Ottawa quietly opens protected Arctic wilderness to proposed mining


Bob Weber, The Canadian Press

Date of publication: 
7 December 2010

The federal government is facing a lawsuit after quietly opening a vast tract of a once-protected Arctic wilderness to mining claims.

Ottawa’s move shocked northern aboriginals and environmentalists, and land-claim negotiators say the decision to no longer bar prospectors from a pristine and much-loved part of the Northwest Territories endangers the entire plan for protected areas in the Eastern Arctic.

“This is unprecedented and if it’s not reversed it will lead to the end of the protected-areas strategy,” said Chris Reid, legal adviser to the Dehcho First Nation, which filed a challenge to the government’s decision in Federal Court last week.

The area in question is the Horn Plateau which has been a candidate for designation as a national wildlife area for more than a decade.

In 2002, Ottawa agreed to temporarily block filing of any new mineral claims on the land while talks continued. That ban had been renewed every two years — until this fall when an order in council maintained protection on surface rights but withdrew it for subsurface rights.

Prospectors are now free to enter the area and stake it for mineral claims. That creates a third-party interest that some say will at the very least make it harder to protect the area.

The plateau is thought to have significant potential for diamonds, base metals, uranium and energy.

Reid said the federal move breaks a promise made last May by former Indian Affairs Minister Chuck Strahl to renew protection for several proposed conservation areas at a meeting with Dehcho Grand Chief Sam Gargan.

“The grand chief asked, ‘Will you extend them for five years?’

“I remember it clearly. (Strahl) looked at his advisers, shrugged and said, ‘Well, we’ll take a look at that but certainly they’ll be renewed for two years.’”

Reid said there was no warning or consultation about any changed status for the Horn Plateau.

Talks to protect the area began in 1992. In 2007, Ottawa agreed to disallow mineral staking in 25,000 square kilometres as discussions progressed.

A group of aboriginals, government officials, environmentalists and industry representatives eventually agreed to whittle that down to 14,000 square kilometres to allow some mineral exploration.

The plateau is a vast stretch of boreal forest, uplands and wetlands. It is home to endangered species such as woodland caribou and wolverines, provides important migratory bird habitat and contains the headwaters of three rivers.

It is also culturally significant to area aboriginals.

“Although we do not want confrontation with your government or with the mining industry, we cannot stand by and allow this integral part of our homeland and watershed to be destroyed,” wrote Gargan in a Nov. 10 letter to current Indian Affairs Minister John Duncan.

Any signs of mineral exploration on the land will be opposed, he wrote.

“The (Dehcho First Nation) will monitor activity and remove any prospecting stakes found. In addition, anyone found to be in (the area) for the purposes of staking or exploring for minerals will be considered a trespasser and will be dealt with accordingly.”

Reid said removing the ban on staking encourages prospecting, because explorers can now use geological information gathered during the protection process.

Rob Powell of the World Wildlife Fund said the federal move could have implications for six other areas in the N.W.T. that are in various stages of becoming protected.

“Part of the understanding is that while we are engaged in these consultations, the areas will have interim protection so that the opportunity for potential protection isn’t lost along the way,” he said.

Tom Hoefer of the N.W.T. and Nunavut Chamber of Mines said the government move came as a surprise. He said his group is advising industry that the region’s future is still in question.

“Go in there with your eyes open if you’re going to go in there,” he said.

Still, Hoefer pointed out that a mineral claim is a long way from a mine development.

“Communities have a lot of power these days, even over open Crown land.”


BC’s Resource Blitz – First Nations speak out against cumulative impacts

by Sandra Cuffe,

14 December 2010

In British Columbia, often when it rains, it pours. Increased demand and higher prices for natural resources means that many First Nations are seeing an ever-increasing onslaught of resource development projects and proposals in their territories.

