‘Undermining our voices’: Indigenous communities oppose resource extraction industry

Published in rabble.ca | August 1, 2012 | Circulation: 250,000 unique monthly readers

Organizers display an anti-mining banner during a 2011 protest against Goldcorp. Photo by David P. Ball

Today is the Continental Day of Action Against Canadian Mega Resource Extraction. There are actions happening across the country and also throughout the hemisphere, from El Salvador to Colombia, including a vigil outside mining giant Goldcorp‘s headquarters today (4:30pm, 666 Burrard St., Vancouver).

Like many Indigenous peoples worldwide, the Wet’suwet’en Nation in northern B.C. has resisted mining on their territories, as well as the Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline. On Vancouver Co-op Radio’s W2 Morning Radio Project this morning, I spoke with three B.C. Indigenous land defenders about the impacts of mining and resource extraction on their territories.

Toghestiy is a member of the Likhtsamisyu Clan in the Wet’suwet’en Nation; Freda Huson is the official spokesperson for the Unist’ot’en people; and Mel Bazil is Gitxsan and a solidarity supporter of the Unis’tot’en and Laksamashyu clans.

Here are excerpts from their interview this morning, which you can also listen to online.

LEFT COAST POST: Can you give us a bit of background on how mining has impacted your territories?

TOGHESTIY: One of the first things we can talk about is the history of mining here. People have been mining in Wet’suwet’en territories since the Gold Rush occurred back in the early 1800s. But the larger projects are the ones that created the biggest headaches for us. One of the biggest headaches that our people had was one of the largest mining disasters in North America. That occurred around 1984, when Equity Silver Mine near Houston [B.C., operated by Placer Dome, now Barrick Gold, and Goldcorp., both Vancouver-based] had a tailings pond spill, which […] went into the Goosly Lake and eventually down the Buck River, and into the Bulkley River, and it destroyed an entire salmon run that our people used to depend on, as well as all the lake fish in the area, the moose, the beaver — everything was contaminated. Quite a few animals and species were killed. […]

LCP: But the mining has continued though. I know another mine was proposed not so long ago – the Blue Pearl mine [owned by Toronto-based Thompson Creek Metals Co.]. Could you tell us about that one?

T: Blue Pearl was planned to be constructed on the Hudson Bay Mountain. They wanted to use an old adit — an old underground mine — and reopen it. They did a lot of work and spent a lot of money on it. Blue Pearl initially wanted to put a road from the mine to cut through alongside the town of Smithers, but the town of Smithers residents opposed it because of the traffic — they didn’t want to have large trucks going through their neighbourhoods. So they decided to go the opposite direction, and cut through Indigenous lands — well, the town of Smithers is Indigenous lands — but they assumed the opposite direction was going to be a lot easier because there was no settler opposition to it. But our people stopped it. We killed the Blue Pearl mining project, because the territory they were planning on cutting the road through — the place they were cutting through — is a territory that belongs to the Chief, Joe Leggett, and we presented an argument to the Ministry of the Environment at that time, and let them know that the territory itself is completely saturated with settler activity, and the ability for Joe Leggett to practice Section 35.1 rights to hunt, fish and trap on our territories was compromised – because everything was saturated with settler activities. The only thing left was one of the areas where they wanted to put the mining road through.

LCP: How has your community responded to this influx of mines and settler activity? What have you done in terms of working to deal with this issue?

T: We’ve done a lot of research and spent a lot of time talking to House members. Each of these territories belong to House groups, who have owned these territories for thousands of years. In order for us to give a valid and strong response back to the mining companies, we’ve done a lot of consultation with individual people that make up the House groups. We pass that information on to the mining companies. Some of the mining companies listened and began to act accordingly, but others decided to try to find another way in. The other way in was they actually made contact with the Tribal Office, and the Tribal Office was in dire straights at the time, because our people decided to opt out of the Treaty Process, and the Treaty Process dollars were what sustained the Tribal Office. As soon as our people dropped out of the Treaty Process, the Tribal Office decided to begin negotiating with mining companies and exploration companies, and signed small, miniscule contracts with them to sustain their salaries.

LCP: It seems like a lot of people on Wet’suwet’en territory are opposed to mining coming in — at least without consultation. Has there been any conflict over that, in terms of blockades or any kind of confrontations with the companies? I know that that’s an issue across many First Nations across Canada.

