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David Parkins for The Globe and Mail/david parkins The Globe and Mail

The Harper government is receiving a report Friday that will confront it with one of the toughest political decisions since Stephen Harper became prime minister, over a proposed mine in British Columbia that would create jobs in an economically troubled area - but at the cost of damaging a pristine lake and the habitat of grizzly bears.

The Conservatives must decide whether to give the go-ahead to the proposed Prosperity mine, 125 kilometres southwest of Williams Lake. If it does, it will be overruling the federal Department of the Environment's own environmental impact study, which concluded in July that the mine would inflict serious harm. This would be the first time a federal government has ignored such a ruling.

The leaders of the Tsilhqot'in (pronounced and sometimes spelled Chilcotin) first nation, who claim the area as their own, say they will go to any length to stop the mine.

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"We don't condone" violence, said tribal chairman Joe Alphonse. "But as the leadership of the Tsilhqot'in nation, we don't control all of our members."

If the government says no to the mine, it could estrange Mr. Harper from Premier Gordon Campbell, infuriate the government's own B.C. MPs and foment Western anger at central Canada.

"I'm very much afraid there's a bunch of Toronto MPs, etc. that don't get the economics and what the mine means to this area," Randy Hawes, B.C.'s Minister of State for Mining, said recently.

Either way, the decision is bound to heighten tension between natives and non-natives in the region.

"If this mine doesn't go, there are going to be some very severe racial problems because a lot of the people who are counting on this mine, and are looking at it for hope, are going to blame the aboriginal community," Mr. Hawes said.

Taseko Mines Ltd. wants to create an open-pit copper and gold mine that would cover 35 kilometres in the Cariboo-Chilcotin Regional District. Over the 20 years of its existence, the mine would inject $5-billion in economic activity and $30-million a year in taxes into a region whose forest industry has been devastated by the pine beetle infestation and the downturn in the lumber industry.

"The area is in absolute, desperate need of an economic lifesaver," said Dick Harris, the area's Conservative MP, "and if ever there was one, it was this mine," which would create 375 direct and 600 indirect jobs annually.

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Mr. Harris is also the chair the Conservative B.C. caucus, and reports that "I haven't talked to anybody in my caucus who has had a disparaging word about the mine."

The B.C. government is fully behind the mine. Its own environmental assessment concluded that the economic gains to the region outweighed the environmental costs.

But federal permits are also required, And a review panel established by Environment Minister Jim Prentice concluded the mine would produce "high magnitude, long-term and irreversible" damage.

Fish Lake, which the B.C. government has featured in photographs in tourism materials, would have to be drained. The lake sustains a population of 90,000 rainbow trout, which is an important supplemental food source for the Tsilhqot'in.

Taseko has proposed creating and stocking an artificial Prosperity Lake. The lake would need to be continually restocked, however, since such lakes rarely develop self-sustaining fish populations.

The review panel also concluded that the mine would do serious damage to the habitat of the region's grizzly bear population, which the provincial government has classified as "threatened."

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The recommendation to cabinet from the Department of Fisheries and Oceans is expected Friday though what that recommendation is remains unknown. The earliest cabinet could take up the question is Tuesday.

If cabinet does approve the licences needed to start work on the mine, the Tsilhqot'in will seek a court injunction to stop the mine from proceeding. Failing that, they are prepared to engage in peaceful civil disobedience - though, as Mr. Alphonse warns, "things could escalate" on either side.

The Prosperity mine may bring prosperity, but it also brings the very worst sorts of divisions: of the West against the rest; native against non-native; environmentalists against entrepreneurs.

Those divisions will only become more inflamed, whatever the government decides.

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About the Author

John Ibbitson started at The Globe in 1999 and has been Queen's Park columnist and Ottawa political affairs correspondent.Most recently, he was a correspondent and columnist in Washington, where he wrote Open and Shut: Why America has Barack Obama and Canada has Stephen Harper. He returned to Ottawa as bureau chief in 2009. More

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