FYI.

This story is over 5 years old.

News

We Visited the First Nations Community That's Standing Up to Mining Companies by Turning Their Land Into a Tribal Park

30 years after first protecting its land from miners by deeming it a tribal park, the Tla'o'qui'aht First Nations community faces a new challenge from a proposed gold mine that is deadset on tapping into its vast natural resources.
June 11, 2014, 2:12pm

Meares Island. All photos via the author.
The distant thud-thud of helicopter blades sliced through the sky, growing louder as a crowd began to gather on the beach at C’is-a-qis Bay on Meares Island. A logging company called MacMillan Bloedel was set to commence work on a clear-cut operation of 90 percent of the island’s old growth forest.

It was November 21, 1984. Tensions over the plans had been growing for months. Members of the Tla’o’qui’aht First Nation had been camped out in the bay since fall, constructing a cabin and scooping out the innards of red cedar logs to craft a series of traditional canoes.

Advertisement

Chief Moses Martin stood and surveyed the crowd as it swelled to more than 200 people: locals and members of nearby Nations as well as non-indigenous environmentalists and supporters from Friends of Clayoquot Sound. The tide was high, ideal for boats intending to pull up on shore and soon enough, the MV Kennedy Queen pulled into the bay, loaded with MacMillan Bloedel loggers in hard hats. A wind kicked up as RCMP helicopters and boats hovered into view, anticipating conflict.

“I’m standing on the bank of this bay, and wondering if I should wade out into the water and pull them off, or stay there and welcome them to our garden, and I chose to do the latter. I didn’t want to get wet and cold. But I would have if I had to," Martin said with a chuckle.

“You’re welcome to come and visit us in our lands, but we ask you to leave your chainsaws in your boat,” Martin said to the loggers, as they arrived on the beach to a feast prepared and shared by the community. A MacMillan Bloedel representative disembarked and asked them to get out of the way, a request that was refused. After gathering some names of those on shore, the loggers left.

It was a moment that served to define the nation—then, and for decades to come. After five months of blockades, it was ultimately decreed that there would be no logging in their territory—still unceded to this day—until a treaty was negotiated.

A message from locals.
The fight is far from over, however. Today the nation faces new challenges, namely in the form of the proposed Fandora gold mine slated for the Tranquil Creek watershed, 14 kilometres northeast of the hippy surfer mecca of Tofino. A landbase rich in minerals and bristling with stands of towering cedar, hemlock and Sitka spruce, the Clayoquot Sound—territory of the Tla’o’qui’aht and four other First Nations within the wider Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council—is a treasure chest ripe for plunder by a resource-hungry world.

There’s just one hitch: the area’s indigenous people, deeply committed to the ancient principles of Hishukish Tsawaak—that everything is one, and interconnected—say their responsibility as stewards of the land is simply non-negotiable. The claim to their Haahuulthii, or traditional territory, goes back thousands of years; it is stitched into their ceremonial curtains, etched into the faces of their whalebone war clubs and pounded into the earth by their traditional dances.

Advertisement

In April, the nation celebrated 30 years since they declared Meares Island to be Wah-nah-jus-Hilth-hoo-is, a Tribal Park under their sole jurisdiction and management. Faced with the imminent threat of the gold mine, they took the opportunity to also reiterate in no uncertain terms that their entire 103,000-hectare territory, including Tranquil Valley, is now a series of Tribal Parks and is therefore off-limits to mining.

Though the province stated in an email that the declaration of a mining moratorium by the nation does not, in their view, “have any legal enforceability,” and requires a decision by the legislature, this stance of the nation nevertheless has the potential to completely change the rules of the game.

The Mine

Deep in Tranquil Cove, Tribal Parks manager Terry Dorward, Tribal Park guardian Cory Charlie, and representatives from Friends of Clayoquot Sound had spent the morning tracking three Imperial Metals surveyors who choppered into the area to gather core samples. The sampling was the first step in what was slated to become a series of multi-year surface explorations for gold, and for which the province extended permission in the summer of 2013.

The workers were firmly informed they were trespassing and asked to leave.

“We’ve had to kick them off the mountain a few times,” said Dorward with a grin. “And they respected that. It’s kind of strange, how the whole referral process has been, and how the government sees consultation… We’ve been saying ‘no’ all along, but they see that as consultation. They could keep saying, ‘Yes, yes we’re going to do it,’ and we could keep saying, ‘No, no you’re not,’ and then they’ve met their requirements for consultation and accommodation. So that in itself has been frustrating.”

Advertisement

Dorward cut his teeth on the battle for Meares as a 12-year old boy storming the BC Legislature with his uncle Ray Seitcher Sr. He went on to work with the no-holds-barred West Coast Warrior Society until it disbanded in 2005.

“The province is committed to ensuring it meets its legal obligation to consult with First Nations and accommodate, if necessary, where Crown decisions could impact Aboriginal rights,” said Matt Gordon, Ministry of Energy, Mines and Natural Gas spokesman via email. If First Nations want their interests considered, they should participate in the consultation process, he said, adding that “consent is not required.”

A discarded boat on the edge of the island.
This sentiment is complex, however, and subject to a variety of interpretations. Since the Haida court case in 2004, which established the Crown’s duty to consult and accommodate with First Nations, there have been more than 200 cases alleging the Crown has failed in these duties—the majority of them in BC, said Douglas White, a lawyer and former chief of the Snuneymuxw First Nation who specializes in indigenous law.

