Moly and Cody prep salmon at the Unist'ot'en Camp. All photos via the author.
Molly Wickham and Cody Merriman are raising their three-year old son at a tailings pond blockade on unsurrendered indigenous land. The family has just moved into a cabin that overlooks a pristine body of water, known to the government of British Columbia as McBride Lake and to the native Gitdumden Clan as Lhudis Bin. Nanika Mines, proposing to dig molybdenum out of Nanika Mountain, seeks to turn one end of Lhudis Bin into a tailings pond—a permanent holding pool for toxic waste.
“By any means necessary we say no to all tailings ponds,” Cody Merriman said. “Even a successful tailings pond and a successful mine is poisonous and toxic, and poses a great threat to the whole ecosystem. They don’t have to burst to kill.”
“There’s so much wildlife in this area. There’s mother grizzly bears raising their cubs in this area, there’s black bear where there aren’t grizzly bears, there’s moose, there’s packs of wolves, porcupines, lynx, rabbits, grouse, there’s lingcod, char, and trout in this lake, there’s coyotes that den here in the wintertime, the geese come here in the fall and each spring,” Molly Wickham said. “We’ve had some different people come and visit the area and they’ve showed us and identified a lot of different medicines and plant food that grow in abundance here, in this spot.”
The couple are active participants in the Unist’ot’en Camp, a permanent community that was established to stop several bitumen and fracked gas pipelines from crossing unceded native land. Both the Unist’ot’en and the Gitdumden are Wet’suwet’en clans, who have never signed treaties, sold or surrendered their lands, or lost in war with the crown.
Despite international law and Supreme Court decisions recognizing that Wet’suwet’en land is unsurrendered, the governments of Canada and BC freely authorize pipeline and mining projects on their territories, putting forward dubious efforts to consult with the people of the land.
When the government proposes a project, Cody said, they offer communities deadlines that are impossible to meet, consulting with Indian Act band councils who have no legal jurisdiction instead of the rightful, hereditary leaders. “They’ll give you a referral and you have 30 days to respond with a meaningful cultural impact statement for the defined area,” Cody said. “You might receive it 15 days into that, so you have two weeks to respond with a legal document. And there’s no way. You’re receiving hundreds of them every month. They want to overwhelm you so you have, within their system, no way to say no.”
“In 2009 there were over nine proposed mines on Gitdumden territory alone—and that’s one of the five Wet’suwet’en clans,” Molly explained. “We’re not privy to how many other mines are proposed in other territories but we know there are several that are already in existence and that they’ve caused massive destruction.”
Cody and Molly's cabin,
“Tailings ponds don’t go away ever. People aren’t thinking about that—they’re going to be there forever and they’re not going to last forever,” Molly said. “These tailings ponds take hundreds of years of management and they don’t have hundreds of years of business plans. They’re not going to be around to take care of it. Once their project’s done, they’re done, they’re gone,” Cody clarified.
Wet’suwet’en territories have hosted some of the most damaging mining accidents in Canada’s history. A Silver Standards tailings spill five decades ago into Owen Lake, Molly said, meant that “you couldn’t even swim in it, you couldn’t drink the water, and you couldn’t eat the fish. Just now people are starting to return to that area, but even then we were just told that another smaller mine up the mountain is leaking tailings into the lake as we speak.”
Similarly, in 1984, an Equity Mines tailings pond ruptured and decimated the Wet’suwet’en people’s healthiest territory—Sam Goosley Lake. “People in our generation and our parents’ generation and our grandparents’ generation experienced that tragedy—that they can no longer hunt, fish, and gather foods and medicines on their territories anymore because they’re all toxic and they’re full of cancer and they’re full of tumours. You can’t eat [the food], you can’t drink the water, you can’t make yourself better,” Molly said.
Molly and Cody are interviewed in their cabin.
“Sam Goosley was historically one of the richest Wet’suwet’en territories—most abundant, most game, most plants,” Cody added. “That tailings pond busted and it completely wrecked that area. The moose are still not healthy in that region.”
The family has moved out to the territory to watch out for development that is taking place without the Gitdumden clan’s consent. I rode with them as they searched the region for signs of pipeline workers who they intended to evict. “The only way to defend the land is to know the land and be occupying the land,” Molly said.
Beyond acting as watchful eyes over the territory, the family seeks to practice a traditional way of life as has been lost through colonization. Their three-year-old son Liam is becoming fluent in the Wet’suwet’en language, and becomes ecstatic over hunting and picking berries with his parents. The family hauls drinking water from a nearby river, and fed me local salmon when I came to visit. Though they are weaning off the fruits of settler society, they are still somewhat dependent on outside food and resources.
