Echoes of a long-ago guerrilla war on Nemiah Valley road

On Saturday afternoon, a Taseko Mines convoy of trucks and equipment was stopped by an RCMP cruiser on the gravel Nemiah Valley road in British Columbia’s interior.

By Jorge Barrera
APTN National News

On Saturday afternoon, a Taseko Mines convoy of trucks and equipment was stopped by an RCMP cruiser on the gravel Nemiah Valley road in British Columbia’s interior.

Xeni Gwet’in Chief Marylin Baptiste pulled up alongside the convoy and the RCMP cruiser to inform them that the Taseko contractors and employees would not be welcome on Tsilhqot’in nation territory.

“We had discussions back and forth and the company talked to the RCMP and the RCMP talked to me and said they were agreeing to turn around,” said Baptiste, whose community is one of six that make up the Tsilhqot’in nation.

The company informed the RCMP earlier in the day that Baptiste would be waiting for the convoy and two officers from the RCMP Alexis Creek detachment went to the area to “keep the peace,” said Sgt. James Anderson.

Baptiste said she doesn’t know how the company knew she would be waiting, but Tsilhqot’in members had been keeping an eye on the company’s movements.

“I knew that their dozer sitting in Williams Lake had moved and I had every reason to believe they were on their way,” said Baptiste.

This was the second weekend in a row a Taseko convoy was turned back on Nemiah Valley road.

On Nov. 6, a Taseko convoy was stopped by Baptiste and others. The company claims in a court filing that someone threatened to set fire to the equipment.

Nemiah Valley road leads to the planned site of Taseko’s 35 square-kilometre, open-pit gold and copper Prosperity Mine project, which is about 125 kilometres southwest of Williams Lake, B.C.

The incidents on Nemiah Valley Road could foreshadow more explosive confrontations.

Taseko has been trying for years to dig up the area for gold and copper and it has the full backing of the provincial government.

The Tsilhqot’in oppose the project and view it as a threat to their very existence.

And the RCMP is aware of the rising tensions.

“We at the Alexis Creek RCMP detachment remain neutral on this issue. We do not want to do anything to create a negative impact on our relations with our local First Nations communities,” said Anderson. “The RCMP officers in the command structure above me are well aware of the issue going on at this time.”

Taseko has since gone to B.C. court seeking a restraining order against Baptiste and other individuals that try to stop the company from entering the territory, according to a company statement.

Taseko could not be reached for comment.

The Tsilhqot’in in turn filed for a court injunction to stop Taseko from entering the territory to drill, build roads or excavate test pits until a separate court action comes to a conclusion.

The Tsilhqot’in have filed for a judicial review to quash the B.C. provincial government’s decision to give Taseko permits allowing the company to dig the pits and clear timber for roads without first consulting the First Nations whose lands would be impacted.

Baptiste said Taseko is planning to drill 59 sites and build 23 kilometres of road and trail while clearing about 1,500 cubic metres of timber.

“That is a tremendous amount in destruction of our wetlands in the territory,” said Baptiste.

Taseko says it needs to do the work to gather data for the environmental assessment it needs to present to the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency (CEAA) which is reviewing its controversial Prosperity Mine project for a second time.

The federal cabinet rejected the Prosperity project last year after the agency concluded the project would have a devastating environmental impact on fish habitat and grizzly bear populations in the region.

Former environment minister Jim Prentice said at the time that the agency’s report was the “most condemning” he had ever seen. Prentice said the project threatened not only Fish Lake, which Taseko planned to drain, but the entire ecosystem flowing from the lake.

Prentice, however, said the company was free to try again.

The federal government recently directed the CEAA to review a second proposal from the company.

This time the company says it has no plans to drain Fish Lake, but will still destroy Little Fish Lake and parts of Fish Creek by turning them into waste dumps.

The company claims it will preserve Fish Lake and its surrounding area while also reducing the mine’s impact on grizzly bear habitat.

The company has said it would spend an additional $200 million to relocate its tailings dam and move mine waste around Fish Lake to other locations.

Fish Lake, Little Fish Creek and Little Fish Lake are at the headwaters of the Taseko River systems which is one of Canada’s main six producers of sockeye salmon. The system also supports Chinook salmon and endangered stocks of steelhead trout.

Taseko said the project will generate over $1 billion in tax revenues to federal and provincial coffers over the 20 to 30 year life-span of the mine. The company said the mine will also generate $340 million in GDP annually and create hundreds of jobs.

Taseko has been trying since the mid-1990s to get the mine approved, but has faced resistance, in particular from the federal Fisheries and Oceans department.

Baptiste said the Tsilhqot’in feel frustrated the project keeps on finding new life.

“We have tried working through the processes respectfully,” said Baptiste. “There is always this uproar about blockades or this or that, but it is not our people who are forcing that, who are choosing such action. It is the federal and provincial governments and industry that is pushing people to no other option.”

Baptiste said stopping the Prosperity project is a matter of cultural survival and honour directly linked to the Chilcotin War of 1864.

As it is today, the conflict was over gold.

Already reeling from an outbreak of smallpox spread by infected blankets sold by traders, the Tsilhqot’in fought to stop the planned construction of a toll wagon road connecting the nascent colony’s Pacific coast to the newly discovered gold fields in the interior.

The Tsilhqot’in launched a guerrilla campaign and eventually stopped the road, but it came at a high price. At least 19 European settlers were killed and six Tsilhqot’in chiefs were hanged.

“I’m getting flashbacks of 1864,” said Baptiste. “Our war leaders defended our way of life and stopped a road crew. Today, nothing has changed…I am hoping we don’t get to that point.”

Baptiste says the Tsilhqot’in will stop the mining project at all costs.

“If it weren’t for our war leaders back then, we wouldn’t be who we are,” she said. “That is our honour. We cannot allow the destruction of our land that provides for us.”

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