Gathered at the fourth annual Everyone’s Downstream conference recently held in Edmonton, several participants addressed examples of the hydro-electric dams, mining projects, and logging they face in addition to the impacts of the tar sands giga-project. The impacts of a single resource exploitation project can be devastating, but many First Nations in BC are facing more than one lone project. In some cases, dozens of different resource development projects and proposals are located in one Nation’s territory alone.

In most cases throughout BC, these projects are slated to be carried out on occupied land, which was never ceded by First Nations through treaties or land claims. In practice, however, First Nations’ sovereignty is not recognized by the governments and corporations behind the natural resources blitz. Direct actions and physical blockades, although they may in fact be used to enforce traditional law and to assert sovereignty, are more readily understood.

“Our laws never died. Our governance system has never died,” said Toghestiy, a hereditary chief of the Wet’suwet’en Nation, whose territory is facing the cumulative impacts of several resource extraction project proposals.

Assessment of cumulative impacts is required by law to be included in Environmental Impact Assessments (EIAs) by the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act at the federal level, the Environmental Protection and Enhancement Act in Alberta, and the Environmental Assessment Act in BC. However, communities facing a myriad of projects often denounce that cumulative impacts are not addressed. Furthermore, the assessment of cumulative impacts does not negate the limitations of EIAs in general.

“It’s a farce. The EIAs are weak,” said George Poitras, former Chief of the Mikisew Cree First Nation, 250km downstream from the Athabasca tar sands in Alberta.

“Nothing is really considered,” he added, referring to First Nations issues, treaty rights, and traditional ecological knowledge.

Resource extraction companies usually contract consulting firms to put together an EIA. If a critical EIA concluding that the project was not feasible were produced, the consulting firm would be hard-pressed to find further work with industry. Similarly, the EIA and permit approval processes are set up in such a way that they almost guarantee approval. Very few projects are rejected.

The cooperation and revolving door between environmental regulatory agencies in Canada and industry also extends to policy and guidelines. Industry practices are being used by governmental agencies to set guidelines for industry.

The Cumulative Effects Assessment Practitioners’ Guide published by the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency, for example, cites publications by tar sands industry giants Syncrude, Suncor, Shell, and Imperial Oil in its bibliography.

Elders from the Mikisew Cree First Nation began noticing changes in their territory years before the tar sands really took off, explained George Poitras. Water levels in particular had changed significantly. The differences were attributed to the W. A. C. Bennett hydro-electric dam on the Peace River in northeastern BC. Built in the 1960s, the dam has the capability to generate 2,730 megawatts of electricity at peak capacity.

The Bennett dam and its Williston reservoir, currently the ninth largest man-made lake in the world, have had far-reaching impacts. More than forty years after the relocation of the Tsay Keh Dene First Nation to make way for the reservoir, a final agreement was finally signed this year between the Tsay Keh Dene, BC Hydro, and the provincial government.

While there has also been a final agreement with the Kwadacha First Nation, as well as a settlement with the Athabascan Chipewyan First Nation, the Mikisew Cree First Nation’s challenge is still outstanding. Despite the long outstanding claim, this past April, the government of BC announced the approval of the Site C dam proposed on the Peace River downstream of the W. A. C. Bennett dam, near Fort St John.

A study produced by the West Moberly First Nation and the Peace Valley Environmental Association revealed that the proposed $6.5 billion dam would destroy almost 5,000 hectares of forest and would raise emmissions of greenhouse gasses in BC by almost 150,000 tonnes per year. The Site C dam has been the subject of vocal opposition by First Nations, farmers, and environmental organizations.

The prospect of the Site C dam “really opens up another can of worms for Fort Chipewyan,” said Poitras.

Power-generating projects will always be on the rise in regions where there are growing oil, gas, or mining interests. Wet’suwet’en territory in northcentral BC is facing the Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipeline proposal to ship oil from the tar sands via either a traditional pipeline or by a rail transport system to the coast and then by tanker to Asia. However, the pipeline proposal is only one of several resource exploitation proposals in the area; mining and logging companies are also present.

