Imagine you have an evacuation order placed on your community. Fires are raging in the heat and there is no expectation of rain for two weeks. The fires are surrounding your community on the west and east.
As a leader, you are trying your best to ensure people are safe and that you can support your own fire crews with communication and by transporting equipment and supplies. Couple it with multiple fires. The whole Tsilhqot’in Nation is aflame. Road closure is frequent in all directions. Electrical power is cut off daily.
Then Williams Lake, central for supplies and where a temporary office is located, has to disband as the city is ordered evacuated. The Tsilhqot’in National Government office is shut down. Staff retreat to Kamloops and disperse elsewhere. Then the wind turns and begins burning the south side of the community.
This is what Yunesit’in has had to deal with since July 7. And on top of all of this, on the eve of a government transition and swearing-in ceremony for the NDP, the outgoing B.C. government grants a permit to Taseko Mines Ltd. to conduct a massive drilling program.
I am an elected leader of Yunesit’in Government, a remote Tsilhqot’in community located about 100 kilometres west of Williams Lake. It is still difficult for me to turn attention to a mining company that was rejected twice, having wasted everyone’s time in two expensive federal environmental assessments.
Both times, the rationale for the rejection was similar, highlighting the devastating impacts of this mine on the environment and Tsilhqot’in culture and rights. Taseko Mines Ltd. is pursuing a judicial review to overturn the federal government decision. And while the judicial review is still in progress, they are proposing to conduct a massive drilling operation in the area while the project remains rejected and cannot even be built.
The political and legal landscape is changing. The Supreme Court of Canada has said that the clearest way for certainty is to gain consent from First Nations in whose territory projects are proposed. The federal government is making attempts to implement the the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission recommendations. And where former premier Christy Clark would quip that free, prior, informed consent was impossible to implement, the NDP has made commitments to work toward it.
Obviously, I am astonished the former B.C. Liberal government would make a decision to grant permits in its last days in power, while we are focused on fighting fires, where we have limited staff and makeshift offices to organize, but also for an incoming government that has not had a chance to be briefed.
The permit was said to have been issued by a neutral statutory decision-maker, but in my opinion, it seems politically motivated, like dropping a hot potato to sabotage the incoming NDP government. Indigenous rights and culture are too important to be caught in the crossfire of corporate donors and political games.
It is past time for true recognition and respect for the Indigenous Peoples of this province.
Chief Russell Myers Ross is an elected leader of the Yunesit’in Government, Tsilhqot’in Nation. He is a former Victoria resident and has a master’s degree in Indigenous governance from the University of Victoria.