Taseko sees ‘positive future’ for New Prosperity mine after high court ruling
Tsilhqot’in Nation says company is in denial about central-B.C. project, mine is dead By Gordon Hoekstra, Vancouver Sun
Fish Lake, where Taseko proposes putting its New Prosperity mine. Xeni Gwet’in First Nation handout
A Supreme Court of Canada decision may have opened the door to a twice rejected gold and copper mine mired in a legal battle.
That’s because the $1.1-billion New Prosperity mine falls outside the 1,750 square kilometres of territory in central B.C. for which the Tsilhqot’in now has title and where consent is needed for industrial projects, says Taseko Mines Ltd.
The aboriginal title question always hung over the project, and now it’s settled, says the company.
“It’s the only mine development deposit (in British Columbia) that people now know for sure is not in aboriginal title area,” says Brian Battison, vice-president of corporate affairs for Taseko.
The Tsilhqot’in continue to oppose the project, citing hunting and trapping rights, and admonish the company for continuing to push a project unwanted by First Nations.
“I think Taseko has a very twisted view of things. I think it’s very, very irresponsible,” said chief Joe Alphonse, tribal chairman of the Tsilhqot’in.
The continuing dispute over New Prosperity shows how the complex nature of resource development in British Columbia — where aboriginal, industrial, government and local non-native interests often overlap — will continue to pose a challenge despite the landmark Supreme Court of Canada decision.
Released just over a week ago, the unanimous high court decision for the first time granted title to a specified area of land to a First Nation. The decision was lauded by First Nations as a game changer in relations with the federal and provincial governments, giving them more control over resource development on their traditional territories.
University of B.C. law professor Gordon Christie said it is no surprise that Taseko would welcome the high court decision.
That’s because while it’s true the Tsilhqot’in continue to have rights to hunt and fish, the requirement for the Crown to consult and accommodate over those rights is not as strong as for title or property rights, he said.
“The ability of the Crown to issue permits over lands that just have rights to hunt and fish, that power is enhanced quite a bit,” said Christie.
The Tsilhqot’in Nation have been in a long-running battle with Taseko over the New Prosperity mine.
The project was approved by the provincial government, but twice rejected by federal panels and the federal government.
Both federal panels cited damage to fish and fish habitat.
Even though Taseko changed its plans to preserve Fish Lake, which would have been destroyed in its first plan, the second panel review found the mine would result in the loss of Little Fish Lake to a 12-square-km tailings pond and contaminate nearby Fish Lake and the upper Fish Creek system.
In a rare instance, Prime Minister Stephen Harper weighed in on the project, sharply criticizing Taseko and noting the environmental report on the project was damning.
“It is also in an area where there’s unresolved land claim issues, and local aboriginal groups ... do not approve the project,” he told the Prospectors and Developers Association of Canada convention last spring of his government’s decision to reject the mine.
But Taseko says the rejection has always been more about uncertainty around the aboriginal land question than environmental concerns.
The company maintains the environmental review was badly flawed, saying it incorrectly assessed the project and its ability to prevent seepage from a tailings pond.
Its legal challenge is being heard by the Federal Court of Appeal, for which Taseko hopes to get a ruling this year.
“If the legal proceedings that we are in turn out the way we expect them to ... then it would be up to the government to reconsider the project and its findings. I think that, in combination with the clarity on there is no aboriginal title, is positive for the future of the project,” said Battison.
The Tsilhqot’in, which celebrated the court victory last Friday, said they were not surprised by Taseko’s position and continued lack of respect for First Nations’ rights and title.
Nothing about the Supreme Court of Canada’s decision changes the review panel’s finding on environmental problems with the mine, the First Nation noted.
As well, the Tsilhqot’in stressed it also has rights to hunt and trap throughout the mine site area, another reason the project was rejected twice.
Alphonse said he believes the Supreme Court decision is the “last nail in the coffin” for the project. “Prosperity Mine is a dead issue,” he said.