Blog Entry

Indigenous Struggle and Survival in the Face of Canadian Colonialism and Mining

Presentation by Xat’sull Chief Bev Sellars for the Fifth Gathering of the Latin American Observatory of Mining Conflicts (OCMAL by its initials in Spanish) in Lima, Peru, November 7, 2013.

I would first like to say how pleased I am to be here to have an opportunity to share with diverse indigenous peoples and mining-affected communities of the Americas. I would also like to thank all the organizers of this event to provide the space for these important discussions. It is my first time in South America, but I have always wanted to come and visit. I look forward to coming back and exploring your beautiful country.

To begin with, I want to tell you a little bit about where I come from. I am from the Secwepemc tribe in what is now known as British Columbia, Canada and I bring you greetings from all 17 Chiefs of my tribe. My village is called Xat’sull and is the most northern Secwepemc tribe. It is approximately 350 miles north of Vancouver, Canada. The Secwepemc tribe has approximately 10,000 members.  

As is the history in your territories, the Indigenous peoples of Canada helped the newcomers adjust to the land. We taught them what plants to eat, how to hunt, what medicines to use, what routes to take to get them to where they wanted to go and anything else they needed to know about the lands. I have always said that the greatest strength Indigenous people have is sharing. Even today, the Indigenous people in Canada are at the bottom of every economic scale and yet we survive because we share what we have with each other. I have to add that our greatest weakness with the newcomers to the land was also sharing. We helped those who came to our lands because sharing was our culture but the newcomers did not share as the Indigenous people. The newcomers have a culture of gathering everything for themselves and placing ‘ownership’ on things they had no right to claim. As a result, horrific relationships with many of the newcomers developed once Indigenous people were no longer needed. A quote from one of the government people in British Columbia in 1858 says it all, when relaying concerns about the situation of gold miners pouring into British Columbia, he said, “It has become the custom of miners generally to shoot an Indian as he would a dog; and it is considered a very good joke to shoot one at long shot, to see him jump as the fatal bullet pierces his heart.” As my Grandmother, who died in 1997 at the age of 101, said, “The Indians saved lots of those White people. They didn’t know how to get around and now they think the Indians are no good.”
Shortly after contact with the newcomers, entire Indigenous communities have been continuously traumatized by multiple deaths from disease, expulsion from our homelands, loss of economic and self-sufficiency, forcible removal of children from our homes and assimilation tactics.*

So now fast forward to 2013... the trauma of colonialism is still happening today and Indigenous people in Canada are still attempting to rebuild badly cracked but not completely broken communities. When Statistics Canada released its 2006 census data on Indigenous people, it was shocking to some non-Indigenous people. Even though we are now only approximately 5% of the Canadian population, more than half the Indigenous population in Canada live way under the poverty line; the unemployment rate is three times the national average; 75% of children drop out of school before completing their studies; and the terrible statistics continue in the form of incarceration in prisons, rates of violence, injuries, health problems, suicide, addictions and on and on. All of this taking place in one of the richest countries in the world.

The fight to protect the land and our economies continues as well. The Indigenous view that “the land supplies you with everything you need to survive” clashes with the non-Indigenous view that “you have to conquer the land“. Indigenous people in Canada still get a big part of our economy from the land, the animals, the plants for food and medicines and the important good water that supports that economy. But it is becoming more difficult to keep our economy intact. What I call “the false economy” which is based on money alone seems to take precedence over everything. Not only are we fighting major mining companies, but we also are fighting government who seem to be controlled by the mining companies.

For example, in our area Taseko Mines wanted to put a $1-billion copper-gold open pit mine into an area that would destroy a lake that the Xeni Gwet’in people have harvested for fish and used for other cultural activities. In 2010, an Independent Environmental Review Panel turned it down because of major concerns to water, wildlife and Indigenous culture. That should have been the end of it but the Federal government allowed the company to redesign its mine plans for another Panel hearing even though Taseko said that the first proposal they put forward was the best they had. Just last week, the Indigenous people in our area welcomed another panel report on the mine proposal with even more concerns and criticisms than were raised about the original proposal.

