The Assault on First Nation Lands in British Columbia

Jamie Kneen

National Program Co-Lead

The mining industry in British Columbia has mounted an unprecedented campaign for access to new mineral lands and wilderness areas on First Nations Lands in British Columbia. First Nations are fighting back on many fronts. In all cases, their resources are out-stripped by the mining industry and its allies in government. The First Nations lands affected are some of the wildest and most pristine lands in the province. Others are trying to cope with earlier mines that have left damaging legacies. All of them need our support. Some of these important battles are briefly described here:

  1. Internet Claim Staking and the Nak'azdli
  2. Mercury Poisoning in the Tl'azt'en First Nation
  3. Dumping Tailings in Duncan Lake
  4. Taku River Tlingit Fight to Save the Wild Taku River
  5. Galore Creek and the Tahltan First Nation
  6. The British Columbia Mining Plan

Internet Claim Staking and the Nak'azdli

On January 12, 2005, the BC government introduced internet based claim-staking, and on the same day, a trio of Vancouver-based investors has staked 100,000 hectares in north-central B.C. in the hopes of discovering a new gold and copper find. The land was staked by investors and securities lawyers in the mining business who run Rand Edgar Capital Corp. Although the consortium has not formed a company, they are calling their venture the Alkalic Gold Syndicate. The area is about 200 kilometres northwest of Prince George and is about 1,200 square kilometres in size.

One area affected by this new scheme is Nak'azdli traditional territory, such that a large swath of its traditional territory has been over-run by claims. One claim alone is reported to be 1,200 square kilometres in size, located near Nations Lakes, just north of the Band's village near Fort St. James.

“This unprecedented allocation of mineral exploration rights to third parties involving our traditional territory causes us great concern,” said Chief Leonard Thomas.

• See: Mineral Investors Claim Huge Northern Stake (Prince George Citizen, January 22, 2005) and First Nation Cries Foul Over Claim Staking (Prince George Free Press, February 3, 2005)

Mercury Poisoning in the Tl'azt'en First Nation

On February 21, 2005, the Tl'azt'en Nation issued a moratorium on new mining activities in their territory, after Teck Cominco and the federal and provincial governments have failed to act on a tailings dam break in November 2004. The break saw anywhere from 6,000 to 8,000 cubic metres of rock, dirt and waste water spill into the lake.

The spill was only the latest tragedy in the on-going saga of the Tl'azt'en peoples relationship to a closed mercury mine. Teck Cominco operated the mine in the 1940s and again in the 1970s, and released untold amounts of mercury into 5500-hectare Pinchi Lake, only 50 kilometres from the main village. The people were fish-eaters, and now up to 99 per cent of Tl'azt'en people have suffered health problems from mercury poisoning.

Says Chief Thomas Alexis: “For countless centuries the fish and the surrounding wildlife have sustained our peoples excellent health and well-being, including our relatives in Nak'azdli. But after the mercury mine opened in the 1940s, and again in 1970s, appalling things began happening to our people’s health.”

According to BC’s Chief Mine inspector, the material was “benign” and “inert” when compared to what existed there before.

The Tl'azt'en Nation states: “ we will be seeking out meaningful consultation and accommodation from the company and government on this issue. Meanwhile, to date, both have not been forthcoming with information, except for reports that were completed without our involvement.Until these issues are properly dealt with, the Tl'azt'en Nation has issued a moratorium on new mining activities in our territory. (See We Want to Make Teck Cominco Accountable: Tl'azt'en Nation.)

Dumping Tailings in Duncan Lake

The Sustu’dene and other first nations in the same territory in the same area have been dealing with the impacts of the Kemess Mine. This mine, now owned by Northgate Exploration, is seeking to create a whole new gold and copper mine, North Kemess, and want to dump 750 million tones of tailings into Duncan Lake, a pristine, high-elevation lake. The Sustu’dene (also known as the Bear Lake people) calls this lake “Amazay.”

The lake is situated approximately 450 kilometres (km) northwest of Prince George and 250 km northeast of Smithers, and 80 km from the main community of the Kwadacha First Nation. It is located near the continental divide, so its water flows into both the Pacific and Arctic oceans.

Five Aboriginal groups with interests in this area: Fort Connelly First Nation (Bear Lake people), Gitxsan House of Nii Kyap, Kwadacha First Nation, Takla Lake First Nation, and Tsay Keh Dene First Nation have united in order to challenge the proposed use of Amazay as a dump. They say it will result in the complete annihilation of all aquatic life in the lake, in addition to drastically altering a fragile high-elevation ecosystem, vital to Aboriginal culture and their continuing way of life.

The federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) has a policy that prevents the destruction of fish habitat. Still, a federal order-in-council (OIC) and Cabinet approval can circumvent this policy. Consequently, on March 16, 2004, the provincial minister for energy and mines, Richard Neufeld, lobbied the DFO minister to permit tailings and waste rock to be dumped into the lake. This occurred before the environmental review has even commenced. The 5 Nations are currently seeking equitable inclusion into the federal and provincial government’s review of Northgate’s Environmental Impact Study, with funding and requisite timelines -- neither of which, to this point, has been forthcoming from either government. (See First Nations Coalition Wants Northgate to Justify Its Mining Proposal Against Their Interests)

Taku River Tlingit Fight to Save the Wild Taku River

The Taku River Tlingit have been trying to prevent the re-opening of the Tulsequah Chief copper-gold-zinc mine on their traditional territory since 1987. The original Tulsequah Chief mine on the Tulsequah River was operated by Cominco Ltd. who barged ore down the Tulsequah and Taku Rivers to Juneau, Alaska in the 1950s. Local residents recall the extensive decline in salmon populations and the death of trees along the river bank as a result of Cominco dumping the mine tailings directly into the Tulsequah River. The mine was closed in 1957 due to low metals prices. The mine tailings at the Tulsequah Chief site have been leaching heavy metal contaminants into the river system for close to 50 years.

