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Solidarity with the Secwepemc: Yes to a healthy environment, no to Ajax Mine

SSN Declaration
April 6, 2017

In early April, the Environmental Dispute Resolution Fund team had an opportunity to visit some of our grantees in Secwepemc territory/Kamloops and participate in a declaration of solidarity and support for the Secwepemc decision to reject the proposed Ajax mine. The ceremony brought together Indigenous communities, Kamloops residents and allies in the long-term fight against this project and the unacceptable risks it would present to culture, environment and health.

A visit to Pipsell

A cold wind cuts over Pipsell, still covered in ice. Pipsell is the Secwepemc name for Jacko Lake and the ecosystem around it. We’re with a small group that has ventured out to experience the wild beauty of the place slated for Ajax’s open crater.

We’re told of how beautiful the hills become when they are blanketed with mariposa lilies, how the land serves up food and medicines, how the lake teems with trout. Ed Jensen from the Stk’emlupsemc te Secwepemc Nation (SSN) explains how the lake is connected with the surrounding hills as a migration corridor for deer.

He shares a little of one of the Secwepemc’s most sacred stories – Trout Children – an oral history that teaches the kinship relations between the people, the fish, the animals. The teachings are that we’re family –we have to assume a responsibility to take care of them, and to look after the land so the land will look after us.

As the others discuss the details of the mine proposal, I close my eyes, and let the facts slip away. I can feel the teachings here, out on the land, a heart connection to this place. How must it feel for the Secwepemc who have cared for Pipsell since time out of mind?

Beginning with a blessing

The blessing of burning sage lingers over the Barber Centre, a circular lecture theatre at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops. Antlers grace either side of bold red-clothed table.

While Elders and dignitaries of the Tk’emlups te Secwepemc and Skeetchestn Indian Band smudge each guest, we wait in anticipation for the ceremony the SSN has prepared to honour those who have come to sign a Declaration of Support for their Pípsell (Jacko Lake & Area) Decision.

We're digging in for a fight, we are fighting for you, clean air, clean water. We need you, you need us, we need to do this together.

The ceremony opens with an invitation to stand beside the SSN as good neighbours, to support each other to be great and good, not just to unite as temporary allies in the fight against Ajax. Chief Ron Ignace of the Skeetchestn Band and Councillor Viola Thomas of the Tk’emlups te Secwepemc share how their communities designed a process in keeping with their traditional governance system, community values and international law – the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP).  

The Nation produced a short video of their process. The guiding principle was that the assessment must “Walk on Two Legs” – where the legs are Indigenous and Western knowledge, teachings and processes.   

An assessment panel was formed, consisting of family representatives, elders and youth. The panel presided over eighteen days of listening with the mine proponent, government representatives, experts and their communities.  Ultimately, the panel decided it could not give free, prior and informed consent to the project.  Instead, the community said yes to a healthy people and environment.

The Stk’emlupsemc te Secwepemc Nation closes their speeches by sharing why they chose to produce their own comprehensive project assessment of the Ajax proposal: “Your laws don't work for us. They don't work for our worldview as it relates to the land”. 

At West Coast Environmental Law, we well know that provincial and federal environmental assessments exclude consideration of impacts to spirit and culture and have not yet been informed by UNDRIP.

Supporting each other to be great and good

I look around at the faces of representatives from many groups concerned about Ajax, some who have been working since the project first cast its shadow over the city of Kamloops six years ago.  On Ajax, it was clear that the laws of the land had let everyone down. 

In 2011, West Coast’s Environmental Dispute Resolution Fund first provided funding to the Kamloops Area Preservation Association (KAPA) to participate in the environmental assessment of KGHM’s proposed Ajax Mine project. Although legal representation was useful in helping the group navigate the convoluted process, KAPA representative Ruth Madsen feels that the assessment has been a sham.

She and Don Barz and other KAPA members are in the room today, joined by a groundswell of other local organizations who have mobilized around the threat the proposed mine presents – Kamloops Physicians for a Healthy Environment Society, Kamloops Moms For Clean Air, local environmental groups and neighborhood associations. These groups have recently come together in a coalition known as Kamloops Code Blue

In the circle are also the Concerned Citizens of Quesnel Lake and other residents of Quesnel, who’ve lived through the 2014 Mount Polley tailings breach, the largest mining disaster in Canada’s history.  The EDRF has been supporting them as well as MiningWatch Canada to take legal action to address the disaster. 

The tailings “pond” for the proposed Ajax mine would be absolutely massive – many times the size of the one that failed at Mount Polley – and would be situated uphill and only a few kilometres from the heart of Kamloops. Any failure at Ajax would send a toxic deluge down Peterson Creek through the city centre, leaving devastation in its wake. Even without a failure, imagine living your life knowing that something like that could happen at any time.

Representatives from thirty groups come up to sign the Declaration in the presence of the SSN and their peers, bringing heartfelt commitments to solidarity. Each leaves the centre of the circle with a gift – a mug, a blanket. This gesture, and the grace with which the SSN preside over the event, moves me. After the countless hours of work it must have taken to lift up their laws (see our previous blog post), to carry out the assessment, to plan this event, they fill the room with quiet joy.

Time for change

MiningWatch Canada seizes the opportunity for the supporters of the Declaration to gather and discuss how to move forward on Ajax and BC mining issues more broadly.  This province is a laggard among other provinces that have stricter regimes.

Our record on enforcement and cleanup has been terrible. The 2016 Auditor General’s report highlighted that compliance and enforcement activities of both the Ministry of Energy and Mines, and the Ministry of Environment are not set up to protect us from environmental risks.The free entry mining system operates completely outside of principles of Aboriginal rights and title and sustainability, and has run roughshod over communities and landowners everywhere. Relatively recent cases from Ontario and the Yukon suggest that it may be unconstitutional. The economics of mining cleanup for the province and communities amount to a legacy of debt.

The consensus: in a provincial mining regime that is completely broken, it is time to change course completely.  In the wake of Mount Polley and the Auditor General’s report, there’s a crisis in confidence.  The UVic Environmental Law Centre is calling for a judicial inquiry to address systemic failures in BC’s mining regulation. 

There’s just no place for BC’s outdated mining policy any more – it’s a short-term vision for long-term destruction, a vision that ignores the truth that we live on this land and we want it to be healthy so that we can thrive.  In this era of reconciliation, BC has no business being the sole decision-maker on big mining projects that represent another blow to the cultural vitality and human rights of Secwepemc.  

Barbara Everdene, EDRF Project Manager
Erica Stahl, Staff Counsel