First Nations leaders, elders and community groups gathered on the Victoria courthouse steps Monday morning in support of Tsilhqot’in First Nations chiefs hoping to overturn a drilling permit issued to Taseko Mines in the last days of the B.C. Liberal government.
“We’re here to stop this permit and I think we will,” said Chief Russell Myers Ross from the Yunesit’in First Nation, who was joined by Chief Roger William from the Xeni Gwet’in First Nation.
The Tsilhqot’in are petitioning the Supreme Court for an interlocutory injunction to stop exploratory drilling around Teztan Biny (Fish) Lake, a traditional hunting, fishing, medicine gathering and spiritual region.
The region is just outside the 1,700 square kilometres granted Aboriginal title by the Supreme Court in 2014, but was recognized as traditional-use territory by the courts. There are plans to establish a protected tribal park in the area.
“The drilling affects both our communities and we are the caretakers for that land,” Ross said, adding this is the latest chapter in the battle to protect the region from a massive open-pit mining project.
The chiefs came on behalf of the six Tsilhqot’in nations in the province’s central interior, many of whom are evacuated from their communities because of the wildfires.
“I was surprised to see so many people here, but we have 50 or 60 elders who were already staying in Abbotsford,” said Ross, who brought his family to stay with a brother in Victoria.
Several environmental and social justice groups also showed up at the courthouse, packing two rooms.
Proceedings are expected to last through Wednesday.
On July 14, the Ministry of Energy and Mines issued Taseko Mines Ltd. an exploratory drilling permit that would allow 367 trenches, 100 drill sites, 48 kilometres of paths, more than 20,000 cutlines and a 50-person camp. The company said the work is part of its New Prosperity gold-copper mine, which it estimates at a $3-billion value.
The mine is already facing several challenges, including being rejected by the federal government for approval in 2014. Taseko is also in court appealing that decision.
On Friday, Taseko was told by the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency that the proposed drilling work at the mine site is illegal and should not proceed.
Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, president of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs, said he came to Victoria to support the Tsilhqot’in in court, despite fires encroaching on his home in Penticton.
“I thought it important to be here to demonstrate our continuing support for the Tsilhqot’in nations and their heroic defense of Fish Lake, which is an extraordinary place,” said Phillip. “There is a strong level of ignorance in the corporate world when it comes to the reality of Indigenous rights and the law.”
Phillip said he does not expect the new provincial government to intervene in the case while it is before the courts, but has a renewed hope in the New Democrats and the Green Party alliance.
Part of their confidence and supply agreement is to adopt the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission calls to action and the Tsilhqot’in Supreme Court decision — all of which support informed consent and partnership in decision-making with First Nations.