Taseko raises concerns on First Nations input

Letter to minister from company ‘disrespectful,’ says the TNG, but Taseko says it just wants a fair review process

Letter to minister from company ‘disrespectful,’ says the TNG, but Taseko says it just wants a fair review process.

Concerns about First Nations participation in the upcoming New Prosperity Mine Project federal environmental assessment, voiced in a letter by Taseko Mines Ltd., contains descriptions that are ignorant and disrespectful, says Xeni Gwet’in (Nemiah Valley) Chief Marilyn Baptiste.

Written by president and CEO Russell Hallbauer to Environment Minister Peter Kent, the Nov. 23 letter raises complaints about the previous panel hearings for the original Prosperity Mine project proposal.

First Nations drumming and singing, school children presenting a play involving “dying fish,” or the showing of a “sensational” video about saving Fish Lake, don’t belong in an environmental review process, Hallbauer writes.

He also protests that issues of spirituality were raised in the panel’s final report, and suggests if the company believes the panel for the new review is biased, it may pursue court action.

Baptiste says if spirituality is not taken into account, then government and industry are still stuck in the 1800s.

She says that drumming and prayers are always done at meetings, gatherings, general assemblies, and elders meetings, so why should the panel hearings be any different?

“Will they go back to outlawing our drumming and our ceremonies?” she asks.

Taseko’s letter surfaced this week, after a freedom of information request was made by the Tsilhqot’in National Government’s lawyer.

While she is disappointed with the letter, Baptiste adds it’s unfortunate because the TNG has asked the government’s agencies to advise them every time they hear from Taseko.

“I’m sure they are advising the company about every time we talk to them. Why aren’t they doing the same for us?” Baptiste says, alleging that some of the changes that have been made to the environmental assessment guidelines have been made in favour of the company.

Kent says he responded to Taseko’s letter, writing that he would forward the company’s letter to the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency.

He says, however, that he has not given CEAA any instructions to proceed with the changes requested by the proponent.

He also says he has “not instructed CEAA to amend the criteria used in the first panel review.”

Responding to the negative feedback the letter is receiving now that it’s been made public, Taseko’s vice president of corporate affairs Brian Battison says he wonders if people understand the intent of the letter and what the company was trying to accomplish by writing it.

“We want the environmental review process to be fair and balanced, and we want it to be consistent with the law and the requirements of the law. An environmental process has a very specific purpose, described in law, and an assessment of spirituality is not part of that legal requirement.”

Spirituality is a subject that should be discussed and considered by government as part of the Crown’s obligation and duty to consult First Nations. That is where those discussions should take place, Battison suggests.

Taseko isn’t against drumming, praying or discussing spirituality, he adds, but insists those activities don’t belong in the assessment process.

“An environmental assessment doesn’t consider the socio-economic factors, but a decision made by cabinet or the minister can take into consideration other information, besides that gathered during the assessment. I think people think the assessment is the decision-making process, but it is not exclusively. It’s only a component of the decision making process.”

Battison says there’s a limited role for spiritual considerations; however, he says those considerations are not about the spirituality of a place, but rather where a place has cultural heritage significance for various things.

“If a place is described as having cultural heritage significance it may be because it may include spiritual use, but the significance of it is as it relates to cultural heritage. That may be where archeology or signs of habitation have been discovered.”

By saving Fish Lake, with its new mine design and mitigation measures, Taseko is considering the cultural heritage significance of the area, he says.

In the letter, Hallbauer also makes a request that all of the panel members should be seen to be unbiased in respect to all matters before the panel.

“The act says that panel members shall have no bias so we expect that to be the case. That’s a reasonable expectation under the law,” Battison says.

Leaders from the TNG, meanwhile, are hoping members of the previous panel are going to participate in the New Prosperity review because it would give continuity to the process.

“We have been pressing and advising government that they have to have the same panel if they want to only review the changes to this alternative proposal. If it’s not the same panel, it should be at least one or two members to be a sufficient review,” Baptiste says.

Independent MLA Bob Simpson says he’s met with Battison a number of times asking if Taseko can find a different way to relate to the Tsilhqot’in, so he’s surprised that the company wrote the letter, knowing it would be eventually be made public.

“There’s a lack of inherent logical integrity in the letter about spirituality, culture and heritage. If you look at the New Prosperity project overview under the Fish Lake part, where Taseko mentions that the Tsilhqot’in ascribe a strong spiritual relationship with the island on Fish Lake, then why would they ask that spirituality be removed from the environmental assessment process?” Simpson asks.

The First Nations relationship to the land, whether non-First Nations understand it or buy it or not, doesn’t matter, because all of the First Nations cultural heritage and traditional uses are all infused with spirituality, he says.

“That’s why that becomes a critical component and to try and negate that under threat of legal challenge is where I struggle because what they’re signalling is if they get a “no” again, they’re going to challenge it in court,” Simpson says.

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