TL’ESQOX FIRST NATION—Lorrianne Laceese kneels at the roadside, trying to coax a flame from damp tinder. In the fading light, her younger brother Syles gingerly pokes more kindling into the pile, trying not to disturb his sister’s tiny embers.
Behind them stands older brother Peyal and their father, Tl’esqox Chief Francis Laceese. A few feet away, Francis’ youngest granddaughter squirms in her mother’s arms.
“We’re three generations of road blockers,” Lorrianne quips as the flames finally catch, licking around the split wood and pushing back the encroaching night.
The Laceeses are at a roadblock set up on Tsilhqot’in traditional territory, where Farwell Canyon Road meets Highway 20, about 40 minutes outside of Williams Lake, B.C. The road leads into the Nemaiah Valley and eventually to the shores of Teztan Biny, also known as Fish Lake.
The watershed drains into the Taseko River, which merges with the Chilcotin River before tumbling through Farwell Canyon. From there it joins the Fraser River for a 600-kilometre run to the Pacific Ocean.
The momentary reprieve brings little comfort. Both sides are arming themselves with competing injunctions, setting the stage for a conflict similar to what happened in Wet’suwet’en territory in January, when a tactical unit of RCMP officers carrying assault rifles enforced an injunction granted to Coastal GasLink giving them access to a road blocked by land defenders.
The Tsilhqot’in National Government says it will revive a civil case arguing the exploration permits granted to Taseko in 2017 are an unjustified infringement on Tsilhqot’in rights. It is applying for an injunction against any exploration work until that case is settled, according to the nation’s lands manager, JP Laplante.
Meanwhile, on July 5, Vancouver-based Taseko Mines Ltd. filed a notice of civil claim and an application for an injunction to prevent anyone from blocking its access to start exploration work.
For nearly 30 years the Tsilhqot’in National Government, of which the Tl’esqox are a part, has been fighting plans for a $1.5-billion open-pit gold and copper mine on their territory at Teztan Biny. The project, called the New Prosperity Mine, was first proposed in 2008 by Taseko and included a plan to drain Teztan Biny and turn it into a tailings pond. The project has been rejected by the federal government twice over concerns that it would be too damaging to the environment.
Despite this, Taseko holds a provincial permit for exploration drilling. It was issued in July 2017, the day before the B.C. Liberals left office to make way for Premier John Horgan’s NDP government.
The company needs the exploration permit to complete environmental-impact research for a revised proposal that it says will better protect the lake’s water quality. Instead of draining the lake, they want to build a tailings pond upstream of the lake. It also says the project will create 700 jobs over two years of construction and directly employ 550 people over 22 years of operation.
“This project enjoys widespread support across the region,” says Taseko spokesperson Brian Battison.
He describes the exploration work as “routine” and no different than similar work that’s been conducted at the site over the past 20 years.
Battison describes Tuesday’s roadblock as “illegal,” saying it “prevented us from getting to our property and performing work, which had been authorized by the province of B.C.”
“When access to a public road has been illegally blocked, one potential solution is to seek an injunction from the court. We did that,” he says, adding that an expedited hearing on the application will be held July 16.
Alex Lulua is a member of the Xeni Gwet’in First Nation. He lives in the Nemaiah Valley and lives off fish he catches from the Chilcotin River. The proposed mine site at Teztan Biny is basically in his backyard and he fears the new proposal from the mine puts the tailings pond too close to the Taseko River, and it will pollute the rivers he relies on for sustenance.
“Everyone in the community is worried,” Lulua says. “We have some of the cleanest water in the world. If this mine gets built, our water will never be the same.”
The company says its latest proposal to move the tailings pit will not result in the harm that Lulua fears. Battison says the work they are hoping to do with the exploration permit will allow Taseko to collect more data and evidence to back up that claim.
What is clear is that the proposed mine sits next to Teztan Biny, which itself is only a few kilometres from the Taseko River. The whole watershed flows through a large portion of Tsilhqot’in traditional territory, and flooding in the area this week stoked fears that the tailings could leach into those vital waters.
The dispute between the company and the Tsilhqot’in Nation has been going on almost two decades longer than a similar battle over a gas pipeline through traditional Wet’suwet’en territory near Smithers, B.C. That conflict erupted in January when the RCMP stormed a barricade and arrested 14 people, sparking solidarity protests around the country.
Chief Laceese worries a similar showdown might be on the horizon if Taseko Mines continues to press for access his nation is not prepared to give.
The projects and the people involved are different from Wet’suwet’en, but at the heart of both conflicts are the rights of Indigenous people to their traditional land and competing corporate interests, usually over natural resources, whether it is trees or oil or gas or gold.
Like the Wet’suwet’en, the Tsilhqot’in people have never abandoned their land, never signed a treaty or ceded control to anyone, explains Kris Statnyk, a Vancouver-based lawyer and expert in Indigenous land and title rights. Under international law and the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous People, that means they retain rights to it.
Section 35 of the Canadian constitution also enshrines Indigenous rights to traditional territory. Numerous Supreme Court decisions beginning with what’s called the Haida case in 2004 assert that Canada has a constitutional duty to consult and accommodate Indigenous groups whenever development is contemplated on land that might impact those rights.
But here’s where it gets tricky. That obligation to consult and accommodate, while largely accepted as the standard for dealing with Indigenous communities, was only meant to be a temporary fix in cases where — like the majority of B.C. First Nations — the land is unceded, there are no treaties in place and no self-government agreements have been negotiated, Statnyk says.
