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B.C. First Nation to battle Taseko Mines in court

Tsilhqot’in National Government vice-chair Roger William stands at the edge of Fish Lake, which lies near the proposed site of a contensious mining project, in 2010.

JOHN LEHMANN/The Globe and Mail

The Tsilhqot'in National Government and Taseko Mines Ltd. are scheduled to face off in a Victoria court Monday, marking the latest stage in a long-running battle over a proposed open-pit mine the company wants to build near Fish Lake, also known as Teztan Biny.

The Tsilhqot'in National Government (TNG) will ask the B.C. Supreme Court for an injunction to stop exploration work Taseko wants to do at the site, about 125 kilometres southwest of Williams Lake, B.C. The site lies just outside an area to which the TNG have aboriginal title – as confirmed in a landmark 2014 decision by the Supreme Court of Canada – and within a broader area subject to aboriginal claim.

The standoff between TNG and Taseko sets up a conflict between the provincial and federal governments and a potential headache for the B.C.'s NDP-Green alliance. A permit for exploration work, including drilling test pits and buildings roads, was issued July 14, while B.C.'s former Liberal government was still in office and several Tsilhqot'in communities were under evacuation orders because of raging wildfires.

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That timing angered TNG leaders and bolstered their determination to try to stop the work from going ahead.

"Why would you allow any more drilling on a project that's been turned down – twice?" TNG vice-chair Roger William said on Sunday.

The company, however, maintains the province was within its rights to issue the permit.

"This is fundamentally a jurisdictional dispute between the provincial and federal governments," Taseko president Russ Hallbauer said on Saturday.

"The provincial government is able to grant us a permit irrespective of what is going on at the federal level," he added.

The mine – initially called Prosperity and now called New Prosperity – would cost more than $1-billion to build. It has been rejected twice, in 2010 and 2014, by the federal government, on environmental grounds. Taseko has challenged the 2014 decision in court and that legal process is under way.

Meanwhile, it continued to pursue the project and, in July, announced it had received a green light from the B.C. government to conduct exploratory work.

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The TNG has filed court applications in an attempt to stop that work – which would include drilling test pits and building roads – from going ahead.

The TNG is pursuing the court action even though the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency on Friday sent a letter to Taseko telling the company its proposed activities would violate federal law.

In a response to the agency sent the same day, Taseko maintains the CEAA is misinterpreting the act and that the agency's position – if allowed to stand – "would result in absurd and unconstitutional effects" such as preventing companies from gathering information required for federal and provincial environmental assessments.

Critics have questioned the timing of the permit, suggesting it was a last-minute act by a Liberal government.

Statutory decisions under the Mines Act are made in accordance with provincial legislation and decision makers are not subject to political interference or influence, a government employee said in an e-mail at the time the permit was issued.

The province understands that the timing of the decision was unfortunate, but that timing had to be balanced with procedural fairness and repeated extensions already provided at TNG's request, the employee added.

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Mr. William said he and other TNG leaders would be in Victoria to make sure their concerns were heard.

"We have hundreds of pages of evidence that says B.C. shouldn't even look at this – and Canada turned it down twice," he said.

Video: Surveying wildfire damage in a B.C. community (The Canadian Press)
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About the Author
National correspondent

Based in Vancouver, Wendy Stueck has covered technology and business and now reports on British Columbia issues including natural resources, aboriginal issues and urban affairs. More

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