The Tk’emlúps and Skeetchestn Indian Bands, collectively known as the Stk’emlúpsemc te Secwepemc Nation (SSN), have taken a unique approach in their opposition to a proposed open-pit mine in their territory near Kamloops, British Columbia. Because of what they see as serious shortcomings in the federal and provincial environmental assessments (EAs), the Stk’emlúpsemc developed and applied their own process—a move that could be precedent-setting as a tool for other indigenous communities.
The Stk’emlúpsemc assessment was founded on First Nations’ laws and traditions, centered on their cultural perspectives, collective knowledge and long history, and included the impacts to spirit and culture. The approach has enormous potential for providing a “standard” means for bringing Native input and values into the government EA process.
On March 4, 2017, after a year-long study, the review panel released its conclusion: a resounding NO.
“The SNN does not—I’ll state it again—does not give its free, prior and informed consent to the development of lands known as Pipsell for the purpose of the development of the Ajax mine project,” Tk’emlups Chief Fred Seymour announced that day at a press conference in Kamloops, British Columbia.
The officials of KGHM Ajax Mine, a subsidiary of KGHM Polska Miedź, one of the world’s largest producers of copper and silver, began consultation with the Stk’emlúpsemc in 2008. Their proposed Ajax Mine would extract low-grade copper and gold using an open pit at least 1.5 miles long, nearly three-quarters of a mile wide, and 1,640 feet deep. The $1.3 billion project would include seepage collection ponds, 11 miles of pipeline, and various facilities for ore processing, water management, tailings and rock storage. It would have a lifetime of 23 years.
The proposed site lies just south of Kamloops in rolling hills of grassland and sagebrush. The mine would be the largest open pit in North America near a city the size of Kamloops (90,000 population). The mine would adjoin Jacko Lake, which boasts rich biodiversity, including more than 130 bird species, 40 mammals, multiple fish species and many plant species that are used by Natives in medicines, as food and in ceremonies. Sharp-tail grouse, burrowing owls, and badgers are just a few of the species at risk in the area.
The Stk’emlúpsemc call the Jacko Lake area Pípsell, and the band considers it a sacred place that requires an offering upon entering. The SSN’s cultural and spiritual connection to Pípsell derives from their Trout Children Sptékwle (an oral epic tale).
The Indigenous EA
The Skeetchestn Nation study found the government EA process “terribly wanting and narrow in scope,” said Chief Ron Ignace. “It didn’t deal with our spiritual values, Secwepemc laws, aboriginal rights or traditional uses of the land.”
In other words, he said, the government assessments do not respect Skeetchestn needs or consider the legacy of wrongs that First Nations have suffered. As a result, the First Nation developed its own EA process. In January 2016, an indigenous-led review panel was established, which included the elected chiefs and council members of the two bands, 26 family representatives, eight youths and eight elders.
The panel used Stk’emlúpsemc laws and governance that respect cultural perspectives, knowledge and history, incorporating both western and indigenous values. It held a five-day hearing in May 2016 to review extensive written and oral evidence, including KGHM material. Panel members also consulted with traditional knowledge keepers and experts within their communities.
The panel had much to consider, for an open-pit mine is enormous, generating massive volumes of waste rock, tailings, dust and traffic. Air pollution, noise impacts, daily blasts, ground tremors, water contamination, loss of fish habitat and potential spills are major concerns. Such a mine would also harm the rich biodiversity of the area and destroy archeological sites dating back to 7,000 years, including the only recorded ancient “hunting blind complex.”
The mine would be a mere mile from the closest homes and water wells, and only about four miles from 12 schools and a hospital. Many Kamloops citizens and independent analysts feel the mine is simply too big, and too close.
The Kamloops Area Preservation Association has counted more than 15 threatened, endangered, or special-concern species living on the 6,178-acre mine site. Furthermore, its consultants feel the project has a risk of a toxic flood through the Peterson Creek watershed, which would make its way into the Thompson River, part of a sockeye salmon run. Because the mine would pose health risks, the Kamloops Physicians for a Healthy Environment are opposed to the mine.
There are also supporters of the mine because of the economic benefits it would bring to a city with about 10 percent unemployment. The Ajax project would create 500 full-time positions and 1,800 temporary jobs during construction.
Nevertheless, the panel rejected the Ajax Mine out of concern that the project would bring irreversible and unacceptable impacts to the land, waters and people. In particular, it would destroy parts of sacred Jacko Lake and Peterson Creek, an area sacred to the Stk’emlúpsemc. The Panel recommended the area be preserved and recognized as an important cultural heritage site.
Response to the SSN EA has been reserved, and its potential impact on the outcome of the Ajax Mine proposal is not yet known. Mine officials did not return calls to ICMN but posted on the company website that they appreciate the SSN Assessment Panel’s effort.
“Collaboration between the SSN and Ajax, over nearly a decade, has led to a better overall project plan, which will benefit the entire community,” the company said.
The provincial and federal governments responded but were noncommittal, both stating the indigenous EA will be addressed in the ongoing assessment processes. No meaningful statements are expected until after the British Columbia provincial election on May 9.
Mining Watch Canada, however, supported the SSN Panel decision. The process “could potentially serve as a model for future development projects,” the non-profit mineral-industry watchdog group said in a statement. “It is a concrete example of how reconciliation between indigenous and non-indigenous peoples can work in the context of impact assessment of resources projects—in line with the guiding principles of Free, Prior and Informed Consent and the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.”
Tk’emlúps Band council member Jeanette Jules said the SSN approach could serve as a useful model for other First Nations across Canada, and lauded the panel’s work.
“Personally, I think the mine will be rejected,” she said. “The Panel did a thorough job.”