Perhaps that’s why First Nations leaders think Fish Lake would be a good place to die. Their development-happy premier knows no bounds when it comes to resource extraction. If the environment gets a champion, once again it will have to be Indigenous Peoples leading the way. And they are.
“The first time I saw the lake, I thought to myself, ‘This is the place where I might have to make the ultimate sacrifice.’ A sacred place. We must protect it.”
The words belong to Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, who heads up the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs. He and two other chiefs were speaking recently at a fundraiser in Vancouver to fight a project proposed by Taseko Mines Ltd. The company wants to revive work on an open-pit gold and copper mine that First Nations say would ruin Fish Lake and violate the aboriginal rights of the Tsilhqot’in band.
Hard to argue with that assessment. Taseko’s first application for the New Prosperity Mine — said to be the last major deposit of gold and copper in North America — included turning the pristine lake into a toxic dump site for the proposed mine’s tailings. Even without that outrageous component, the company’s proposal was turned down a second time in 2014 because the feds thought the mine would cause severe environmental damage, harm Tsilhqot’in culture and violate aboriginal rights.
That same year — 2014 — the Supreme Court of Canada granted aboriginal title to more than 1,700 square kilometres of land in British Columbia to the Tsilhqot’in Nation. It was the first time in history that the highest court in the land made a ruling regarding aboriginal land. Part of that land is close to the site of Taseko’s proposed mine.
The emotional crowd at that fundraiser in Vancouver felt the urgency in the chief’s words, and was generous. By the end of the evening, $12,000 had been collected to pay for a legal fight that could end up costing around $150,000. As Grand Chief Phillip observed, “Canadians are no longer simply spectators watching Indigenous Peoples protecting the land. There’s a magic that happens when you mobilize people.”
As fierce as the chiefs and their supporters are in their opposition, Taseko is indefatigable in its pursuit of this project. That’s what the prospect of extracting 250,000 ounces of gold and 110 million pounds of copper annually for the next twenty years can do.
The other factor is cold cash; Taseko has already spent approximately $130 million on this project and doesn’t want a doughnut hole for its trouble.
The company has sued the federal government in B.C. Supreme Court, and is also launching a constitutional challenge of the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act of 2012. The company claims that the legislation goes too far in protecting aboriginal rights. It also alleges that its mineral rights were effectively made worthless without compensation when Ottawa blocked the project for the second time on February 25, 2014.
But there is also a political ground game to go with the legal strategy. Taseko has asked for permits from the British Columbia government that would allow the company to begin “exploratory drilling”, even though the project doesn’t have federal approval. Here is what exploratory drilling comes down to: 122 drill set holes, 76 kilometres of roads, 367 test pits, 20 kilometres of seismic lines and a 50-man work camp.
Christy Clark and her ministers have been enthusiastic supporters of the New Prosperity Mine since they approved it in 2010. If they do issue the permits, it wouldn’t be the first time that her Liberal government has used facts on the ground to roll over the opposition.
Case in point: Clark has boasted that she wants to get the controversial Site C hydro development on the Peace River so far down the road that even if British Columbians elect an NDP government this May, the project simply could not be cancelled for financial reasons. It remains to be seen if Clark’s government will grant permits to Taseko to get their project into motion — and past the point of no return.
And this is where Ottawa comes in. The prime minister in particular.
There is no doubt that Justin Trudeau is proud of the artistry of Indigenous Peoples. When the Trudeaus visited the Obamas, their gifts to the presidential couple were made by Indigenous artists — a soapstone created by Cree sculptor Leo Arcand of the Alexander First Nations reserve in northern Alberta, and a beaded cape by Tammy Beauvais, a Mohawk designer from Kahnawake, Quebec.
And then there is Justin’s “badass” tattoo — that black crow lifted from a design by Eagle Clan Haida member Richard Davidson (without the artist’s permission).
At Trudeau’s swearing-in ceremony, Inuit throatsingers were the stars of the show. Art, outerwear, and singing — Indigenous Peoples Got Talent.
But their threatened way of life can only be preserved by a new deal with Indigenous Peoples, one that includes land settlements, access to capital and a true nation-to nation relationship.
So far, Trudeau has been a good global marketer for Indigenous arts and crafts. But he hasn’t been much of a midwife in the birth of a new nation. He seems to have forgotten that First Nations are real people, with long-held aspirations — not mere convenient symbols of Brand Canada.
It wasn’t always like that. In those first rays of Sunny Days, it looked like Justin might find himself adopted into a Haida clan, just as his father had been decades earlier. Pierre Trudeau’s Haida name was Kihl gulaans, roughly translating as “his voice is good as gold.”
Trudeau’s name in Haida Gwaii is now unprintable. As Haida local Delfina Lawrence told Maclean’s, that’s because Trudeau “presents himself as an ally. We feel he’s stabbed us in the back.”
There have been multiple stab wounds. The Kinder-Morgan pipeline, the Site C hydro dam on the Peace River, the Petronas LNG terminal at Lelu Island at the mouth of the Skeena River — all opposed by most of the First Nations in British Columbia, all approved by the Trudeau government.
There is school of thought out there that says Trudeau is playing big-picture politics with his resource decisions, indulging in classic triangulation. He helps Clark and Alberta Premier Rachel Notley, and and they help him. Grand Chief Phillip told me that he has already heard that the PMO has set the seats the Liberals will lose in British Columbia against the ones they will pick up in Alberta, coming out with a net gain.
Net gain is one thing. A diminished moral authority is quite another.
If this one gets the green light from Ottawa, the sun will set for Justin Trudeau somewhere over the western shores of Fish Lake.
Author: Michael Harris