“The standard of the UN Declaration of Indigenous Rights is to get free, prior and informed consent,” said White. “And of course Canada says that isn’t legally enforceable in Canada, that it’s just an ‘aspirational document.’” White continued, “At the same time we see more and more First Nations ready to use other tools—in addition to the courts—to protect their lands and resources from further destruction when their rights have not been respected.”

Advertisement

Consultation with the Tla’o’qui’aht has primarily taken the form of sometimes-tense letters and meetings between the nation and the provincial government over the past two and a half years. At its centre is the issue of Tla’o’qui’aht members’ use of the area for ritual bathing and spiritual practices, as well as medicinal plant gathering, hunting and fishing (the watershed was recently restocked with tens of thousands of smolts in a partnership with the Tofino hatchery).

In a letter to the province in November of 2012, the nation’s lawyer Patrick Canning raised this issue of water purity, expressing concern that mining exploration could lead to “acid mine drainage,” which could effectively poison the river. The province responded by assuring that though they were unaware of the exact location of spiritual bathing sites they would propose that the mining company ensure its activities did not interfere with or alter the sites.

“When has mining ever gone well or looked pretty when you’re finished with it? What’s the mitigation for mining? Just cover up the hole when you’re done? And just let Mother Earth do its thing?” Charlie said with a laugh. “Never mind that it’s in one of the most pristine areas in the world.”

He added that the nation is “100 percent” prepared to defend the land by any means possible.

“We don’t need conflict for this mine to be stopped, and we shouldn’t have to fight it out on a logging road. I’ve got enough shit to do without having to spend six months in the bush,” said Saya Masso, natural resource director for the nation.

Saya holding whale bones.
Masso pointed out that their stance is not simply one of opposition: the nation have already invested millions into their own detailed sustainable development plans and projects, with an eye towards providing employment for generations, not just “10 years of jobs and then 500 years of impact” from the mine.

In an hour-long land use plan presented to Energy, Mines and Natural Gas Minister Bill Bennett last fall, Masso said he invited the province to refuse the mine project in favour of the nation’s $290 million stewardship-oriented vision for the land.

Advertisement

“They’re either going to have to get with it or get out of the way,” said Dorward with a chuckle.

The Tribal Parks

“It was the best job I ever had in my life,” said Charlie, of his tenure as a Tribal Park guardian. We’re in the sunny, south-facing village of Opitsaht on Meares Island. He’s illustrating the occasionally-sketchy aspect of the job with a story about how campers in the Ha’uukmin Tribal Park on Kennedy Lake had fallen asleep under the canopy of a giant 500-year-old cedar tree, only to wake and find they had set the entire thing ablaze from the inside. It had to be felled, still burning, by a grizzled tree faller flown in from the Canadian Forest Service.

Trained through a partnership with Parks Canada, Charlie hasn’t worked as a guardian since last September due to a lack of funds. Masso said they plan to deal with the issue of funding by stepping up their existing “ecosystem service fee.” The idea is that they collect a fee from local tourism outfits—wildlife-watching tours and hotels that benefit from the nations’ efforts to protect the land—and channel it into an endowment fund put aside especially for stewardship and education. This has already functioned well on a limited scale in partnership with the District of Tofino—who along with the city of Victoria have voted to support the mining moratorium—and is something mayor Josie Osborne hails as a successful partnership.

Advertisement

“We just want have a model that sees us benefitting from what’s happening in our own territory,” said Masso. The nation is also in talks with major US investors like The Nature Conservancy, though Masso said he’s frustrated by the wrench a potential mine throws in these plans.

“I’m not going to get million-dollar donors from New York to help protect a watershed that’s poisoned,” he said, shaking his head.

“What we’ve learned over the years is that to become politically sovereign we’ve got to cut ties with the government. We’ve got to become truly economically independent. So that’s been a great challenge,” said Dorward. The parks form part of an effort to demonstrate how it can be more economically viable to leave ecosystems intact rather than simply exploit them for resources, he added.

This is also a central argument posed by National Geographic explorer Wade Davis, author of a recent book which explores Imperial Metals’ plans to open the Red Chris gold and copper mine in an area of BC known as the Sacred Headwaters.

“None of us are against mines, it’s just: how many mines, in what places, at what cost to the environment and for whose benefit? The real issue is, do we want to tear up our landscape? Is that something we want to do? Tourism employs more people in British Columbia than mining, logging and commercial fishing combined. Tell me why, after generations, our government continues to say the only way to build an economy, with all these assets, is by destroying our natural heritage?”

Despite having valid permits for exploration, “there are no current plans for exploration drilling or road building at Fandora this year,” said Steve Robertson, vice president of corporate affairs for Imperial Metals, via email. He added that at present it would be more accurate to describe Fandora as an “exploration” project rather than a mine.

As it stands, the project has encountered a potential snag in the form of a case settled in January in the Supreme Court of Canada, which upheld the nation’s constitutional right to a commercial fishery. In a letter to the province dated February 28, the nation explained how a mine located near the fish-bearing Tranquil Creek watershed impedes upon those newly-affirmed rights, and invited them to change the permit for exploration so that it ended within 30 days. They received no response. @juliehchadwick