Campfires burned on both sides of the road, as drummers and spiritual leaders supported Tsilhqot’in Nation members on a roadblock as contractors for Taseko Mines Ltd. made an unsuccessful push Tuesday to bring heavy equipment into an area considered to have profound cultural and spiritual significance.
The latest salvo in a decades-old battle between Taseko and the Tsilhqot’in started with a handshake. After five minutes of polite conversation and explanations of why the Tsilhqot’in people will never allow the proposed New Prosperity Mine to go ahead, Taseko retreated.
But no one believes this is the end of the company’s bid to build roads and engage in exploratory drilling for an open-pit gold and copper mine 125 kilometres southwest of William’s Lake in the nation’s traditional territory.
“They’re probably going to seek an injunction against us, so they can go in,” Chief Jimmy Lulua of Xeni Gwet’in First Nations Government told The Narwhal.
That will not change the nation’s opposition to the project and the roadblock will stay in place, ready for the next move, Lulua said.
“We have morals, we have ethics, we have a code and a mandate to follow to protect our sacred ground … We have our traditional laws to protect the water and the fish and the salmon and we will stand up against anyone,” he said.
Chief Joe Alphonse, Tsilhqot’in National Government tribal chairman, said the roadblock was necessary to keep the peace and ensure drilling and road-building equipment did not enter the area as feelings are running high and the nation wants to ensure everyone’s safety.
“The project is dead. It cannot be built. Yet the company wants to come in and tear up a place that is as sacred to us as a church,” Alphonse said, adding he is deeply concerned about the escalating conflict.
Open-pit gold and copper mine rejected twice by feds
The area where Taseko wants to conduct exploratory drilling includes the historic Dasiqox Tribal Park and is adjacent to the only area in Canada where aboriginal rights and title have been recognized by the Supreme Court of Canada.
The dispute over the proposed $1.5-billion mine has bounced in and out of the courts for two years since Taseko’s application — which included a plan to drain Fish Lake, known as Teztan Biny — was turned down by the federal government because of the serious effects the mine would have on the environment and Tsilhqot’in culture and rights.
Undeterred, Taseko returned with a second proposal, also rejected by the federal government. The mine cannot be built without federal approval.
But, in a bizarre twist, in the dying days of the former Christy Clark-led Liberal government, while the Tsilhqot’in people were threatened by wildfires, B.C. granted the company an exploration permit that would allow construction of 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.
That permit has not been withdrawn despite requests from the Tsilhqot’in asking the provincial government to uphold the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
“We are appealing to them to do the right thing. They have the power and they have the tools, but they appear unwilling to show any leadership,” Lulua said.
The provincial permit was upheld by the B.C. Court of Appeal. Last month, the Supreme Court of Canada denied leave to appeal, clearing the way for Taseko to give notice it was moving in to start the exploration.
“They know the mine is not going to go ahead. All they are looking to do is sue somebody — either our nation or B.C. — to try and recover some of the money they have lost,” charged Lulua, who believes the threat of a lawsuit prevents the province from withdrawing the permit.
“The last time we met with them, they had seven lawyers sitting behind them and they kept looking over their shoulder and they would give them a nod, but at the end of the day they have to make those tough decisions,” he said.
Under B.C.’s Mineral Tenure Act, the province can restrict mineral exploration if the area contains a cultural heritage resource and, in those cases, the law prohibits compensation for lost mineral use.
However, it is unclear whether that would apply to areas where an exploration permit has already been granted and the spectre of the Carrier Lumber case is believed to be one of the considerations
In the 1990s the former NDP government was forced to pay the Carrier Lumber Company of Prince George more than $30 million and hand over 1.5-million cubic metres of wood without stumpage fees after cancelling the company’s timber rights following opposition from First Nations.
In March, in an emailed statement to The Narwhal, the Ministry of Energy, Mines and Petroleum Resources described the dispute as a “longstanding and complex matter that we inherited.”
The province respects the court’s decision that allows Taseko to undertake exploratory work within their mineral lease, but that does not authorize construction of the mine, the statement said.
“Taseko does not have a Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency certificate and the project cannot be built without this federal approval.”
Lulua cannot see the logic.
“You would think these days were behind us. Canada Day just went by, look at the exoneration of our war chiefs by B.C. and Canada and we have had (Prime Minister Justin) Trudeau here in the valley and then they come up with this sort of thing. It just doesn’t make sense,” he said.
Chief Russell Myers Ross, Tsilhqot’in National Government vice-chair, said in a news release that B.C. needs to understand that the Taseko mines proposal will never have the consent of the Tsilhqot’in Nation.
“When the Tsilhqot’in must defend itself from invaders, it brings us back more than 150 years and makes us feel that nothing has changed with regards to Crown and Indigenous relations. The words of exoneration made towards our war leaders by the Crown was meant to recognize wrongs and prevent future conflict,” he said.
Equally inexplicable is the idea of exposing strong sockeye salmon runs in the Chilcotin and Taseko rivers to a possible spill or pollution from mining exploration work when other Fraser River sockeye runs are in deep trouble, Lulua said.
“We have been told that you can tell the health of the people by looking at their rivers and our rivers you can jump in and drink. You can’t do that in many places in the world,” he said.
Taseko did not return calls from The Narwhal.