B.C. must reform mineral tenure laws that do not require Aboriginal consultation: First Nations leaders

Friday, August 23, 2019
Vancouver Sun
Upper Smitheram Valley where Imperial Metals wants to drill for gold in the Donut Hole.
Upper Smitheram Valley where Imperial Metals wants to drill for gold in the Donut Hole.

First Nations on both sides of Canada-U.S. border concerned about Imperial Metals' application for exploration permit in Upper Skagit watershed


B.C. First Nation leaders say the provincial government must reform mineral tenure laws that have allowed Imperial Metals to obtain mineral rights in a sensitive watershed without consideration of Aboriginal claims.

First Nations’ concerns have become heightened after the Vancouver-based company, known for the collapse of its Mount Polley mine tailings dam in the B.C. Interior in 2014, applied to the B.C. Ministry of Energy and Mines for an exploration permit to carry out work in the so-called “donut hole” area in the B.C. Interior where it holds mining tenures.

Nearly 15 times the size of Stanley Park, the donut area is sandwiched between Skagit Valley and Manning provincial parks, about 200 kilometres east of Vancouver, just north of the Canada-U.S. border.

Imperial Metals’ mining permit is opposed by First Nations on both sides of the border, including by the Neskonlith and Upper Similkameen in B.C. and the Lummi, Sauk-Suiattle, Swinomish and Upper Skagit tribes in Washington State. More than 120 others, including environmental and recreation groups, private companies such as Patagonia, and U.S. senators, are opposed.

First Nations say they are concerned any degradation of the watershed will affect salmon on the Skagit River and their culture that relies on salmon, as well as the orcas that feed on them. They are also concerned about effects on habitat and wildlife in the area and the protection of Aboriginal rights.

“We need deep reform of the Mineral Tenure Act that allows companies to get rights to areas of unceded First Nation territory without consultation or consent, or notice,” said Robert Phillips, one of three executive members of the First Nations Summit, a political organization that represents more than 100 First Nations involved in the treaty process in B.C.

Phillips, who is also a member of the B.C. First Nations Energy and Mining Council, noted that transfer of tenure rights between companies also does not trigger a requirement for First Nation notice or consultation, another concern.

In response to questions from Postmedia, B.C. Ministry of Energy and Mines officials said the province is examining changes to the Mineral Tenure Act but would not provide any details of its inquiry. There is no timeline or proposed changes, mines ministry spokeswoman Meghan McRae said in a written statement.

“The (ministry) has undertaken and plans to continue engagement with First Nations, industry and environmental organizations on these issues,” she said.

Phillips said the B.C. government also must enshrine in legislation the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples that requires “free, prior and informed consent” from Aboriginal people before projects affecting their lands or resources are approved.

B.C. Premier John Horgan, whose NDP government came to power in 2017 after 16 years of B.C. Liberal rule, has promised to do just that, but details have been scarce.

Ministry of Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation spokeswoman Sarah Plank said legislation to establish the UN declaration as the legislative framework for reconciliation between the provincial government and Aboriginal people is being drafted for introduction this fall.

“Bringing all provincial laws into harmony with the UN declaration won’t happen overnight — it will be a process that will happen over time,” Plank said in a written statement.

If changes are implemented to the Mineral Tenure Act requested by First Nations and the UN declaration is implemented, it could be a game changer for companies who wish to develop natural resources in B.C.

In Imperial Metals’ provincial mine exploration permit application in response to a question on whether the company had shared information and engaged with First Nations in the area of the proposed activity, it responded: “No.”

Imperial Metals did not respond to Postmedia’s request for comment.

The Imperial Metals’ exploration permit is also opposed by the Skagit Environmental Endowment Commission, which gets funding from the City of Seattle and Province of British Columbia under the treaty that established the commission in 1984.

Under the treaty, the City of Seattle agreed not to raise the Ross Dam, which would have flooded more land in B.C., while B.C. agreed to provide electricity to Seattle at least until 2065.

The commission is trying to purchase the mineral rights from Imperial Metals.

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