Indigenous nation opposes jade mining in northwestern B.C.

VANCOUVER — Demand for jade has sparked both a reality TV series set in the remote northwestern corner of British Columbia and opposition from an Indigenous nation over its lack of consentto jade mining in its territory.

The Tahltan Nation has strong ties to the mining and mineral exploration sector, but the extraction of nephrite jade is "a very problematic industry for us," said Chad Norman Day, president of the Tahltan Central Government.

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B.C.'s consultation with the nation over jade mining permit applications has been "minimal," Day said in an interview, and in recent years the nation has expressed opposition to new permits and the industry overall.

Abandoned machinery, shipping containers and jade boulders, cut open and discarded because they're too low in quality, are scattered across areas where caribou roam and Tahltan people hunt and go snowmobiling, he said.

Day said he's also concerned that unlike major mines, smaller-scale jade extraction doesn't always require archeological assessment before work starts.

Any discoveries are important evidence of Tahltan rights and title to the nation's territory that comprises 11 per cent of the province, he said.

B.C.'s Mines Act requires operators to prepare a plan to protect cultural heritage resources and to stop work in the event of a potential finding.

Jade is mined from mountainsides or through placer mining, a smaller-scale excavation ranging from old-style gold panning to digging in and around riverbeds for deposits of minerals washed away over time.

The Mines Ministry said it has been working with the industry and Indigenous nations to develop recommendations for higher operational and reclamation standards for the sector.

The B.C. government paused decisions on new placer jade permits in Tahltan territory for two years as it works to "establish a long-term economic, reconciliation, wildlife and land-use partnership" with the nation, Mines Minister Bruce Ralston said in a recent statement.

Ten jade mining permits remain active in Tahltan territory, the ministry said, while 34 are inactive after operating between 2015 and 2019. Another seven permits are not being used because the operators' certificates are suspended, it said.

The ministry said it takes issues of non-compliance seriously and uses enforcement tools, such as monetary penalties, as a deterrent.

There is no index for the price of jade, which refers to two different stones: nephrite and jadeite. The finest jadeite can be valued at a higher price than the same weight in gold, while the jade mined in B.C. is mainly nephrite. Its value is determined by different factors including its colour and clarity.

While the Tahltan have signed engagement agreements with many mineral exploration companies, along with impact benefit agreements for three major mines, there are no such agreements with jade operators, said Day.

"Is there any revenue sharing? Are there jobs? Are there contracts? Is there equity ownership? Where are the benefits?" he asked. "There's nothing."

Day and other Tahltan leadersvisited jade and placer mining operations by helicopter in 2019 to deliver letters expressing their lack of consent.

Among those who received a letter were the Bunces, a mining family featured on the reality TV show "Jade Fever." The seventh season is set to launch Monday on Discovery Canada, which is owned by Bell Media.

Concerns over the jade industry have "been on the radar of more and more Tahltan people because of Jade Fever," Day said.

The show follows the Bunces' mining operation as they search for "million-dollar boulders of jade," according to promotional materials posted online.

It's a small-scale, family-run operation with an exploration permit to work on one claim, which is not a placer claim, Claudia Bunce said in an email.

The permit limits their land disturbance to 2.5 hectares over five years and it required a financial surety to ensure remediation of the land, she said.

Every permit under the Mines Act includes a bond that's held until reclamation is finished, or the money may be seized, the Mines Ministry said.

The B.C. government has improved environmental regulations for jade mining in recent years, said Bunce, adding she fully supports those measures and any additional recommendations the Tahltan have.

Their target is to extract about 50 tonnes of jade each year, said Bunce, enough to fashion jewelry and other products sold at the family's store in Jade City, a tiny community between Dease Lake and the Yukon boundary. Revenue from the store funds their next mining season, she said.

Bunce said she's had to fight for a voice in a male-dominated industry and she respects others' right to do the same, including the Tahltan.

After receiving the letter from Tahltan leaders, Bunce said she immediately called the Mines Ministry to confirm their jade operation was lawful.

"I was told by (the ministry) that my permit goes through a consultation process before being approved, with three Indigenous groups in the area, the Tahltan, the Tse'Khene, and Kaska Nation," she said.

Tahltan consent is not required, but that's set to change as the B.C. government implements the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which it adopted through legislation in late 2019.

The declaration requires governments to obtain free, prior and informed consent before taking actions that affect Indigenous Peoples and territories.

Bunce said it's up to the B.C. government, not individual mining operations, to implement the UN declaration and she hopes the Tahltan can reach an agreement with the province that addresses their concerns.

"I will abide by whatever agreement they make," she added.

Jade Fever's producers at Vancouver-based Omnifilm Entertainment were aware of the Tahltan letter delivered to the Bunces, they said in a statement.

At the time, they contacted the province and confirmed the Bunces have a work permit that provided for Indigenous consultation, they said.

"As a documentary series, we are on site to follow the real-life story of a family run jade operation. We do not participate in the mining or intervene in the business side of their operation as that is handled by the family."

A statement from a Bell Media spokesperson said the company had not been aware of the concerns over jade mining raised by the Tahltan Nation.

"We take this matter seriously and are investigating further," it said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 9, 2021.

This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Facebook and Canadian Press News Fellowship.

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