Without consulting their membership, the Office of the Wet’suwet’en leadership signed a ten thousand dollar Memorandum of Understanding concerning mining exploration with Vancouver-based Lions Gate Metals (LGM). The Unist’ot’en (People of the Headwaters) clan of the Wet’suwet’en First Nation opposed the Memorandum, along with any exploration by Lions Gate Metals in their territory.

“We decided we were going to protect the territory ourselves,” explained Freda Huson, a spokesperson for the Unist’ot’en.

Lions Gate Metals has four prospective mining projects in northcentral BC, focused on copper, silver, and molybdenum. The same region of BC has one of the largest deposits of molybdenum, used in high-strength steel alloys for industrial use, in the country. LGM had set up an exploration camp in the area by February 2010, when the Unist’ot’en blockaded the company and told its personnel that they had five days to leave Wet’suwet’en territory, said Huson. The company packed up and left at noon on the fifth day after receiving notice.

On its website, Lions Gate Metals states that the company respects the goals of First Nations, including the goal to “ensure governance model [sic] based upon the solid foundation of hereditary systems.” However, Huson reported that LGM continues to request meetings with the Unist’ot’en depsite their clear rejection of mining activity.

Logging is another major issue facing First Nations and other communities all over British Columbia. Although the service sector and construction take the top spots when BC’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is broken down by industry, wood products manufacturing, oil and gas extraction, and forestry and logging are next on the list. Forest products continue to be BC’s main export.

In terms of logging, First Nations do not only have to face corporations and the government, but sometimes also the environmental non-governmental organizations (ENGOs) that also oppose the destruction of forests. Several high-profile campaigns have been carried out in BC over the past two decades, but the areas prioritized, the public message, and occasionally even signed agreements have been largely defined by ENGOs.

“The beautiful areas – that’s what they would focus campaigns on,” remarked Russell Diabo, a First Nations policy analyst from Kahnawake Mohawk territory.

From the struggles to protect Clayquot Sound to the Great Bear Rainforest campaign and beyond, ENGOs have selectively focused on coastal rainforests, explained Diabo. Ongoing resistance by First Nations to logging in their territories elsewhere around the province was ignored, he added.

“During that period, our territories were completely logged,” agreed Toghestiy, highlighting the fact that the world’s largest sawmill was opened in Wet’suwet’en territory in 2004.

Campaigns that began as grassroots initiatives supported by ENGOs have resulted in the betrayal of First Nations by their supposed allies. Protocol agreements between the Nuxalk Nation and various ENGOs, including Greenpeace, for joint work against clearcut logging along the central coast of BC were signed, explained Offsetting Resistance report co-author Dru Oja Jay.

The report outlines how those protocol agreements were violated when Greenpeace, Sierra Club BC, Rainforest Action Network, and ForestEthics suddenly began secret meetings with government and industry. The ENGOs declared a halt to road blockade actions, despite the fact that they had originally been started by the Nuxalk Nation.

In the end, the aforementioned ENGOs signed onto the Great Bear Rainforest agreement, betraying the minimum goals of the Nuxalt Nation and the rainforest itself, where logging continues today. A similarly undemocratic and dissembling process led to the Canadian Boreal Forest Agreement, signed by over 20 logging companies and ten ENGOs, including Greenpeace, ForestEthics, the Nature Conservancy, the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, and the David Suzuki Foundation.

“We shouldn’t just assume that ENGOs are our allies,” concluded Diabo.

Certainly, many grassroots direct actions and campaigns against resource exploitation do not end in agreements signed by industry and environmental organizations to the detriment of the original First Nations resistance. During their blockade of Lions Gate Metals, the Unist’ot’en learned of Houston Forest Products’ logging plans in the same region, and banned the logging company from Wet’suwet’en territory, along with LGM.

“Our final message to you guys is grassroots people have the power. We are the resistance,” said Freda Huson.

“We should all stand up and mobilize.”