Indigenous Canadians Are Blockading a Mine to Protest Pollution
A group of Tahltan First Nation elders have blocked access to the mine for the second time in two months over concerns that it will dump toxic sludge into a salmon habitat.
An Royal Canadian Mounted Police constable visits the Tahltan blockade on September 29. All photos by Kieran Oudshoorn.
On Friday, Imperial Metals, the company responsible for Canada’s largest-ever mining waste spill, served an injunction application to indigenous protesters blocking roads to its Red Chris copper and gold mine near Iskut, British Columbia.
A group of Tahltan First Nation elders known as the Klabona Keepers have blocked access to the mine for the second time in two months over concerns that Red Chris is too similar to Mount Polley, a sister mine that spewed 24 million cubic meters of toxic sludge and wastewater into one of the province’s biggest salmon spawning lakes on August 4.
“As a result of the blockades and the conduct of the blockaders, no person and no vehicle are able to access the project site along the access roads,” reads Imperial Metals’ injunction application, which was delivered yesterday morning. “Red Chris has been forced to severely limit its construction activities at the project site, and if the blockade continues, will be forced to halt them altogether.”
Resource companies often use injunctions to break up protests. For example, on October 3, 2013, a company called SWN Resources was granted an injunction to remove Elsipogtog First Nation protesters from a shale gas exploration site north of Moncton, New Brunswick. Two weeks later, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) enforced the injunction with an over-the-top display of force that included beanbag guns, police dogs, snipers, and plenty of pepper spray. Needless to say, shit escalated quickly.
Last time the Klabona Keepers blocked the mine’s two entrances, British Columbia’s mines minister and high-ranking execs from Imperial Metals came out to the blockade to negotiate a deal. The company offered to pay an independent contractor chosen by the Tahltan to conduct a safety review of the “tailings facility” (the man-made lake where they planned to dump more sludge containing arsenic, lead, and mercury). BC’s provincial government agreed not to issue the mine’s final permit until that independent review was complete.
The Keepers agreed to these terms on August 23, but returned to the mining roads on September 29 and set up camp. What brought them back to the blockade?
“A few women came up from Secwepemc territory and did a presentation about what happened at Mount Polley,” said Klabona Keepers spokesperson Rhoda Quock, who I reached by phone on Saturday.
One of those women was Kanahus Manuel, Secwepemc Women’s Warrior Society member and co-founder of a resistance camp I visited at Mount Polley’s entrance road in August. She brought photos and testimony from the spill site—claiming virtually nothing has been done to contain the metallic sludge and sediment in Quesnel Lake, Polley Lake, and Hazeltine Creek. “The elders cried,” Manual said. “That first day we spoke it was like a funeral.”
One of two roadblocks at the Red Chris mine
“If Imperial could just walk away from the disaster at Mount Polley and the government is not doing anything about it, it could happen again and nothing would be done,” Quock said of her renewed opposition, adding the community of Iskut is 11 miles from Red Chris. “This became a major concern for our elders—that's why the blockade was put up again.”
This time the company sent security and Red Chris mine manager Tim Fisch, who coincidentally managed Mount Polley’s operations when the massive spill happened in August. “He just got transferred in September,” Quock said. (Fisch confirmed his transfer to Red Chris on camera last week.) “We’re very concerned—Fisch was at Mount Polley for a very long time.”
When asked why Imperial is pursuing an injunction this time, Steve Robertson, vice president for corporate affairs, said the Klabona Keepers have made “no reasonable request” this time around. “Both [Imperial president Brian] Kynoch and I attended the blockade that took place in August, and our efforts at that time were fruitful in that we were able to negotiate an agreement with the Klabona Keepers and Tahltan Central Council that resulted in the blockade coming down,” he wrote in an email. “We have a negotiated agreement with the Klabona Keepers and we are continuing to live up to our obligations under that agreement. There have been no further reasonable requests from this blockade so negotiating with the people on the blockade is not an option.”
The Tahltan have a history of protecting their territory and making industry listen. They stopped Shell from drilling around the headwaters of the Nass, Stikine, and Skeena rivers (another important salmon habitat) in 2012, and kicked out Fortune Minerals with a similar blockade last year. The fact that energy and mining minister Bill Bennett actually showed up to their August protest suggests a unique standing within the province.
As the campers continue turning away trucks and workers, they aren’t ruling out a full-scale RCMP raid. “We’re coming up on the anniversary of the Mic’kmak protests in Elsipogtog, which is significant,” said blockade camper Anushka Nagji. “We’re expecting a full force [RCMP] moveout… that’s definitely what we’re expecting for a few reasons. At Dease Lake, when the Klabona Keepers were occupying a drill, the RCMP detachment came out with snipers and everything.”
The injunction signals an escalation, which the tribe met with calls for support from their Secwepemc, St’at’imc, and Tsilhquot’in allies. “There’s really a heightened sense of urgency,” said Manuel, confirming a convoy of Secwepemc elders and warriors were heading up to the camp Sunday.
Imperial Metals’ injunction will be heard in Vancouver on Wednesday morning. The request also includes an enforcement order, which according to Imperial’s lawyers “is required as the Royal Canadian Mounted Police have taken the position that hey will not enforce a court order for an injunction without an enforcement order.”
When asked if the RCMP were concerned about physical altercation at Red Chris, Corporal David Tyreman in Prince George declined to comment. "All I can say at this time is that this is a civil matter that is before the Supreme Court of British Columbia and it would be inappropriate for us to comment at this time," he wrote in an email.
A press release from blockade organizers says that no government, company, or police force has jurisdiction on unceded Tahltan territory: “There has been no treaty, no purchase.” With a history of standing up to industry and RCMP without violence—in 2004, in 2006, in 2009, in 2013, and most recently in August—if anyone is prepared to peacefully respond to potential police aggression, it's the Klabona Keepers.
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