Redfern Resources Ltd., a Vancouver based junior mining company, purchased the mine in 1987 with plans to re-open the Tulsequah Chief mine. Barging was deemed financially unviable, leaving only one other transportation option – the construction of a 160 kilometre (99 mile) access road through the pristine Taku watershed.

In March 1998, after a two and a half year review under the Environmental Assessment Act of British Columbia, the project was approved by the government. A separate environmental assessment is being conducted on the road. The first approval was very controversial because there was strong scientific evidence presented to the project review committee that the mine could cause extensive damage to fish and wildlife habitat.

The Taku River Tlingit took the matter to court and in December 2004, the Supreme Court of Canada issued a decision, that required mining companies to consult with First nations, but found that the TRT had been adequately consulted in the EA process. Now the federal government and BC government are rushing to get the road EA approved. The process has been seriously flawed. The TRT are adamant that the mine should not go ahead. It will open the doors for at least three other mining projects (Big Bull, Banker and New Polaris) in the same area. The approval of the road will force confrontation by the First Nation.

For more background please visit the web site of the Transboundary Watershed Alliance.

Galore Creek and the Tahltan First Nation

On January 25, 2005, a huge gold mining project started its Environmental Assessment process. The mine is planned for the headwaters of the Stikine River and will include two open pits, a mill and a number of other mine-related facilities, including access roads, a barging system and power lines. The project proponent is NovaGold Resources, a medium-sized mining company with close ties to Rio Tinto and Anglo-American. The mine will threaten the integrity of the River and harm the fish and other creatures that depend on it.

The mine proposal was welcomed by Jerry Asp, the Chief of the Tahltan First Nation, who is also vice-president of the Canadian Aboriginal Minerals Association (CAMA). CAMA promotes mining to Aboriginal communities in Canada and internationally, and acts as a consultant on Aboriginal issues to industry and mining departments of government. Asp was recently in Guatemala telling indigenous people there why they should accept Glamis Gold's proposed Marlin mine. The new BC Mining Plan (see below) uses him as a poster child on the benefits of mining to communities.

On January 18, following a presentation to the community by NovaGold, Tahltan elders occupied the Band Council office and removed Asp from office. The occupation continues. The elders say that they need information about the Galore Creek Mine, coal bed methane projects and other resource extraction plans for the community. Two other mines have already been developed on Talhtan territory: the closed Snip Mine and Barrick Gold’s Eskay Creek.

The British Columbia Mining Plan

The British Columbia Mining Plan sets out the terms for this industry assault campaign: “By lowering taxes, reducing regulations and continuing to be on the leading edge of technological and service delivery innovation, we are setting the stage to more fully develop the tremendous mineral wealth of our province.” (Pat Bell, Minister of State for Mining)

Urged on by rising commodity prices, thirteen new mine proposals are currently in the Provincial EA review process, including Galore Creek, Kemess North, Red Chris and a number of coal and aggregate projects. 450 exploration projects were underway in 2004.

The BC Mining Plan has four key elements, key to which is a focus on communities and First Nations to get their buy-in on mine expansion. The four components of this Plan are:

1. Focus on Communities and First Nations. There is no doubt that a number of BC communities are already dependent on mining and are concerned about ore reserves being depleted. The absence of investment from the province in any other effective community economic strategy leaves them desperate to believe the promise of mining. The industry (with government support) is seeking a social license to operate in First Nations with mineral potential, and they are sparing little expense to cultivate support:

  1. Short term, up-front contracts are let within the community
  2. Communities are offered workshops by industry that spread misinformation about environmental and social impacts and exaggerate potential benefits.
  3. The mining industry writes the curriculum for students on mining.
  4. Promotion of the only successful remediation in BC (the Sullivan Mine)

2. Protecting Workers, Protecting the Environment. The Plan states that “all mining and mining-related activities are carried out in ways that minimize their impact on their surroundings”, and makes a number of other questionable claims:

  1. There is no plan to increase or improve reclamation bonding or to clean-up abandoned mines, except a regional workshop in 2005, with the exception of plan to turn Britannia into an interpretive centre.
  2. The Ministry of Energy and Mines has already approved the elimination of more than 300 regulatory protections

3. Global Competitiveness. The province intends to support a “cluster” of investment financing, geoscience and engineering in Vancouver, where more than 60% of Canadian exploration and mining companies are based. To this end, they propose:

  1. To extend the Super Flow Through Share Tax Credit program, and review all fees and taxation on mining. Flow Through Shares and tax credits already reduce the cost to an investor of a $1000 investment to $383.
  2. The province has also brought in a new online system for mineral claims. First Nations say that it violates the principles set out in the recent Haida/Taku decision from the Supreme Court of Canada. The system allows free miners to acquire mineral rights with a simple click on a computer screen, with no requirement for consultation with First Nations.
  3. Invest in geo-science mapping and research for industry

4. Access to Land. The Plan trumpets that parks, ecological reserves and other sensitive areas are protected and “over 85% of the province is open to mineral exploration”. They state that: