British Columbia

First Nation dealing with wildfires shocked outgoing B.C. government granted mining permits during crisis

While Tsilhqot'in elders and leaders were held up in a Abbotsford hotel because of smoke and fire back home, they learned that the B.C. government granted drilling permits to Taseko's controversial New Prosperity Mine.

'It's really insulting, that's just a dirty way to do it,' says Tsilhqot'in elder

Healer/elder Gilbert Solomon stands near Teztan Biny or Fish Lake, where Taseko proposes putting its New Prosperity mine. (Tsilhqot’in National Government)

Wildfires, road blocks and smoke are preventing Agnes William, 60, and about 70 other Tsilhqot'in elders from returning to their home near Williams Lake, B.C.

She's been stuck in an Abbotsford hotel for the last week and the Canadian Forces is air-dropping supplies into her Xeni Gwet'in community for those unable to leave.

So when she heard the former B.C. government — just days before they lost power — issued the drilling permits for Taseko Mines's controversial New Prosperity mine, she said she was blind sided.

"It's really insulting, that's just a dirty way to do it," she said from her hotel room.

Agnes William (left) says her people would be fighting the drilling permit if they were not inundated with the wildfires in their communities. (Supplied)

In a written statement, the B.C. government said the notice of work decisions — in this case the drilling permits, "are not political decisions and are made solely by the statutory decision maker, who, in this case, was a senior permitting inspector located in Kamloops."

In a letter to Tsilhqot'in communities, Rick Adams, the senior inspector with the Ministry of Energy and Mines for the South Central Region said he appreciated that the notice came at a difficult time given the wildfire situation.

However, he added that he made the permit decision last Friday and had to honour his previous commitment to provide timely notification of his decision.

Opponents of Taseko's New Prosperity project argued the development would kill Fish Lake, a place of spiritual importance. (CBC)

Brian Battison, a spokesperson with Taseko Mines, says the application for the permit was routine and made last November.  

Normally, he said, these types of permits related to field work are turned around in 60 days. But because of the depth of consultation between the provincial government and the Tsilhqot'in Nation, it took 10 months.

"They knew this permit was coming ... and they have been preparing themselves for it for many months," Battison said.

'That was a shocker'

Roger Williams, chief of the Xeni Gwet'in Nation says the notice of permits granted came as a surprise to him.

"That was a shocker. This is frustrating, a lot of our family members are all over," he said, also from the Abbotsford hotel. 

Chief Roger William is shocked the B.C. government gave Taseko Mines the green light to begin exploration in an area considered sacred to his people. (CBC)

The permits authorize 76 km of new or modified trails, 122 drill holes, 367 test pits dug by an excavator, and 20 km of seismic lines near Teztan Biny, also known as Fish Lake, and Nabas — an area of profound cultural and spiritual importance that the Tsilhqot'in successfully fought to protect against two mine proposals.

The Tsilhqot'in Nation staunchly opposes the open pit gold and copper mine slated to be constructed right in the middle of their territory, 125 kilometres southwest of Williams Lake.

Taseko Mines says it's a significant project that wil help the economy. 

Battison said the mine will create $12.7 billion of provincial GDP during production it and it will employ 650 people for about 20 years. He added the company will spend, in that region, about $1,000,000 everyday. 

Federal approval still needed

While the B.C. government green-lit the exploratory work to prepare the mine, it still needs approval from the federal government.

It has been rejected it twice already, but the company is challenging the decision in court. Meanwhile, the project has been going through a provincial environmental review.

According to documents provided to the CBC, surveying could begin next week, and drilling could start by August 7.