A sign on the driveway to their cabin reads: “Gitdumden Wellness Village.” As is the case with the Unist’ot’en blockade, the Gitdumden Clan’s long-term intention is to encourage Wet’suwet’en people to move back to their traditional territories. They intend to provide a space for their community to heal, after being forced onto reservations through imprisonment, acts of intimidation, violence, and the burning of Wet’suwet’en cabins.
“One of the strongest tools that we have in asserting authority and title over our lands is to occupy our lands and to know them very well… But we also really wanted to focus on the health of our people and the health of our lands. We know that the two are intricately connected and that we can’t have one without the other,” said Molly. “We want to encourage a connection to the land and the wellness of our families and children.”
Cody works on the family cabin.
“We don’t intend for it to be just one family that lives here. We want other people to join, we want to help people heal, and offer healing to other people and to ourselves,” Cody said. “We know one of our elders wants to live here. I think it would be a beautiful thing to have Wet’suwet’en communities out on the territory,” Molly added.
Gitdumden Clan’s hereditary chiefs, Molly explained, “decided that this would be the cabin site because of the pristine beauty and wilderness of this place and how untouched it is relative to many of the other territories.” The site, chosen by Nanika Mines as an ideal tailings pond, is also historically significant to the clan. It is physically marked by centuries of Gitdumden life through cache pits, where the clan used to store food underground, and culturally modified trees, which were partially harvested for kindling and food. A former head chief, Woos, lived in a cabin where Molly and Cody’s home now stands.
Imperial Metals operates its open-pit Huckleberry copper mine just down the road from the cabin. “They have three tailings ponds that are already full, that are four kilometres square. That’s about 40km away from Francis Lake, which is one of our most pristine glacier-fed lakes. A lot of people are populated around the lake and in that area,” Molly said. “People that live around that lake draw their water directly from it,” Cody noted.
“The Huckleberry Mine is the size of a small town—the mine itself, not including the tailings pond. And now they’re hoping to expand. They‘ve been approved to expand that mine even more,” Molly said.
When asked about recent Imperial Metals tailings rupture at the Mount Polly mine, which introduced billions of litres of poison into a pristine aquatic environment, Molly noted that “it’s really, really tragic and hard to hear that people that you love and care about are suffering… we’re hearing from our friends in Secwepemc territory and in Lilooet that there’s no salmon—that they can’t harvest anything this year anymore. Those people that are relying on that food as one of their staples—they can’t eat it… It’s something that is now gone, and who knows for how long, and if that’s going to affect us as well.”
“We don’t take for granted the fish that we are able to get or our berries that we’re able to pick. We know from the state of what’s going on in the rest of the world and the threat of pipelines and all the mines that are around here, and the logging that affects what we can harvest, that we’re really fortunate each year to be able to get our salmon and to can our salmon,” she said.
Nanika Mines wants to turn this part of Lhudis Bin into a tailings pond.
Despite the accident, the couple is optimistic. They see strength in the resistance to Imperial Metals that has spread across the region. To the north, in Tahltan territory, the Klabona Keepers have set up a long-term blockade to stop the company’s proposed Red Chris mine. To the south, the Secwepemc Women’s Warrior Society “is resisting another Imperial Metals mine proposed for the head of the Adams River watershed,” Cody told me. In Nuu Cha Nulth territory, Imperial Metals is facing resistance for their proposed mine at Cat Face Mountain. “It’s a pretty common thing for indigenous people to be resisting Imperial Metals in this province and probably throughout the world,” Cody said.
“As indigenous people, we’re getting pushed to the edge. We’ve been being pushed for a long time. You can see, around so-called BC, that indigenous people are rising up and taking real action—against mining, against pipelines, against all these different industries,” Molly said. “There’s a lot of people that are doing things that aren’t making the front page, that aren’t making the news, and I know that for a fact. It’s exciting and it’s hopeful because I know that people are reacting, and they are taking real action on the ground. It’s not just going to pass us by,” she said.
Meanwhile, Molly encourages those hoping to avoid disasters like Mount Polly to look at the larger picture, rather than the individual developments—like Enbridge’s Northern Gateway—that seem to dominate the attention spans of resisters. “Logging was overshadowed by mining a long time ago, and now pipelines overshadow everything and take up all the resources and the time and energy of people who are resisting, because it seems like the most imminent threat right now,” she said. “Look at it collectively. This is not a problem with pipeline companies. This is not just a problem of mining companies and tailings ponds. If you really look at the onslaught of industry and the development then you need to look at the way that society is functioning as a whole—the way the government is functioning as a whole and treating indigenous peoples and indigenous lands overall.”
“This industrial expansion—civilization, so called—is the problem. How do we go about dismantling that? How do we challenge that? Well, we can change the ways that we’re living our lives. It’s possible. We’re living here as a family, just the three of us out in the wilderness. Everybody might not do that, but everybody can certainly find a way to challenge the way things are.”