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Natives renew their fight as Ottawa weighs revised plan for B.C. gold mine

A member of Xeni Gwet'in First Nation stands at the edge of Fish Lake in British Columbia on Sept. 10, 2010.

JOHN LEHMANN/John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

First nations leaders say the are experiencing an unsettling sense of déja vu as they resume the fight against a massive gold mining project in British Columbia that was rejected by the federal government last year after a scathing environmental assessment.

Taseko Mines Ltd. has returned with a revised plan to develop the Prosperity mine that lies within traditional Tsilhqot'in territory in the B.C. Interior.

Unlike the original proposal that was first rejected by the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency, and then by former Conservative environment minister Jim Prentice, this plan would not require the draining of Fish Lake – a key wildlife habitat and place of spiritual significance for the local aboriginal people.

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But the representatives of the Tsilhqot'in National Government, which represents six local first nations, point out that Taseko has admitted the lake would still be destroyed under the new plan.

They say the mining company is hoping the worsening economy, the promise of tens of thousands of jobs and the cutbacks within the federal departments that assessed the project a year ago will convince Ottawa to change its mind. The provincial government in British Columbia has supported the mine and Premier Christy Clark has crafted her new jobs plan around the mining industry.

The new proposal "is not really a new project, it's just simply an alteration," Marilyn Baptiste, chief of the Xeni Gwet'in First Nation where the mine is located, told an Ottawa news conference Wednesday.

The new proposal eliminates Little Fish Lake and the Nabas region, which are connected to Fish Lake and are the spawning grounds for the lake's trout population, Chief Baptiste said. The tailing pond upstream will be moved further away, she said. But there will still be a three-kilometre-wide open pit on the other side of the lake.

"So basically Fish Lake will be on life support, so to speak, and will go through a slower death than the initial proposal," she said.

The Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency is reviewing the new plan and will announce on Nov. 7 whether the concerns of its original review have been met. It will then be up to the federal Conservative government and Environment Minister Peter Kent to decide if the mine can proceed.

The first nations leaders say they have tried unsuccessfully to meet with Mr. Kent and Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan. The Assembly of First Nations says the problem has been scheduling, not lack of will.

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Chief Joe Alphonse, the chair of the Tsilhqot'in National Government, said he fears the lobbying efforts of Taseko have had an impact on the government.

Taseco says it is investing an additional $300-million to preserve Fish Lake in response to concerns expressed by first nations and the federal povernment.

"New Prosperity is a long-term project that will deliver responsible value to all Canadians. We continue to urge first nations leaders to meet with us in order to discuss how aboriginal communities can best benefit from New Prosperity," said Russell Hallbauer, the company's president.

"We have worked for nearly two decades to develop sound impact mitigation measures to preserve the integrity not only of the lake but also of the region generally, and those efforts are now before the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency for review," Mr. Hallbauer said.

Taseko released a study this week that suggests 71,000 jobs would be created over the life of the mine, generating $4.3-billion in federal tax revenue and $5.5-billion in provincial tax revenue.

But Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, the president of the Union of BC Indian Chiefs, dismissed the claims of massive economic benefits and job creation numbers saying the Prosperity Mine is a billion-dollar project in a remote location.

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"We're puzzled why we're back here, déja vu" he said. And if the mine is rejected again, "will we be back here a third time?"

Taseko officials have admitted that, within 10 years, the levels of contamination within the lake would be the same as within their settling ponds, Chief Phillip said.

During the first environmental assessment, Brian Battison, the company's vice-president of corporate affairs, said: "The lake and the deposit sit side by side. It is not possible to have one without the loss of the other."

Chief Phillip said he hopes the political environment in Ottawa has not changed so much in the past year that the government would consider something "this devastating. ... If they push this through, I think it puts the credibility of government right on the table."

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About the Author
Parliamentary reporter

Gloria Galloway has been a journalist for almost 30 years. She worked at the Windsor Star, the Hamilton Spectator, the National Post, the Canadian Press and a number of small newspapers before being hired by The Globe and Mail as deputy national editor in 2001. Gloria returned to reporting two years later and joined the Ottawa bureau in 2004. More

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