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Editorial: A parting shot from Christy Clark's government -- shocking but not surprising

Teztan Biny (Fish Lake)

While four of six Tsilhqot’in communities are evacuated due to raging wildfires surrounding  their communities,  Christy Clark's outgoing Liberal government has granted permits to Taseko Mines to conduct extensive pre-construction exploration and drilling for the New Prosperity  mine proposal in a place precious to the Tsilhqot'in Nation.  Never mind that the federal government has twice nixed successive versions of the proposal. Could this have anything to do with a $300,000 donation to the Liberals from Taseko Mines?

The original New Prosperity mine proposal was rejected by the Harper government in 2010, and a revised proposal was rejected in 2014. The area that would be affected by the mine is Fish Lake, more aptly known by its Tsilhqot’in name: Teztan Biny.  It's situated north of Taseko Lakes; viewing the area on Google Earth shows the forested areas to the north and east densely freckled with clear-cuts.  But Fish Lake ― Teztan Biny ― is still beautiful and undamaged and full of fish.  Teztan Biny is one of the most productive trout lakes in BC.  The original mine proposal called for it to be converted into a tailings dump.  The next proposal placed the tailings dump elsewhere, but it seemed that acid drainage from the new location would likely have seeped into Teztan Biny and polluted its waters.  

BC's Liberal government has always supported the concept of the New Prosperity mine and has provided the approvals required from the Province.  The federal government has stopped the mine from becoming reality ― twice.  

The permits just issued by Christy Clarks' Liberal government were signed on or about July 14, 2017.  The Tsilqot'in were notified about them on July 17.  On July 18, BC's government will undergo a change  and will be led by the NDP's John Horgan, with the support of the BC Green Party's three seats in the legislature.

The struggle over the mine proposal has been ongoing -- Taseko  Mines has been pressing their cause in court challenges against the federal environmental assessment that resulted in the rejections of the earlier proposals, and in judicial review proceedings, and in letters to the BC government  threatening further lawsuits to claim damages.

Taseko argues that the mine would bring economic prosperity to an area devastated by the mountain pine beetle in recent years. The company estimates that economic benefits would include a $5.5-billion increase in revenues to B.C and 71,000 jobs, according to its own background papers. However, some past mining operations which brought economic benefits ended up costing taxpayers more than the vaunted benefits.  Examples include the infamous Mt. Washington copper mine on Vancouver Island.  The acid drainage from that mine killed off the fish runs in the Tsolum River for over 50 years and eliminated the economic benefits from those fish runs, which would have been more than all the money brought in by the mine.  Add to that the many years of costly government-funded attempts to stop the ongoing acid drainage from the remains of the mine, and that mine cost BC much more than  it was worth.    

The Tsilhqot’in Nation has announced that it will challenge the exploration permits in court, and is now preparing affidavits to seek an immediate injunction to prevent or  halt any destructive activity. The permits authorize the cutting of 76 kilometres of new or modified trails, 122 drill holes, 367 test pits dug by an excavator, and 20 kilometres of seismic lines to be chopped through the forest near Teztan Biny  – an area of profound cultural and spiritual importance that the Tsilhqot’in successfully fought to protect against the two previous mine proposals. The BC Supreme Court  granted an injunction in 2011 to the Tsilhqot’in Nation to halt a much smaller proposed exploration program by Taseko, stating “Each newly cleared trail remains a scar, for although reclamation is required, restoration is impossible. The damage is irreparable.” (Taseko Mines Limited v Phillips, 2011 BCSC 1675, paragraph 65).

Leaders of the First Nations affected by the permits are shocked, even though they knew the Clark government favoured the Taseko Mines proposal and were poised to make a decision on the permits, and their comments reflect this.

Chief Roger William, Chief of the Xeni Gwet’in First Nation and Vice-Chair of the Tsilhqot’in National Government, said,

“We are in shock.  In the midst of B.C.’s worst crisis in decades, while our elders and children are threatened by wildfire, BC decides to add insult to injury by granting these permits.  BC disregarded the immense record showing the importance of this area for our culture and approved extensive ground disturbance for a mine that cannot lawfully be built. Our people are understandably angry and cannot believe that BC would approve more destruction in an area of such spiritual and cultural importance for us. Especially when we are experiencing a state of emergency.  We thought that we were in a new era, a post-Tsilhqot’in decision era. These permits call into question BC’s commitment to Indigenous peoples. It is an insult to the Tsilhqot’in people and to this new era of truth and reconciliation.”  

 Chief Joe Alphonse, Chief of Tl’etinqox and Tribal Chair of the Tsilhqot’in National Government, also commented:

This is a typical move by the Liberal government. They are a dead political party trying to mount a dead horse and hoping to ride it to a come-back. One thing we are demonstrating as Tsilhqot’in is that if you threaten us, our homes, our culture – that’s when you’ll see our real strength. That area is a very special place for our people and for British Columbia to authorize more drilling and destruction for a project that is rejected and can’t even be built—this is the type of attitude we have had to fight for over 150 years and counting.  We won’t stand down now.” 

Chief Russell Myers Ross, Chief of Yunesit’in and Director of the Tsilhqot’in National Government, may have felt speechless, but clearly wasn't quite; he may have meant that his words could not adequately express his response to issuing of the exploration permits.  He said,

“I am speechless at the timing of this insulting decision.  It defies compassion that while our people are fighting for our homes and lives, BC issues permits that will destroy more of our land beyond repair.  

"As a Nation, we have wasted enough time and energy in conflict. The project has been rejected twice federally. It is time to move on. As Tsilhqot'in, we are moving forward by establishing the Dasiqox Tribal Park based on our governance and values. The Provincial decision to permit further drilling is insulting. It demonstrates a serious attack on meaningful reconciliation. It is our responsibility to protect Nabas for our future generations.”

"Nabas" is the general area surrounding Teztan Biny - much of which would be damaged, and nearly all of which would be impacted by the work authorized by the permits. 

Taseko  Mines has been active in court against its opponents.  In 2012, it filed suit against the Wilderness Committee in defamation for articles critical of the New Prosperity proposals.  The mining company lost the lawsuit in early 2016, with the judge noting that the criticisms leveled against it were supported by Taseko's own materials.  The court took the unusual step of awarding special costs ― which are higher than the normal award of costs to a successful litigant ― to the Wilderness Committee. Taseko Mines is now engaged in appealing the judgment.

And soon, Taseko Mines will again be in court, facing the request from the Tsilhqot'in for an injunction to halt the works authorized by BC's Liberal government.