MAC: Mines and Communities

Mine road blockade rooted in Tahltan dispute

Published by MAC on 2005-09-07

Mine road blockade rooted in Tahltan dispute

About the only thing that stands between Fortune Minerals Ltd. and a rich deposit of two billion tonnes of high-quality anthracite coal in northwestern British Columbia is a small road blockade -- and a tangle of native community politics.

By Mark Hume, Globe & Mail

Wednesday, September 7, 2005

Vancouver -- About the only thing that stands between Fortune Minerals Ltd. and a rich deposit of two billion tonnes of high-quality anthracite coal in northwestern British Columbia is a small road blockade -- and a tangle of native community politics.

While a seven-week-old blockade put up by some members of the Tahltan First Nation was expected to end this week, perhaps as early as today, the confused political landscape is likely to remain a challenge to the Ontario-based mining company for some time.

Terri Brown, a spokeswoman for a group blocking the access road to the Mount Klappan coal deposit, near the community of Dease Lake, said yesterday she was expecting the RCMP to begin arresting the protesters at any time.

"We have been negotiating with the RCMP so that we can do this peacefully," Ms. Brown said.

She said 50 to 60 members of the Tahltan First Nation would be on hand to witness the arrests, but she wasn't sure just how many protesters would be taken away by police.

However, RCMP Corporal Fred Roach of the Dease Lake detachment, said he was still hopeful police could negotiate an end to the blockade, which began in early July to stop Fortune Minerals Ltd. from sending equipment in to the Mount Klappan site to do environmental assessment work.

"I'll tell you straight up, there'll be no arrests made today. We're still trying to mediate a happy ending to this," Cpl. Roach said.

Ms. Brown said the protesters have indicated they will continue blocking the road until they are arrested in order to underscore the seriousness of their opposition to the mine, which has the tentative support of the elected Tahltan Central Council.

"People are very, very emotional about this," Ms. Brown said. "It's not common that we take such a strong stand . . . [and] it's not going to end until the last person is arrested."

She said the protest is against wide-open resource development in the mineral-rich region, where a number of mines are proposed.

But according to affidavits filed in court in support of an injunction request by Fortune Minerals, the blockade was set up when a family group within the Tahltan Nation objected to the mine on the grounds that it had not been approved by the family.

Robin Goad, president of Fortune Minerals, said yesterday the blockade took his company by surprise because the project had already been endorsed by the Tahltan Central Council, the elected body that governs the Tahltan First Nation.

Mr. Goad said the blockade, which initially involved about a dozen people, is the work of "a small, dissident group," within the Tahltan Nation that is in conflict with the Tahltan's elected leadership.

Several months ago, a split was highlighted when a group of elders in Telegraph Creek occupied the band offices and demanded the resignation of Chief Gerry Asp.

Mr. Asp remains chief of the Tahltan Nation and the sit-in continues in Telegraph Creek.

Gordon Loverin, a communications representative for the Tahltan Central Council, said the blockade isn't a protest against Mr. Asp, but is an attempt by one family group to claim territorial rights for the Mount Klappan area.

"At the root of it is that someone has convinced . . . [them] they can claim it as family holdings. That has created quite a conflict within the Tahltan territory," Mr. Loverin said.

Although the family at the centre of the claim, that of Oscar Dennis, has traditionally hunted and trapped in the Mount Klappan area, Mr. Loverin said the Tahltan Central Council does not feel that gives his family ownership.

"Rights and title is a collective right, not an individual right," he said.

Mr. Loverin said the protesters are supported by only about 65 people in the 6,000-member Tahltan First Nation and he believes -- although he said he could not prove it -- that some environmental groups are funding the protest.

"Tensions are high," he said. "The vast majority [of Tahltan] do not support the actions of Oscar Dennis or Terri Brown."

Mr. Loverin said many Tahltan people fear they might lose their jobs if the blockade continues, forcing a delay in the proposed Mount Klappan coal mine, which aims to open in 2007.

In an affidavit filed in support of an injunction application by Fortune Minerals, Garry Merkel, chair of the Tahltan Nation Development Corp., said that if the blockade continues, 60 jobs could be lost, along with a $1.5-million contract.

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