The environmental assessment panel hearings for Taseko Mine Ltd.’s New Prosperity Mine got underway in Williams Lake Monday afternoon.
More than 350 people filled the Cariboo Memorial Complex’s Gibraltar Room.
Some of the crowd wore bright blue sashes, signifying their support of the project, while others, like Tsilhqot’in member Cecil Grinder, who led the First Nations procession into the hearings, wore regalia.
The First Nations sang and drummed three songs, including one in honour of Fish Lake. Once they were done, local GM manager Lorne Doerkson started off the singing of O Canada, to which several of the First Nations drummed along to.
After thanking the First Nations for the opening, panel chair Bill Ross said the panel is independent of the Government of Canada and has been appointed by the federal minister of the environment to conduct an environmental assessment of the proposed mine project.
Encouraging involvement and participation from everyone in the region, Ross said the panel will rely in part on the information it receives through the hearings.
“We also believe that it will be helpful to Taseko and other participants,” he said. “We recognize that the conclusions and recommendations that we will provide to the federal government will have an effect on the participants here today and of those who live in Williams Lake and surrounding communities.”
Williams Lake Mayor Kerry Cook welcomed the panel and said she is proud of the city’s relationship with local First Nations and the work done during the recent St. Joseph’s Residential School Commemorative Project.
“As a city and a region we have started the process of healing and reconciliation,” Cook said. “The leadership demonstrated by our First Nations people was an example for us all. We have done good work together and I’m committed to seeing that great work continue outside of and after this panel review process.”
Local governments have a duty to seriously consider all economic opportunities, Cook said.
“The New Prosperity project is the largest undeveloped gold-copper deposit in Canada and the seventh largest gold-copper deposit of its kind in the world.”
Acting Williams Lake Indian Band Chief Coun. Willie Sellars said stewardship is crucial.
“We support the right of First Nations and their leaders to protect their territory,” Sellars said. “I was at a fundraiser to protect Fish Lake last week and I noticed there were just as many non-First Nations as First Nations people. This suggests that there are many people critically concerned about the impact of the New Prosperity proposal.”
Sellars said First Nations populations are growing, language and traditional practices are being reinvigorated, but the heart of the people is still the land.
“We hope and pray the panel will act wisely and carefully,” he said and asked the panel to consider not only the economics and science, but the stories of the people who have inhabited the area since time memorial.
The hearings continue in Williams Lake until Aug. 1, followed by community sessions in First Nations communities.
The hearings will culminate with a closing remarks session on Aug. 23.
Ross said after the hearings the panel will prepare a report for the minister of environment and submit it within 70 days.