriginal rights and title has been recognized by the Supreme Court of Canada.
The decade-long legal battle over Taseko’s plans for the open-pit gold and copper mine has centred around Fish Lake, known by the Tsilhqot’in as Teztan Biny, and Nabas, an area of cultural and spiritual significance, which is where the exploration work is planned.
It is also the site of the historic Dasiqox Tribal Park, a 3000 square kilometre patch of land located adjacent to the nation’s title lands, where the Supreme Court ruled the Tsilhqot’in have constitutionally protected rights to hunt, fish and trap.
Following the B.C. Supreme Court’s decision to allow preliminary mining activity in the area, a the Tsilhqot’in launched a petition to protect the area.
Efforts to establish Aboriginal rights, protect environment “long and difficult”: Judge
The Tsilhqot’in alleged the B.C. government had breached its duty to consult, but Justice Branch found that the key question was not the degree of consultation, but the outcome, and quoted a previous decision that said “while reconciliation may not be achieved because of an honest disagreement over whether the project should proceed, that does not mean the process was flawed.”
Justice Branch acknowledged the project represents a collision course of conservation, Indigenous rights and natural resource development.
“The history of the simultaneous efforts to establish Aboriginal rights, protect the environment and develop what may be one of the world’s largest gold deposits, has been long and difficult,” he wrote in his decision.
“Based on the evidence presented to me, all parties and governments appear to be acting in good faith to advance what they each perceive to be the proper use for the land,” he wrote.
“But, unfortunately, good faith cannot always prevent disagreement. That is when courts must step in to help the parties move forward.”
For the Tsilhqot’in the New Prosperity mine appears a battle that never ends — despite both the provincial and federal governments agreeing the mine would have significant adverse environmental effects on culture, historical sites, fish habitat and moose and grizzly bear populations.
Taseko is also fighting the two federal rejections of the project in Federal Court of Appeal and appears to pin company hopes on a reversal.
In a letter, written in March last year to the province and Tsilhqot’in, Taseko said the federal rejection should have no bearing on the provincial exploration permit.
“The present status of the federal environmental assessment does not, in any way, prohibit such information gathering,” the letter said.
Taseko did not return calls from The Narwhal.
Exploratory work may boost shareholder interest
Chief Jimmy Lulua of the Xeni Gwet’in First Nations Government said people have not endured 25 years of panel hearings and court cases simply to have Taseko and B.C. run roughshod over proven Aboriginal rights.
“We’re past the stage of consultation,” he said.
“The drilling program stands to displace our families, threaten our sacred sites and interrupt our ceremonies and teaching opportunities for our youth. Teztan Biny and Nabas are a no-go zone for Taseko Mines.”
On its website, Taseko acknowledges the fate of the project is uncertain: “In light of the federal government’s decision not to issue the authorizations necessary for the project to proceed, and the related ongoing legal proceedings initiated by Taseko, there is considerable uncertainty with respect to successful permitting of the project.”
However the company has pushed hard for the right to conduct exploratory drilling and road building.
Alphonse said he believes the company is pushing to conduct the exploration work in an effort to pull in investors and make shareholders believe there is still a chance the project will go ahead.
“It’s a senseless project. The best possible scenario on this project will not overturn the federal decision. The federal government has rejected Taseko’s plan twice now making it virtually impossible to ever have a project there,” he said.
The provincial exploration permit was issued on former premier Christy Clark’s last official day in office and at the height of the wildfires raging in Tsilhqot’in territory.
Alphonse — who, along with other chiefs, is hoping to meet with government representatives this week — said the NDP should now do the honourable thing and stop the permit in its tracks.
The Ministry of Energy, Mines and Petroleum Resources told The Narwhal in an e-mailed statement that Taseko “has applied for an Occupant Licence To Cut, which is necessary to undertake the scope of the work that the Notice of Work granted. That application is currently with the Statutory Decision Maker for consideration.”
While stopping the exploration work is the priority, Alphonse also dreams of holding the former BC Liberal government accountable for making the last-gasp decision that has such long-term ramifications.
“It was so very irresponsible. We will be exploring that. We need to remind people how that permit came to be,” Alphonse said.
Taseko Mines donated $137,450 to the BC Liberals between 2008 and 2017. In addition, CEO Russell Hallbauer donated more than $96,000 and company chairman Ronald Thiessen donated more than $64,000.
Meanwhile, Tsilhqot’in leaders will be holding meetings with the membership to look at ways to oppose the exploration program.
Alphonse said it’s a possibility the Tsilhqot’in might appeal the ruling, despite the additional cost of returning to court.
You can’t put a price on your belief system. You can’t put a price on your religion — that is what keeps you balanced, ” he said.
*Update Tuesday, August 28 9:53pm pst. This article was updated to add comment provided by the Ministry of Energy, Mines and Petroleum Resources.