MAC: Mines and Communities

First Nation tackles a second corporate invader

Published by MAC on 2008-08-25

Behind the Bear Mountain Blockade

The Takla helped defeat the $8 billion Kemess mine. Now they're fighting Imperial Metals' big plans.

By James Steidle

The Tyee

21st August 2008

Plans for a large open pit copper mine at the headwaters of the Driftwood and Bear Rivers have run into early opposition from the same First Nations band that recently helped overturn plans for the Kemess North mine in northeastern B.C., a project its backers expected to unearth $8 billion in metals.

The Takla Lake First Nation in whose traditional territory the mine would be located, has spent the last two months blockading all access to the area, which is about 200 kilometres northwest of Fort St. James.

The 24-hour-a-day blockade restricts all mining and logging operations, in addition to hunters and fishermen. But there is one project in particular that is on the band's mind: Imperial Metals' exploration work at Bear Mountain.

First discovered in 1972, the Bear Mountain deposit contains a rich mineralization of copper and molybdenum that is likely big enough to run a several-hundred-employee operation the size of Imperial's Huckleberry Mine, near Houston.

Victor West, a band councillor, said he is worried about the risk such a mine would pose to the two watersheds -- the Driftwood and Bear -- that originate on the mountain's slopes. The Driftwood flows through Takla Lake into the Fraser River, while the Bear flows through Bear Lake to the Skeena; both are headwaters for endangered salmon runs.

"Bear Lake is more important than Kemess to us," said Victor West, a band councillor, referring to his community's successful campaign against Northgate Minerals' proposed Kemess North mine,"We'll protect it with all our might."

'We are not going to pollute anything'

Brian Kynoch, head of Imperial Metals told The Tyee he doesn't understand the opposition to a mine that is only in preliminary stages of development. Any mine would have to go through an environmental assessment process and comply with all federal and provincial environmental and fisheries regulations.

"The rules we have to mine are amongst the toughest in the world," he said. "That's the burden on us, to show that we are not going to pollute anything."

But West believes there are already enough mine sites in the area that need to be cleaned up. The region has witnessed more than a century of mining, beginning with the Omineca gold rush of the 1870s, and has been left with a collection of contaminated and failed mining sites. West points to the Tse Ta Bun berm failure of 2005, when a retaining wall burst and spilled the contents of a tailings pond, destroying an entire riverine estuary along the Omineca River.

"They should clean up old sites before creating new ones," West said.

'Bear Mountain is sacred'

The Takla attach spiritual significance to Bear Mountain. It looks out over a historical village that Takla Lake band members have occupied for thousands of years. The mountain has been a significant source of traditional medicines and plays an important role in local legends.

"I remind you that in our previous letter, we warned that Bear Mountain is sacred," wrote former chief John Allan French to Energy and Mines Minister Bill Bennett in 2006, when their opposition to the mine was first made clear.

Finally, there is concern about the development a mine in this location would spur. Roads and a 50-kilometre power line to the mine would turn a once relatively pristine and untouched area into a place where further exploration, recreational and industrial activity could be easily facilitated. The snowballing effect of such activity would irreversibly spoil a wilderness and damage important habitat.

Kynoch said he understands the Takla's concerns, but asked, "What part of B.C. isn't beautiful?"

Ownership in dispute

For now, Imperial would just like to get on with exploration. Kynoch said he is growing frustrated with the Takla band's demands for a greater role in land-use planning in the area.

"We've done the work with the understanding the province granted us the mineral rights," he said. He likened the blockade to someone illegally preventing you from getting into your house.

"Are the resources all of British Columbians'?" Kynoch asked, "Or a select 150 people that live closest?"

The Takla Lake band, having never signed a treaty giving up their rights and title, claims the mountain is theirs. At a minimum, they say, the government should properly consult with them over plans that affect areas of such high importance to their way of life, something that has not yet been done.

"Consultation does not consist of sending a letter," said lawyer Murray Browne, who works for the band. "Consultation is a process that requires consideration of First Nations rights and titles and interests before going ahead with mining."

The solution, said Browne, is to sit down with the band, identify places you can and cannot mine, and go on from there, avoiding confrontations over sensitive areas like Bear Mountain in the first place.

Government on sidelines

So far, the government has not stepped in to resolve the dispute. Calls to the ministries of Energy and Mines and Aboriginal Affairs were not returned.

As far as Imperial Metals is concerned, the government has given them the green light, and it's just a matter of time before they get started.

"Politicians come and go. It's the same with bands," Kynoch said. "We're patient. At the end of the day, either the province owns the mineral rights or they don't. I'll wait and find out who does."

Related Tyee stories:

* Panel Rejects BC Mine Project Worth $8 Billion

Northgate's Kemess North mine would turn lake into toxic dump.

* Beware of Mining Hype

Despite PR blitz, First Nations have little to celebrate.

* Inside BC's Mining Boom

James Steidle is a writer and artist from Prince George who now lives in Vancouver.

JP Laplante, Mining Coordinator 

Takla Lake First Nation

Tel: (250) 564-9321 x.27 

Fax: (250) 564-9521 

Mobile: (250) 614-4657


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