Will Fish Lake be sacrificed for gold fever?

The Tsilhqot’in Nation’s fight for its sacred lake is everyone’s fight

by Chief Marilyn Baptiste, Xeni Gwet’in First Nation

These lands, this water, all the plants, all the wildlife, all the air that we breathe in, are very sacred to us. All the waters, all the trees, all the grasses, the rocks, they all have spirits. They are part of a living structure, a living nature that we all adapt to. And as part of our culture, if this lake was destroyed, we would definitely lose our culture. It’s my flesh and blood. Stop destroying our country. – Yunesit’in (Stone) Chief Ivor Myers.

Whether Canadians realize it or not, this country sits on a precipice as we await the federal cabinet’s decision on the fate of Teztan Biny (Fish Lake). The future of our fresh water, our habitat-bearing lakes and of Canada’s relationship to First Nations hangs in the balance.

As you read this, the fate of a culture rests with our elected officials. The federal cabinet continues to deliberate on a proposal for a massive open pit copper-gold mine southwest of Williams Lake, BC. The mine would destroy the traditional lands and the sacred Teztan Biny (Fish Lake) of the Xeni Gwet’in, Yunesit’in and its sister Tsilhqot’in nations. The company behind the proposal, Taseko Mines Ltd., says the mine would generate $5-billion in economic activity over 20 years – a welcome prospect to the province and local towns hit hard by job losses. Taseko also says it plans to create an artificial ‘lake’ that would eventually be home to the offspring of the 90,000 trout that would be killed when the company uses Fish Lake to store mine waste.

photo of Fish Lake by Chris Jordan (www.chrisjordan.com)

In 2007, Taseko Mines filed its application to create the mine deep within the heart of Tsilhqot’in ancestral lands. In addition to 

the two-kilometre wide-open pit, the project will generate up to 700,000,000 tons of tailings and waste rock. Teztan Biny, known as Fish Lake to settlers, would be drained to store the waste rock. Upper Fish Creek and Little Fish Lake would become a tailings pond and over half a dozen area lakes and rivers could be polluted by arsenic, mercury, lead, cadmium and a host of other toxic metals. The lakes are at the headwaters of the Taseko River, a tributary of the Chilko River that joins the Chilcotin River and into the Fraser River. The Fraser River has the largest runs of sockeye salmon in the world and is an important source of food security to the First Nations groups within the watershed. It is inconceivable to the Tsilhqot’in people, who never ceded or surrendered our Aboriginal Rights or Title to this land, that Taseko named the mine “Prosperity.”


“For our people, it [Prosperity Mine] is another in a long series of trespasses against our territory – a trespass into one of the few remaining areas untouched by industrial development and a trespass into one of the areas where the court has declared we have an Aboriginal hunting and trapping right protected by the Canadian Constitution. Our entire territory is sacred to us. This is one of the only areas left to us where the land and water hasn’t yet been harmed, where we can still feel our connection to the land and to our ancestors, where we can still teach our Tsilhqot’in traditional ways to our children and grandchildren,” says Roger William, former Chief of Xeni Gwet’in First Nation and current Councillor of the Xeni Gwet’in First Nations.

Gilbert Solomon, drummer Xeni Gwet’in First Nation. Photo by Mark Donovan (http://web.me.com/marktd)

You might recognize the area to see it. It was the poster child for the BC Tourism industry and was even included in videos produced for the 2010 Olympics. Remember those people riding horses through pristine wilderness? There is a bitter irony that the province of British Columbia approved a project that will see the area touted in a highly visible tourism campaign turned into a wasteland.

The Tsilhqot’in message has been clear from the outset: No amount of money can compensate for what this mine would do to our people and the land we treasure. We have played by the federal government’s rules to make our case and now we expect it to do the same.

This is not a case of a First Nation asking for or getting a “veto” over development. From the outset, the proponent presented only one option for its Project, leaving no room for compromise or reasonable mitigation to address First Nations’ concerns. Even the CEAA panel recognized Taseko’s strong-arm tactics stating: “…if the project proceeds, there would be no other viable alternatives that could be explored to avoid the significant adverse environmental effects identified by the Panel.” This isn’t to say there are no other options that might allow the lake to be preserved, but for Taseko they cost too much.

After 60 days of hearings during which witnesses overwhelmingly opposed the mine, a Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency Review Panel reported that the project would cause significant and irreparable harm to our rights, our future generations and the environment on which we depend. It also found that no proposed mitigation would address the harm that would be caused.

Based on the overwhelming evidence brought forward during public hearings, the independent Panel concluded that the mine would have “cumulative high and irreversible impacts” in a number of areas, including Tsilhqot’in people and culture, that the false “Prosperity Lake” could not begin to meet DFO’s requirements for “no net loss,” that the impacts on blue-listed (endangered) grizzly bears would also be cumulative and irreversible and that navigation under the Navigable Waters Protection Act would be impossible.

The list of what is wrong with the project is too long to include in this article. Suffice it to say that federal government departments raised serious concerns and aboriginal and environmental groups are 100 percent opposed to the mine. The Department of Fisheries and Oceans has been warning the province and Taseko since 1995 that it could not approve the mine because it so completely violates the “no net loss” cornerstone of federal fisheries policy. The Tsilhqot’in National Government has also learned that the BC government previously turned down a small lodge expansion in the same area because it would have hurt the environment and aboriginal rights.

