The Tsilhqot'in Nation have had a busy week. Thanks to raging British Columbia wildfires, four of the nation's six communities have been ordered to evacuate, and the ones staying behind have been hosting the displaced, operating actual fire trucks, and delivering supplies.
But fire wasn't the only thing occupying Chief Roger Williams' mind yesterday. The cowboy-hat-wearing leader of Xeni Gwet'in, known for a precedent-setting Supreme Court Aboriginal title case in 2014, has been mounting a response to something arguably more unexpected than wildfire in July. The Tsilhqot'in launched a legal battle late Wednesday aiming to block drilling permits the BC Liberal government greenlit in its last days in power.
The Taseko "New Prosperity" drilling permits were unexpected for a bunch of reasons. The proposed open pit copper and gold mine has been in and out of the environmental assessment process for 30 years, rejected twice by federal expert review panels in 2010 and 2014. The BC Liberal government, meanwhile, was by its own assessment in "caretaker mode" just days from the new NDP government's swear-in Tuesday. And yet this mine—which would need to overturn the feds' rejection in court just to open shop—got a go-ahead to clear trees, make trails, build infrastructure and begin preliminary drilling in an area the Tsilhqot'in deemed a protected park under tribal law.
Needless to say, Williams thinks the last-minute permit approval was a dick move by a government that didn't take Aboriginal rights seriously. "We're pretty frustrated and angry to see they made this decision—especially in the middle of our fire crisis," Williams told VICE. "We thought that we were in a new era, a post-Tsilhqot'in decision era."
The Tsilhqot'in have lots of practice proving the cultural and ecological significance of their territory in court, including the area Taseko plans to mine. According to legal documents filed Wednesday, the landmark Aboriginal title case they won in 2014 proved hunting and trapping rights to Fish Lake, Little Fish Lake, and Nabas. In BC's Supreme Court, the Tsilhqot'in will argue that the government breached its duty to consult by giving Taseko the green light.
Williams says the proposed mining area is used to range cattle, hunt and trap, fish and gather medicines. It's also the site of spiritual and ceremonial practices. Williams told VICE there's sockeye and steelhead in Fish Lake waterways, which would be positioned between the open pit mine and it's wastewater pond. "Even the federal government didn't agree with their environmental plan to do the mining—that alone should tell you it's unsafe," he said.
Though not recognized under Canadian law, the Tsilhqot'in have also declared the area a tribal park, an effort to further assert their land use intentions. "We're putting forward our tribal park because it's a way of governing and protecting our Aboriginal rights, the watershed, the wildlife and the fish," Williams said.
The mining company's CEO released a statement Tuesday saying BC is "giving us the tools needed to move the project towards its ultimate development." But those tools could be taken away, if not by the Tsilhqot'in's injunction and legal challenge, perhaps by the BC government's incoming leaders.
New Premier John Horgan also had his hands full handling the province's wildfire crisis on his first day in office. He extended the state state of emergency an extra two weeks, and added more relief funds to go directly to evacuees. The New Prosperity permits could be its first major decision on a case balancing industry against First Nations rights.
VICE reached out to new NDP energy and mines minister Michelle Mungall to see what options the government is considering, but did not hear back.
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