Decision on B.C.’s New Prosperity project will set national tone for Ottawa-aboriginal relations, First Nations warn
By Peter O?Neil, Vancouver Sun
OTTAWA — Lobbying has intensified as the Harper government prepares to make a high-stakes decision on a controversial $1-billion B.C. mining project.
A delegation of West Coast First Nations leaders, accompanied by Assembly of First Nations Chief Shawn Atleo, spent the past week on Parliament Hill, trying to get across their message that approving the New Prosperity mine near Williams Lake would deal a huge setback to Ottawa’s relationship with aboriginal Canadians.
Ottawa must make a decision the end of the month.
But the native leaders left for home Friday after meeting only B-list political players, people of similar rank to those who met pro-mine members of the Williams Lake community a week earlier.
That’s far different from the high-level arm-twisting during two recent visits here by B.C. Mines Minister Bill Bennett, an enthusiastic New Prosperity supporter. Bennett met with a total of 13 federal MPs, seven of them cabinet ministers, as he tried to convince Ottawa to endorse New Prosperity despite a federal review panel’s Oct. 31 call for the mine be rejected.
The First Nations leaders asked for meetings with several ministers, but got to meet with just one government MP, the parliamentary secretary to Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq.
While there might be a mismatch on the lobbying front, both sides have a compelling message that is presumably weighing heavily on a federal cabinet facing a true dilemma.
For proponents of Vancouver-based Taseko Mines Ltd., approval isn’t just about creating hundreds of high-paying permanent jobs in a region that needs them. It’s also about sending a signal to the world that B.C. is open for business.
“The New Prosperity Mine project is critical to the economic future of Williams Lake and British Columbia,” Bennett said in an interview.
Taseko, which has publicly accused the review panel of making an “outrageous” and “nearly unfathomable” error, was even more blunt in a 15-page letter to Aglukkaq shortly after the panel report was made public.
The company, President Russell Hallbauer told the minister, has made numerous major accommodations to First Nations while investing $100 million and more than 18 years in various federal and provincial environmental review processes.
“Accordingly, unless the project is allowed to move into the detailed permitting stages, we believe Canadians and international investors would be left to wonder whether any major project can be developed in this country,” he stated.
For opponents, approval would send a damning signal to Canada’s First Nations and the world that the Harper government isn’t serious about consulting and accommodating First Nations on major resource projects.
That presents a potentially serious image and perhaps a legal problem for a federal government that already faces allegations it has not met its obligations to consult and accommodate First Nations on the Northern Gateway oilsands pipeline proposal, a resource project viewed as far more critical to the national economy than Taseko’s gold-copper mine.
“First Nations across the province and the country are watching this decision very closely, as a test of the Harper government’s commitment to First Nations or to maintaining the last shred of credibility left in the environmental assessment process,” said Stewart Phillip of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs.
Phillip, who joined First Nations leaders from the Cariboo in Ottawa, said “all provincial and national” First Nations groups “are fully prepared to help them defend their rights and environment if the government chooses a path of irresponsible development.”
In addition to taking hard political lines, both sides appear ready for a court battle.
Taseko has asked the Federal Court of Canada to rule the review panel was in error in concluding the environmental risk to Fish Lake from a proposed tailings pond two kilometres upstream.
Chief Joe Alphonse, chair of the Williams Lake-based Tsilhqot’in National Government and a mine opponent, says the company’s attack on the panel is a “smokescreen” and an attempt to bully the government.
Alphonse said First Nations are clearly outgunned on the political front, but figure they have history and law on their side.
In 2010, both a federal panel and a B.C. review process determined in separate processes that Taseko’s proposal, which at the time involved the use of Fish Lake as a tailings dump, would result in “significant adverse environmental effects.”
While Victoria concluded that the damage was justified given the project’s economic impact, Ottawa told Taseko to change its proposal.
Taseko complied, proposing to spend an extra $300 million to build a tailings facility two kilometres upstream from Fish Lake.
But the federal panel again ruled the project would result in “several significant adverse environmental effects,” particularly to Fish Lake, which the panel said was at risk the tailings pond leaked.
It is now up to the federal cabinet to decide.
The company maintains that the panel ignored its detailed plan to ensure the tailings pond doesn’t leak, though it added in its letter to Aglukkaq that even if it does Fish Lake wouldn’t be threatened.
Taseko noted that the company’s Gibraltar copper mine in the same area of B.C. is using an existing lake as a tailings dump, and yet there is a “very healthy” and “thriving” population of rainbow trout there.
Alphonse said Ottawa will have to weigh those arguments against the conclusions of two successive negative panel reports.
Combined with widespread First Nation opposition, those are powerful weapons to present before a court that has made clear that governments must consult and accommodate before allowing projects to pro ceed on claimed traditional aboriginal territory, he said.
“Taseko is counting on them getting this mine based on politics, but when you are in government there’s legal obligations they have to adhere to and they have to take that seriously,” according to Alphonse.
“If they want to support the mine, we’re in a prime position to challenge them legally, and we’re very confident about the outcome.”