Taseko says no great harm would result from gouging out a 35-square-kilometre open-pit mine that would kill a lake, streams, wildlife, forests and our rights and way of life. Inexplicably, the BC government agreed with this patently ridiculous position. The federal government cannot make the same mistake. In fact, no cabinet has ever overridden a report by an environmental assessment review panel.

Some may wonder how it is possible that a habitat-bearing lake in a pristine ecosystem at the headwaters of a major watershed could be considered for a dump site for a private company. But this is part of the reason this mine is so important. It really represents a test case for several other lakes in Canada slated for destruction because the bar on Teztan Biny is so high that if this lake falls there is nothing to protect the other lakes. It is all part of something called “Schedule 2” – legislation that allows for the destruction of freshwater bodies in Canada. Schedule 2 is a loophole in the Metal Mining Effluent Regulation (MMER) – part of the federal Fisheries Act that allows metal mining corporations to use lakes and rivers as toxic dump sites.

In 2008, CBC reported that a total of 16 Canadian lakes are slated to be used for the benefit of private mining companies. It amounts to a huge subsidy for the company because it doesn’t have to pay to create a place to store the vast amounts of toxic waste produced by the mine – instead, it can simply use one of our natural, freshwater resources as a “tailings impoundment area.” But the practice of dumping these chemicals into a lake kills the body of water and anything living in it. The cost of caring for this mess lasts long after the last piece of ore has been removed and the company has left the area. It stays contaminated for decades.

Taseko claims it can contain this toxic mess, but the contamination cannot be isolated and contained in perpetuity. Groundwater moves as the earth moves and extremes in weather cannot be accounted for. It is not a question of if but when the leaks will occur. What affects one body of water threatens all other rivers and lakes within the larger system. The CEAA panel recognized this and said there were no mitigating measures that could address this harm.

From the Tsilhqot’in perspective, this is simply a bad project, with alarming and unacceptable costs to the environment and First Nations. If environmental assessment, fisheries protection or First Nations’ cultural survival has any meaning or legitimacy, this project must be rejected. Otherwise, it will become a symbol of the hollowness of environmental assessment and a catalyst for protracted and unfortunate conflict.

Economic development does not have to come at the expense of First Nations’ cultural survival or leave a legacy of severe, irreversible harm to our fisheries and to our environment generally. As noted by the Panel, the Tsilhqot’in are not opposed to development – they have their own vision of sustainable, culturally appropriate development opportunities that would sustain the local economy for future generations.

Further, in TNG’s view, Taseko’s estimates of the economic benefits of the project are grossly inflated. The company has simply estimated gross economic benefits (jobs created, revenue generated) – this tells us nothing about the net benefits of the project. For example, as the

Panel concluded, most of the skilled labour for the mine would come from outside the region. Because many of these workers would be employed elsewhere and paying taxes in any event, the marginal benefit to BC and Canada is far less than the gross economic benefits presented by Taseko. The mine is a detriment to the people of BC despite persistent claims to the contrary by Taseko Mines Ltd. Economic analysis carried out by the distinguished economist Dr. Marvin Shaffer of Simon Fraser University demonstrates there will be no net benefits to the province; in fact, net costs incurred will be at least $20 million per year, due, in part, to massive BC Hydro subsidies to Taseko for the project and also to very significant highway maintenance costs that will be borne by the province, not to mention greenhouse gas offsets that will be required.

Approval of the Project, in the face of these clear warnings, would not only violate the constitutional rights of the Tsilhqot’in people, but it would also betray our highest values and our commitment as a nation to the survival of First Nations cultures. It would place the Tsilhqot’in leadership and members in the tragic position of having to defend the survival of their culture, the health of their communities and their future generations, against the orders of the federal government. It would signal to First Nations across BC and Canada that, despite noble sentiments expressed by governments and courts in recent decades, their cultural survival means as little now as it did a century ago when their cultures stood in the way of short-term profits for others. This is a path of bitter conflict and confrontation.

The TNG invites the federal government to choose a different, better path. The federal government can promote mining and development without endorsing development at any cost to culture or the environment. This Project is simply too far over the line of acceptable impacts on the environment and on First Nations. The Tsilhqot’in Nation respectfully submits that the federal government can, and must, demonstrate that environmental assessment and First Nations’ cultures have some meaning and value.

We are not against all mining, but we cannot allow this poster child for all that is wrong with the system to proceed. It would be a catalyst for confrontation, not co-operation. The Assembly of First Nations notes that federal acceptance of the mine would expose the environmental-assessment process as useless and the government’s claims of respect for aboriginal culture as hollow. The AFN, the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs, BC’s First Nations Summit and others have pledged to help us defend against what we believe would be an unjust federal decision.

If the government can sell out the Tsilhqot’in in this case, it can sell out others too – and not just natives. Which is why, if denied justice, we will be forced to act. It is why first nations across the country see this as an issue of national importance. It is also why Canadians have a vested interest in seeing our rights and way of life protected.

Should the cabinet approve the proposed Prosperity Mine, Canada will send another signal to the world that it has no real stake in protecting our environment and no desire to truly forge a working relationship with its First Nations. A “yes” vote would be a declaration that might is right and greed is paramount. Saying yes to the mine represents an utter dismissal of the rights of First Nations in Canada.

Marilyn Baptiste is Chief of the Xeni Gwet’in First Nation, one of six nations of the Tsilhqot’in National Government and a founding member of British Columbia’s First Nations Women Advocating Responsible Mining (FNWARM).

Leave a comment