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Approximately forty people gathered outside the BC Law Courts at 9am in the slush and chill of downtown Vancouver on Friday November 18 to support the Tsilhqot’in (Chilcotin) people in defense of their land rights. The Vancouver-based mining corporation Taseko Mines Ltd. has been intransigent in its determination to create the proposed Prosperity Mine on unceded Tsilhqot’in territories, on a site called Teztan Biny (Fish Lake). Just when Tsilhqot’in and supporters thought that the issue was cleared, Taseko has come back with a vengeance.
Elsie-Michelle, Tsilhqot’in Elder stated “We are here for the injunction court, supporting Tsilhqot’in land. Because it means everything to us. Our water, our land, the animals, and our culture.” As David Williams, supporter of the Tsilhqot’in people, and member of Friends of Nemiah Valley asserted, “People have used Fish Lake, Teztan Biny for thousands and thousands of years as a spiritual place and as a place to gather food, fish, berries, plants, medicinal plants, this kind of thing. It’s very very important to the culture, and this mine will be totally destructive of the culture. Sending 600 miners into a valley where 250 people have lived for ten thousand years is totally disrespectful of their way of life, and of their values, and of what they want. They have said ‘No’ - its their territory.”
Joe, a Vancouver resident, framed the reason for the support rally succinctly: “This is totally ridiculous, that after the Environmental Assessment rejected the (Prosperity Mine) proposal it is back on the table, and then when Indigenous leaders try to assert their rights and title over their territory, that the mining company takes them to court. We need to stand in solidarity to stop this kind of injustice from happening.”
Although the Prosperity Mine proposal failed the federal government’s own Environmental Assessment after already being unequivocally rejected by the Tsilhqot’in and northern Secwepemc people, Taseko Mines has re-submitted a slightly different (and notably more destructive) proposal for the Prosperity Mine, with the overt support of the Provincial Government.
Last week Taseko proceeded to begin road-building and other preliminary operations in the territory based on permits from the BC provincial government. Legally-backed by the Supreme Court of Canada’s acknowledgement of Aboriginal title to unceded traditional territories, the UN Declaration on Indigenous Rights, and the fact that the company was refused federal permits for operation, Tsilhqot’in people asked Taseko workers to leave their territory on November 12, and on Monday November 14th filed an injunction against the company to halt its plans for extensive road-building, drilling, excavation of test pits, and timber clearing. Taseko responded the following day by filing an injunction themselves against Xeni Gwet’in Chief Marilyn Baptiste of the Tsilhqot’in First Nation and a number of other Tsilhqot’in individuals for obstruction of the company’s work. Ironically, the courts heard Taseko’s injunction first. The case was adjourned to have both injunctions heard together, beginning November 28th. More support will be needed for both that week in court and the months to come.
This landmark fight for indigenous title is instructive for other struggles across Canada, the strength and solidarity of the Tsilhqot’in people and their Secwepemc neighbours as well as the support coming other indigenous nations and non-aboriginal people is demonstrative of the people-power necessary to defend lands and water against extractive industries. Bob Chamberlin, Chief – Kwikwasutinixw Haxwa’mis First Nation, Guilford Island stated the position of the BC Union of Indian Chiefs (where he is Vice-president).
“We stand firmly behind the Tsilhqot’in people’s decision, and fully respect their authority to make decisions in their own territory, absolutely. I think it’s a real shame that the provincial government and the federal government are allowing the road building to go forward. How does that lead into a fair process that’s about to begin at the federal level on the new environmental assessment? It’s just offensive. To me, I look at it and I consider some of the comments from premier Christy Clark, and can see that the intention is to ram everything through regardless of who is in the way, regardless of who’s rights get trampled upon, and its going to be another big round of business as usual: ‘we know what’s best, now get out of the way’. ”
Stewart Phillip, Grand Chief of the BC Union of Indian Chiefs made it clear whose interests the institutions involved are catering to. “It is absolutely ludicrous that the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency would even consider giving this proposal another opportunity through the Environmental Assessment process. I was absolutely shocked when Minister of Environment Kent said that through this assessment the environmental concerns need to be balanced with economic considerations. I believe that is cause for him to resign, because in my view he is responsible for the environmental concerns of Canada and Canadians and has no business promoting or pandering to the corporate sector.”
More and more people understand this particular situation as a flashpoint for Indigenous rights, and more and more people are willing to put their lives on the line for it. “I think Canadians need to not be distracted by the rhetoric that comes from government about the economy and job creation, and to understand and look at what the federal government is doing… Especially (in terms of) First Nations, if offends me that the government would carry themselves in such a way and yet stand up internationally and say they support the rights of indigenous people. If they continue to force these projects through on the backs of aboriginal rights at the expense of the environment, the wild salmon and all other fish species that are being impacted, that they themselves are setting a fire that they don’t want to see,” commented Bob Chamberlin.
Yolanda, a student in Vancouver from the Nemiah Valley Tsilhqot’in Nation, said that she attended the rally to show her support in any way she can, being that she doesn’t live back home. “I am very frustrated, very frustrated. There are no emotions that can even explain… we don’t need this. The issues and everything that is going to come along with it – we fought it last year, and we won, and now they are back at it again. I think this is probably going to make our community stronger because we are fighting for our land, we are fighting for our rights, and we’re fighting for what is right.”
Stewart Phillip, Grand Chief of the BC Union of Indian Chiefs reminded the crowd of the shared struggle ahead, and the dedication that will entail. “We cannot allow this proposal to proceed, regardless of what happens in the courtrooms behind us, regardless of what decisions are taken by Prime Minister Harper or Premier Clark. We need to know and understand that No is No. And we have to stand behind that. I have been blessed with 11 grandchildren and I want them to enjoy the same type of beauty that we have been blessed with here in BC, and I want their children to have the same legacy. And its up to committed individuals as we have assembled here today, that will make that possible. So I know that you realize that this is just another day in the office, this is another day in our fight in our struggle, that we will be back here again and again, and more importantly, there’s every indication that we will be on the front line before this fight is over. I have been stock piling warm clothes knowing that we are going to have to go to the wall with this fight.”
Before entering the courts, the circle of supporters received words of appreciation and encouragement from Chief Marilyn Baptiste. "On behalf of our elders, children, all people and future generations, we are honored to have your solidarity as we continue to carry forward the sacred duty to protect the lands that our people depend upon. As our ancestors have done for generations, so we must do now. As said by Amnesty International, "The Crowns cannot continue to run rough shod over Indigenous rights."
What's happening now is reminiscent of what happened in 1864 in the Tsilhqot'in territories. Our war leaders defended our way of life. Today nothing has changed, except that the B.C. law states it is illegal to protect our land. If it weren't for our war leaders back then, we wouldn't be who we are. That is our honour. We cannot allow the destruction of our land that provides for us. We ask that all who support the people of the Tsilhqot'in and others in protecting the sacred lands, waters and all that is connected, to carry with you the respect, honor, and dignity that our ancestors would be proud of as the efforts to protect sacred land continues. True prosperity is clean healthy waters, now and for future generations."