Island Voices: We need to get tougher on the mining industry

Mining in B.C. has a long history of being glamorized, romanticized, prioritized and given freedoms to act that no other industry or citizen enjoys.

As a result, incalculable harm has been caused (and continues to be caused) since the province was colonized more than one and a half centuries ago.

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Perhaps — as part of its recent throne speech commitment to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples — the current B.C. government will finally address the dark side of an industry that has for so long inflicted so much misery and destruction in pursuit of gold and other minerals.

This dark side is a shameful history that we First Nations know only too well, and which government after government, decade after decade, has ignored. Some might have been too easily bought by the promise of mining revenues, others too afraid of the political might of an industry used to always getting what it wants.

After so many broken promises and ignored pleas, we can hope that positive statements coming from the current B.C. government — and even from some quarters of the mining sector — mean that this time it will be different. But words minus action equals zero.

Action is in the interest of all British Columbians. First Nations have always been on the front lines when the bulldozers move in and the land and waters are faced with ruin. But we all need clean air, clean water and the diversity of a strong economy that also depends greatly on salmon, tourism and other sustainable sectors — sectors that almighty mining will continue to threaten, unless properly regulated and controlled.

So when you hear someone speaking fondly of the glory days of past gold rushes or waxing lyrical about the future of mining, please pause for a moment and consider the dark side.

The gold rush era of the 1850s and early 1860s brought death from smallpox, and land and water destruction to First Nations people along the Fraser River. As thousands of prospectors made their way west, early colonial legislation gave them a right of “free entry” to most lands. There was no acknowledgment of First Nations territories or rights.

We paid a high price then, and we continue to pay today, thanks to the legacy of the same mining laws that were established in the 1850s to put mining ahead of almost all other land uses in B.C. and allow almost anyone to stake a claim almost anywhere.

The current right of free entry ensures that no one has to inform landowners, let alone seek consent, for mining claims staked throughout the province. This policy has not evolved with environmental and societal norms, and remains in defiance of numerous court victories on First Nations rights.

In many ways, it has only become easier for those seeking to stake a claim. If you are 18 years old, have $25 to register and a computer, you can stake a claim almost anywhere in B.C.

This is not an exaggeration. Claims can be staked on private property, First Nations hunting grounds, key tourism areas, important salmon habitat or wildlife management areas. Mining activities are off-limits only in parks, under buildings and at certain archeological sites. In other words, less than 20 per cent of the province is off limits to mining exploration.

To show how absurd the system is, I staked a claim on then-B.C. Liberal minister of energy and mines Bill Bennett’s property near Cranbrook, using B.C.’s online staking laws. It took only a few minutes, a one-time $25 for a miner’s certificate and an online claim fee of $104.89. While I did speak with the Ktunaxa Nation beforehand, I was not required to give notice to Bennett, and now have legal rights and mining interests on his land.

Is it any surprise that with such laws comes conflict, confrontation and uncertainty? This hurts everyone — yes, including the mining sector and those who depend upon it. This will not stop until we change the free-entry system and the overriding land-use privileges mining enjoys.

Other jurisdictions, Ontario for example, have modified their laws to make them more accountable to the public and responsive to Aboriginal rights. Australia’s Northern Territory has also modernized its laws to require Aboriginal consent prior to a mineral claim being approved.

B.C. needs to ensure that no mining activities are approved without the free, prior and informed consent of affected Indigenous communities. If the industry and province want to build trust and start reconciliation with Indigenous peoples, they should agree to a reform of these mineral-tenure laws to bring them into the 21st century.

Bev Sellars is the former chair of First Nations Women Advocating Responsible Mining.

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