“When Haida was decided, it was always understood that the duty to consult and accommodate was an interim measure,” Statnyk says, “to protect people … from having their rights run roughshod over before they have an opportunity to either negotiate a settlement with the Crown … or obtain a declaration from the court of the existence of those rights and title.”
The Tsilhqot’in did so in a landmark 2014 Supreme Court case, becoming the first Indigenous nation in the country to prove title to 1,700 square kilometres of their traditional territory.
Taseko’s proposed mine is just outside that 1,700-square-km area.
But according to Statnyk, the relevant factor is whether a project will affect protected rights, not where it’s physically located. In the Tsilhqot’in’s case, that includes the right to hunt, trap and derive economic benefit from the land.
“The court said in the Tsilhqot’in decision that, when seeking to do something impacting title land, the duty on the Crown is to seek to obtain consent,” Statnyk says.
Because of the wording of the ruling, consent is the goal but is not required to proceed with a project, Statnyk says. A project can still go ahead without a First Nation’s consent, so long as the government allowing the permits can justify the infringement.
The issue, as Statnyk sees it, is that this balance has never been fully tested in court within the context of a nation with declared title, and the New Prosperity Mine case hinges on it.
“It’s Canada that really holds the key to whether this project can move forward or not,” says Tsilhqot’in tribal chairman Chief Joe Alphonse, who believes the province of B.C. overstepped its bounds when it approved exploration permits for a mine that is essentially a dead project.
“Twice, under the most business-friendly prime minister Canada’s ever seen, Stephen Harper said no, this is just too environmentally damaging and culturally sensitive,” Alphonse says.
“Now the province has issued this permit. It’s mind boggling … It was like leaving a hand grenade for the incoming NDP.”
But Taseko’s Battison says that’s an argument the Tsilhqot’in have already tested in court and lost.
“They’ve tested that argument in all three levels of the court system in B.C. and in Canada, and the validity of the permit has been upheld at every one of those levels.”
The last round happened in June, when the Tsilhqot’in went to court seeking to overturn the exploration permits, but the BC Court of Appeal ruled against them, clearing the way for Taseko to begin exploration work. The Supreme Court of Canada declined to hear the appeal, did not explain why and hardly ever does.
For Alphonse, this isn’t just a legal issue. The lake, the rivers and the land surrounding it are sacred to Tsilhqot’in chief and his people.
“It’s a very spiritual area,” Alphonse says. “As a child growing up, our dad used to take myself and my cousin Paul hunting there. Then later in life … that was an area that a lot of our people would go to do ceremony.”
The Tsilhqot’in also have a long history of successful roadblocks. Chief Laceese has been through this all before. Everyone here has. The road he stands on was built around his reserve after his nation blocked the one running through it 30 years ago.
“It was the logging trucks,” Chief Laceese says. “At least 100 trucks a day back and forth, going 24 hours a day.”
They were kicking up dust and making the road through town dangerous. A number of horses were killed in collisions with logging trucks, and there were some close calls with the reserve’s school bus as well, the chief says.
“One day, one of my workers sees a big log beside the road. I said, ‘Pull it right across the road,’ and he did. He hopped in a truck and pulled a few more and that was it.” Within a month, he says the B.C. government started building the new road.
As he speaks, Lorrianne looks up from the fire. “This is what, my third roadblock with you, dad?” she asks.
When asked about the prospect of a repeat of the conflict in Wet’suwet’en territory, Battison says Taseko will respect the law.
“If an injunction is granted by the courts, it will be up to the RCMP to ensure that the roadway is safely passable. That’s how it works.”
Whatever happens, it’s clear that everyone on the ground in Tsilhqot’in territory wants to avoid a repeat of the Wet’suwet’en raids — including the RCMP. The images of combat-kitted tactical officers slamming Indigenous protesters to the ground were hardly flattering for the force.
Sgt. Joe Garcia was at the Wet’suwet’en blockade as part of the RCMP’s division liaison team. The group does community outreach, and often acts as an intermediary between protesters and resource companies. At the Wet’suwet’en blockade, Garcia’s team negotiated for hours with the blockaders before finally turning things over to the tactical units when the land defenders refused to clear the road.
“It’s unfortunate things had to go that way,” he says.
Visiting the Tsilhqot’in roadblock before the trucks arrived Monday night, he tells Cecil Grinder, the Tl’etinqox First Nation councillor who marshalled Tuesday’s protest, that officers would be nearby but would not intervene unless things got out of hand, and to call him if they did.
“We’re impartial,” Garcia tells the councillor. “Just do what you need to do. When they come, just turn them around, but work with them. Be sensible.”
It’s a position Grinder can sympathize with. He used to wear a gun belt and an RCMP badge. During similar roadblocks years ago, he was the one arresting Indigenous demonstrators. He even arrested Chief Francis, once.
Now, if neither side backs down, Grinder could easily find himself in the steely grip of handcuffs. He says he’s prepared for it.
After successfully turning the Taseko trucks around last Tuesday, Grinder prays and holds a water ceremony, blessing everyone in attendance with drops taken directly from the Taseko River.
“We’re warrior people,” he says, sprinkling droplets into the outstretched hands of a dozen land defenders as smoke from evergreen bows billowed around them.
Jesse Winter is an investigative reporter based in Vancouver. Follow him on Twitter: @jwints