‘Our culture, our way of life has been protected’

The Conservative government has rejected a controversial gold and copper mine proposal in British Columbia’s interior that threatened to destroy a lake sacred to area First Nations.

By Jorge Barrera
APTN National News
Tsilhqot’in nation tribal chair Joe Alphonse was in Banff, Alta., climbing ropes as part of a leadership training seminar on trust when a strange number appeared on his cell phone on Tuesday afternoon.

Alphonse answered the call and was met with a woman’s voice telling him that Indian Affairs Minister John Duncan was looking to speak with him.

In the brief conversation that followed, Duncan told him that the government had decided to reject Taseko Mines Ltd.’s proposed Prosperity gold and copper mine that threatened to destroy a lake sacred to the Tislhqot’in.

“I pinched myself, to make sure it wasn’t a joke,” said Alphonse, who was planning to fly to Ottawa to appear Thursday before the House of Commons fisheries and oceans committee to discuss Prosperity mine. “I think my trip to Ottawa has just been cancelled.”

Environment Minister Jim Prentice made the much anticipated announcement during a hastily called press conference shortly after 4:30 p.m.

Prentice said the federal cabinet’s decision was based primarily on the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency panel’s Prosperity report that concluded the project would have a devastating environmental impact on fish habitat and the grizzly bear population in the region.

“The environmental report that we received in the Prosperity mine case was scathing in its comments about the impact on the environment,” said Prentice. “It was, I would say, probably the most condemning report that I’ve seen.”

Prentice said the Prosperity project threatened “not simply Fish Lake itself, but the entire ecosystem that flows from Fish Lake consisting of wetlands, other streams, the entire ecosystem that would have been lost with the destruction of the lake.”

Prentice said the federal government was open to Taseko re-submitting another proposal which posed less of an environmental impact.

Taseko’s president Russell Halbauer issued a statement saying the company were “extremely disappointed” by the decision. Halbauer said the company would be discussing their next steps with federal and provincial officials “to look at options so that this mining project can move forward.”

Prentice also announced the approval of the Mount Milligan gold and copper mine near Prince George, B.C.

The project appears to still face opposition from the Nak’azdli First Nation over the project’s environmental impacts and lack of consultation, according to an Oct. 21 statement from the community. A community spokesperson could not be immediately reached for comment.

The 35-square-kilometre Prosperity mine project would have resulted in the draining of Fish Lake and the conversion of Little Fish Lake and part of Fish Creek into waste dumps.

These bodies of water are at the headwaters of the Taseko River system which is one of Canada’s main six producers of sockeye salmon. The system also supports Chinook salmon and endangered stocks of steelhead trout.

Taskeo had been trying for 15 years to obtain federal approval for its Prosperity project, but it faced resistance primarily from the Department of Fisheries and Oceans.

Rising gold and copper prices, however, likely made the project increasingly lucrative for the company and the B.C. provincial government. The province decided to review the project separately from the federal government, eventually giving it the environmental green light.

The province said the economic impact of the project, with its estimated $3 billion worth of gold and copper production potential, outweighed the environmental impact.

The project also promised hundreds of jobs to the Williams Lake, B.C., region, which has seen its forestry industry hobbled by pine beetle infestation.

The proposed mine site is about 125 kilometres southwest from Williams Lake, which sits about 495 kilometres northeast of Vancouver.

Prentice said Prime Minister Stephen Harper had informed B.C. Premier Gordon Campbell of the decision.

Campbell’s office could not be immediately reached for comment.

While the province and the local Williams Lake community argued the project was necessary the local economy to survive, the Tsilhqot’in nation said the project posed a threat to their existence.

The Tsilqhot’in have relied on the Taseko River system since time immemorial, and feared its destruction would have cut deep into their essence as a people.

“We could not possibly begin to imagine destroying our headwaters, with our wild salmon bearing streams,” said Xeni Gwet’in Chief Marilyn Baptiste, who also received a call from Duncan Tuesday. “It was a threat to our being, our way of life.”

Tensions were rising in the region over the project as all sides waited on  word from the federal cabinet which held the project’s future in its hands.

Fears still exist that residents of Williams Lake could retaliate against the Tsilhqot’in over the project’s demise, though Prentice did not mention First Nations opposition to the Prosperity during his announcement.

There were also worries the Tsilhqot’in opposition to the project could lead to a confrontation with authorities.

For now, however, the Tsilhqot’in say they have community feasts to plan to celebrate the saving of Fish Lake.

“I’m heading home to plan a feast and a celebration,” said Alphonse. “Our culture, our way of life has been protected today.”

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