The federal government now has what it needs to finally put a nail in the coffin for this mine, but a spokesman for Taseko Mines says that this does not stop the mine from going through. He is confident the federal government will give the mine the go ahead. The provincial government is also pushing this mine to go through despite the scathing report. Now, we again have to fight make sure the provincial and federal governments do not try to go around the issue and approve it, justifying it as producing jobs and strengthening the economy. There is no shortage of copper in the world, and 50-80% of gold is used for jewelry. The environment and Indigenous people suffer for the vanity of other people.

Aboriginal people suffer the consequences of a regime that favors mining over the environment and Indigenous culture. Despite some ad hoc successes, the provincial and federal legal regimes generally do not offer Indigenous people adequate consultation during the mining approval process. For example, in some cases, members are not notified early enough to stop the momentum of a project. In other cases, they are not given the time or tools to conduct studies and mount a reasonable defence. Institutionalized Indigenous rights protection would help remedy such deficiencies, but we do not have that.

Many companies still believe they can get around the law and Indigenous rights. They spend fortunes on public relations campaigns that portray themselves as the great saviours of the economy, encouraging the public to view First Nations as unreasonable obstacles to wealth and prosperity. They spend their time and resources trying to divide Indigenous communities. Sadly, part of their tactics are to use impoverished Indigenous people, who they pay generously and provide travel opportunities that they would never be able to afford on their own, to go out and tell the world that Indigenous peoples are in favour of mining.

A book titled, “Imperial Canada Inc.: Legal Haven of Choice for the World’s Mining Industries” reveals that Canada is the country of choice for many mining companies.  Canada offers the worldwide extractive sector a customized trading environment that supports speculation, enables capital flows to finance questionable projects abroad, provides government subsidies, and, most especially, offers a politicized legal haven from litigation. In Canada, the right to reputation effectively supercedes freedom of expression and the public’s right to information. Hence, Canadian-based corporations can sue for “libel” any and all persons or legal entities that quote documents or generate analyses of their corporate practices that they do not approve of. A prime example is Chief Betty Patrick of Lake Babine Nation, a member of First Nations Women Advocating Responsible Mining. She was sued by the mining company for stating the truth about the destruction a mine in her area was causing. Her impoverished community ended up paying $90,000 on legal fees to get it thrown out of court.

Canada puts itself forward to the international community as a defender of human rights, but it is quite a different story with the Indigenous people within its borders. We fight for our rights and have won all kinds of court battles with their laws, but the governments do not obey their own laws and we continue to fight to protect our lands and our human rights as Indigenous peoples. In 2012, a movement started in Canada called “Idle no More” and it quickly became one of the largest Indigenous mass movements in Canadian history sparking hundreds of rallies and protests. The name Idle No More came from a meeting between four Indigenous women. They were mad about Bill C-45, an omnibus bill that the Federal government was trying to push through. This omnibus budget bill basically attacked Indigenous and environmental protections. The women’s biggest frustration was that nobody seemed to be talking about it. So the four women decided to speak out. They would be "Idle No More." The “Idle No More” movement struck a nerve. Many of the other tensions in the Indigenous communities started to bubble up to the surface and "Idle No More" encompassed a broad movement calling for recognition of treaty rights, revitalization of Indigenous cultures and an end to legislation imposed without meaningful consultation.

"Idle No More" became more than an "Indigenous Thing". People from all races joined the protests and rallies to support the Indigenous people and to let Prime Minister Stephen Harper know that the already weak environmental laws in Canada needed to be protected and strengthened, rather than weakened by the laws he planned on ramming through the legislature.

Indigenous groups in Canada oppose the irresponsible way that mining has taken place.  Almost every week there are news reports about some Canadian Indigenous group protesting or launching a court challenge to stop destructive mining practices in their area.

We look forward to finding ways to work with Indigenous communities everywhere to protect the environment which will protect our cultures. We are pleased that many non-Indigenous people now see the importance of this work and are joining us in our fight for Mother Earth. 

Thank you.

* Chief Bev Sellars recently published a mult-generational memoir called "They Called Me Number One", about three generations of women who attended the St. Joseph's Mission at Williams Lake, BC, a residential school "whose aim it was to "civilize" Native children through Christian teachings, forced separation from family and culture, and discipline."