In the midst of a climate crisis and increased pressures being put on our tu (water) and nen (land), there is growing awareness that modern society has failed to sustainably manage our resources.
We, as the People of the River, have sustainably managed our resources for thousands of years. We have watched as mismanagement by others, including the Province of British Columbia, is increasingly resulting in direct threats to our very survival - the collapse of salmon runs, the near-extinction of endangered white sturgeon and the pollution of our previously clean waters.
The most glaring example for us is irresponsible mining practices in our very backyard. With B.C.’s permission, discharge from the Gibraltar Mine’s tailings pond is sent via pipe directly into the Fraser River without any form of sophisticated water treatment. Considering that the Gibraltar Mine is Canada’s second largest copper mine, we are beyond frustrated that something as simple as cleaning up after yourself is deemed too expensive, and is in fact authorized by the Province.
The Fraser River (ʔElhdaqox or “Sturgeon River” in our language) is the longest river in the province, flowing into the Salish Sea at the City of Vancouver and connecting numerous Indigenous communities through the life it supports and as a migration route for key salmon and other fish species. Anything that pollutes or changes the temperature in this river can be catastrophic.
However, located within our territory north of Williams Lake and having never been subject to an environmental assessment, the Gibraltar Mine continues to use, under provincial authorization, the Fraser River as a dumping ground for discharge from its tailings pond.
This discharge, located just four kilometres downstream from the community of ʔEsdilagh, directly impacts our downstream fishing sites and the health of our traditional hunting and gathering sites. In a time of great food insecurity and hardship amplified by a pandemic, the Province of BC and Gibraltar Mine are actively permitting and choosing to discharge pollutants into one of the greatest sources of life to Indigenous peoples and the province itself.
In 2019, the BC Ministry of Environment authorized an increase in this discharge from Gibraltar Mine by 50 per cent, using the long-standing argument that the Fraser River dilutes the effluent. On that basis, those parties have claimed the discharge is not a threat to this critical waterway. The corresponding provincial policy – which permits discharge as long as it gets diluted quickly – reflects a troubling example of unsustainable mining practices that continue to be authorized by the Province today.
In March 2021, as we seek to have the corresponding amended permit revoked (or at minimum amended), we will be arguing before BC’s Environmental Appeal Board that the provincial decision-maker failed to properly consider our Indigenous laws and principles in the consultation and accommodation process associated with its decision to issue the 2019 discharge permit, and has failed to ensure the protection of the environment by authorizing this permit.
Our deep concerns regarding this discharge is informed by our inherent Indigenous laws. In May 2020, our community of ʔEsdilagh adopted the written version of our ʔElhdaqox Dechen Ts’edilhtan (“Sturgeon River Law”), which codifies in writing our long held Tŝilhqot’in law that recognizes the sacred nature of water and mandates proper protection of the Fraser River. At its core, our law states that anything that enters the Fraser River must be of equal or better quality than the waters in the Fraser River itself. We also know other First Nations hold Indigenous laws in relation to the Fraser River and we support the recognition and honouring of all of these responsibilities.
The time is long overdue for B.C. mining reform. We have long been ready to help the Province and industry operate on the basis of respect, which includes respect for our rights and our laws, and which respect lies at the core of the reconciliation embraced by the provincial government. We continue to be ready, and welcome the chance to explain to others (as we have done previously) how our laws for tu and nen are sacred and are the basis for our very survival.
These important laws are also our collective best chance for reversing the troubling trends that threaten our world. To continue to act as though a price can be put on these resources – as if any argument can be made for their degradation – is an injustice to all of humankind.
- Chief Troy Baptiste is the chief of ʔEsdilagh First Nation and Chief Francis Laceese is the chief of Tl’esqox (Toosey Indian Band).