Mines Minister Bill Bennett is expected to visit the site of a First Nations protest in northwestern B.C. tomorrow, as members of the Tahltan Nation accuse the government of reneging on a land management deal covering the headwaters of the Nass, Skeena and Stikine rivers.
The Tahltan Initiative is supposed to provide for joint provincial and First Nations decision-making in the region — which
is considered sacred by aboriginals — but the area is also the site of a proposed open pit coal mine, and a month-long blockade by elders opposed to that project.
The province appointed a mediator this week in hopes of resolving the increasingly bitter dispute between the Tahltan and Fortune Minerals, but leaders of the First Nation say wording of the appointment suggests the mediator's sole job is to ensure the coal mine proceeds.
Protesters are also incensed about a provincial government announcement of a mediator to resolve the dispute — noting the news release detailing the appointment said it would "allow the mine to proceed" — which they believe means approval of the long-disputed mine is a foregone conclusion.
Tahltan Central Council President Anita McPhee says they weren't consulted about bringing in a mediator.
"I'm so upset. It's probably the most upsetting step I've seen the province take,” she said.
"We're supposed to be trying to resolve this issue with the government based on trust and partnership and respect. But doing this, and sending out a press release without even telling us, you know, is not doing that."
Environment Minister Mary Polak says the government intended to meet with the Tahltan before the release went out.
"Unfortunately, we had a big mistake with respect to a media release, and that meant we had to move on the information around the appointment."
Polak says the mediator's goal is to allow the environmental assessment to continue, not push the mine project through.
Bennett's visit comes as protesters brace for what they believe are imminent arrests, because they expect Fortune Minerals to apply for an injunction and enforcement order to remove a blockade that has cut access to the remote mine.
Tahltan Elders say Fortune Minerals could seek an enforcement order as early as this weekend, but they vow to remain in the camp they have occupied for more than a month.