Xeni Gwet’in Chief Roger William (left) drums to open a meeting in Ottawa while Tsilhqo’tin Tribal Chair Joe Alphonse and National Chief Shawn Atleo look on

Crown jewel on table in Cariboo

The Tsilhqot'in Nation's claim for title to the Nemiah Valley is central to the puzzling rejection of Taseko Mines' latest proposal

VICTORIA – The New Prosperity mineral deposit near Williams Lake is described by the industry as one of the largest in the world, containing 5.3 billion pounds of copper and 13.3 million ounces of gold.

The Harper government’s decision to reject open-pit mine development for a second time is seen by elected officials in the Cariboo region as a disaster. One of Quesnel’s sawmills is preparing to close for good, and I’ve been told there is more to come as the post-pine beetle era unfolds.

Here in the B.C. capital, the decision is mainly viewed as a huge mistake. Taseko Mines is going to court to show that the federal panel used the wrong design when reviewing the company’s expensively revised plan. The province has permitted two successful mines that operate in the same area, one of which is run by Taseko.

In Ottawa, this is a Supreme Court of Canada test case over who owns the land and the mineral wealth underneath.

In traditional Canadian law, the province owns it. This was highlighted in the recent discussion between B.C. Premier Christy Clark and Alberta’s Alison Redford over royalties from oil.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper emphasized the unresolved land claim that hangs over the project in his comments at a mining conference in Toronto this week.

Six aboriginal communities make up the Tsilhqot’in Nation, which has a long and bitter history of resistance against the Crown. They almost won a declaration of title to 40,000 hectares known as the Nemiah Valley: forests, wild horses, minerals and all, in a 339-day trial that ended in 2007.

Their case suffered a setback at the B.C. Court of Appeal, and is now before the highest court. Aboriginal rights have been established, but this would be the first clear title.

Tsilhqot’in tribal chair Joe Alphonse was pleasantly surprised to see Taseko turned down again. He said the Tsilhqot’in National Government is releasing its own mining policies soon.

“We welcome opportunities to look at projects that are environmentally sound and we need economic opportunities,” Alphonse told the Williams Lake Tribune.

Somehow efforts to move mine waste rock from Teztan Biny (Fish Lake) to a sealed storage site two kilometres away are not enough to protect groundwater, although they are sufficient at the nearby Gibraltar and Mount Polley mines. And Alphonse makes it clear this mysterious environmental problem will be solved once he and his fellow chiefs have control of the resource.

A Supreme Court of Canada ruling on aboriginal title is required to settle this. If some limited form of title is at last defined for the treaty-less majority of B.C., or at least Tsilhqot’in territory, the fate of the mine may become clear.

Conventional wisdom on this is that the mining company didn’t try hard enough to establish a working relationship with the Tsilhqot’in. For his part, Taseko CEO Russell Hallbauer says the chiefs refused to meet with him, which isn’t surprising from a group that doesn’t recognize the B.C. forests ministry either.

Here’s a sample of the volume of evidence that may determine the future of B.C.

Archeological studies presented at trial describe “18 roasting and/or pit depressions” at Teztan Biny. It’s not clear if these were for seasonal food preparation or for pit houses, which would indicate a more permanent settlement at the lake. Nor is it clear whether these “cultural depressions” have been identified as being of Tsilhqot’in origin.

Oral histories are also uncertain. Tsilhqot’in witnesses testified that Teztan Biny has been used in the 20th century as a hunting and fishing camp.

The mine was rejected due to ill-defined cultural as well as environmental concerns. B.C. residents could finally see some answers this year.

Tom Fletcher is legislature reporter and columnist for Black Press. Twitter: @tomfletcherbc


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