FREDA HUSON: We’ve had to blockade exploration companies, for the very reason that they went through our land, and we were going out for our traditional use, resisting. We were bringing snowmobiles in […] but the road had been ploughed all the way in. When we got there, we saw that an exploration was being set up — there was sheet metal — but they hadn’t consulted our clan. […] One of the lakes we fished out of was Owen Lake [which was polluted by Silver Queen mine, partly owned by Placer, now Barrick Gold, in 1963], and destroyed that lake for fishing.

LCP: One thing I hear a lot from Indigenous peoples across the Americas — not just in Canada — is that mining in particular, and extraction industries, are akin to a form of colonization being imposed upon Indigenous peoples. Is that your experience in Wet’suwet’en territory?

T: Absolutely. The mining companies like to try and see if they can skirt around Indigenous rights. They’ve been doing that with us for quite a while. One of the easiest ways for them to do that is to see if they can just contact people who they can become buddies with. The tactic they use is they strategically try to target individuals who are involved in other forms of industry already, and extractive industries. They create dialogue with them that makes those individuals feel like they’re friends with them, and have become friends with them. It becomes easier for them to begin promoting their agenda. Our Indigenous communities are becoming really, really frustrated with that, because they’ve undermined a lot of the collective voice by going into our hereditary system — through our Tribal Office or through individuals in the clans — and attempted to get approval for their projects without consulting the entire clan like they are supposed to.

LCP: Was the blockade of the Gitxsan office [now resolved] something related to this kind of divide-and-conquer strategy?

MEL BAZIL: I believe so, because when you look at the factors at play — when I think about how industry acts within Indigenous communities, they ignore the grassroots people who live on the land. They ignore the voice of the traditional territory owners. But they’ll pay attention to organizations that will co-opt the traditional owners, and that has been the case here. The Gitxsan are no different. When you heard of the Enbridge Northern Gateway project signing a deal with Gitxsan, there was a lot of behind the scenes going on there. The Gitxsan were surprised by the deal, and the Gitxsan Treaty Office claimed that there was going to be traditional law involved in monitoring the pipeline. But the day that they signed this deal, and the day that they announced it, there was a death in the community — and when there is a passing, there’s no business conducted in the territories. They broke a major law in doing so. This is a fine example of how industry and governments work to undermine traditional peoples. That is a major form of colonization. One of the things we have to understand, too, is that it’s time for our communities to transcend so-called Indigenous rights, because they are only as weak as the courts that hold them. The problem there is we have to take full control for our own actions. That means we have to cover all our bases as our responsibility to ourselves, each other and our communities. Signing deals with industry, very quickly without talking to the people who live off the land, that shows a real lack of care for traditional laws.

LCP: […] There is substantial resistance to extractive industries among Indigenous peoples. Do you have hope that people are going to stand together? Where do you think that strength is going to come from, to get consulted on these projects and be able to assert your sovereignty?

T: It’s a lot of solidarity with other peoples. We have Secwepemc people down in the Chase and Kamloops area that are fighting the Ruddock [Creek mine, owned by Vancouver-basedImperial Metals Corp.] mine company and other mines down there. People from Anahim Lake — the Tsilhqot’in — are fighting a very high-profile mine down there [owned by Vancouver-based Taseko Mines Ltd.].

My clan itself is dealing with a mine called Bard Ventures [Ltd., based in Vancouver], an exploration company out there. They want to turn it into a mine and sell the property to a mining company. The Bard Ventures mine is actually constructed over top of a battle and burial ground of our people. When we fought the Tsilhqot’in a long time ago, quite a few of our people died in that area, and Tsilhqot’in died as well — and Bard Ventures is looking at opening up and open-pit mine there. That’s something that is going to galvanize a lot of our people, including the Tsilhqot’in — they’ll come up and help us; they’ve committed to that already.

We’ve also got another company, [Vancouver-based] Duncastle Gold Corp. — close to Morrison here — they also want to open up an open-pit gold mine on top of a mountain range right above our village. Our village here receives all of our drinking water from that mountain. I think that’s gonna really open up a lot of people’s eyes. Members of the Likhtsamisyu [clan] are really, really angry about the Duncastle Gold Corp. plans to turn the top of the mountain here into a mine, because they’ve never, ever been consulted, and the mining company actually tried to work with the Tribal Office – it signed agreements with the Tribal Office to go ahead and open up this mine.

There’s a lot of support with our people, in different places right now, and I think — once we take the opportunity to take a break from our pipeline battles and focus on mining — I know we’re going to get a lot of support from all over the place, not only from within our nation, but outside of our nation as well with other First Nations people.

LCP: I want to thank you — all three — for being on the show today, and we will be checking back in with you. Thank you very much.


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