Ramping up pressure on the federal government, native leaders on Thursday expressed fierce opposition to a proposed copper-gold mine in the British Columbia Interior and warned of violent consequences if the project is approved.
"Our people are willing and ready to defend our lands," Tsilhqot'in Nation Chief Marilyn Baptiste said Thursday at a news conference in Ottawa. "As one of my elders had said when we were going through the panel hearings - she will be there on the road in her wheelchair. She will have her shotguns and she will not move."
Ms. Baptiste said she and others will risk their lives to block the $800-million Prosperity project, which would destroy two lakes that hold about 90,000 rainbow trout, a food source for local bands, and replace them with an artificial lake that would have far fewer fish.
The B.C. government has already approved the project. But in July, a federal review panel ruled the mine would have "significant adverse environmental effects," leaving the final decision up to cabinet.
"We are willing to sacrifice our lives," Ms. Baptiste said. "I am willing to sacrifice my life for the sake of saving our lands and our future generations. Through the panel hearings, there were several people who made the same statement."
Other native groups, including the more than 600-strong Assembly of First Nations and the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs, have thrown their weight behind the six-band Tsilhqot'in Nation in opposing the mine. The heated standoff is in stark contrast to two landmark deals announced last month that featured, for the first time in the province, revenue-sharing between first nations and the B.C. government on two mine projects.
Such an agreement would be on the table if the Prosperity mine were to proceed, but to date, local first nations have shown no interest in pursuing one, said Randy Hawes, B.C.'s Minister of State for Mining.
"We have made it clear that we are prepared, if the mine were to go ahead, that there would be revenue-sharing agreements," Mr. Hawes said. "Tens of millions of dollars would flow directly to the Tsilhqot'in Nation, but so far, the answer is no."
The Prosperity project, being developed by Vancouver-based Taseko Mines Ltd., would be located about 25 kilometres southwest of Williams Lake in an area devastated by a mountain pine beetle infestation and the sluggish demand for forestry products. In supporting the project, the B.C. government has cited $5-billion worth of economic activity over a 20-year life of the mine and $600-million worth of revenue for various governments.
Mine opponents, including a coalition of 12 environmental groups, says cabinet should heed the federal environmental review.
"When a panel issues an opinion that's as strong as the one on Fish Lake - one that says there will be significant environmental impact, and it cannot be mitigated - nobody that I know of can recall a single time when the federal government has proceeded in the face of a finding like that," said Sierra Club B.C. executive director George Heyman. "It would set the kind of precedent that would call the whole federal environmental process into question."
In 2008, a similar mine proposal was shelved after the federal and B.C. governments accepted the decision of a joint provincial-federal review.
Taseko president and chief executive officer Russell Hallbauer said on Thursday that Ms. Baptiste's comments were "unfortunate."
"I don't know what more we can say - we have done what is required under the laws of the land, both provincially and federally. We are confident in that proposal," said Mr. Hallbauer, adding that the company had considered several other alternatives to mine construction that didn't involve destroying Fish Lake, but none were workable.