Mount Milligan Mine

🕔Apr 07, 2010

I heard drumbeats and song on a damp October evening in downtown Prince George. Inside the Civic Centre a federal government presentation about the Mount Milligan gold-copper mine was underway. Outside, people stood in a circle, their music in protest of the decisions being made about a mine that Terrane Metals plans for their traditional territory at the mountain they know as Shus Nadloh.

They are the Nak’azdli people.

The Nak’azdli people live by Fort St. James; their traditional territory extends toward the town of Mackenzie and encompasses the headwaters of the Peace River in the northern Rockies. There are over 1700 members of the Nak’azdli Nation.

Anne Marie Sam is a Nak’azdli band councilor whose father is the current chief. Her childhood spent on the land with her grandparents and family members taught her about the skills of hunting, fishing, berry-picking and gathering medicines from the forest.

The Mount Milligan mine will be located between Fort St. James and Mackenzie on Nak’azdli traditional territory. It will process 60,000 tonnes per day of ore; the total disturbance area is predicted to be more than 18 square kilometres. Included in the project are an onsite explosives factory, a 92-km transmission line and an upgraded access road with 30 stream crossings.

After receiving BC environmental approval in 2009, the mine underwent a Comprehensive Study Report by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) and National Resources Canada (NRCan). DFO determined that the proponent’s mitigation plans were adequate to offset the conversion of fish-bearing Alpine Creek and King Richard Creek into tailing impoundment areas (TIAs) for the mine.

In addition to the conversion of the two creeks into TIAs, Terrane Metals has stated they may also draw water from nearby Rainbow Creek, a third fish-bearing waterway. These creeks flow into the Nation River that flows north toward Williston Lake and the Peace River beyond.

Place of belonging
The Sam family’s keyoh, or traditional place of belonging and survival, is in close proximity to the proposed mine; they know the mountain as Shus Nadloh. As keyoh holders, Anne’s family has responsibility to protect the area. The mountain is sacred to her, her family and the Nak’azdli people. She and other community members are concerned not only about the destruction of fish and wildlife habitat near the mine but also the leaching of poisonous chemicals into the Arctic watershed.

The Nak’azdli people have long known about the presence of gold in the vicinity of Shus Nadloh. Anne’s grandfather was aware of the gold but did not want to let people know because money would cause people to fight; he wanted their children and grand children to have land to continue the Dakelh lifestyle.

Since 1984, plans for a gold mine have been in the works by a number of mining interests in the area. In the past low gold prices did not promote mine development. In June 2006, Terrane Metals informed the Nak’azdli people they had an exploration permit from the BC government; the Nak’azdli had not been consulted.

Anne says the goals of the mining company and her community are not congruent. The Nak’azdli people’s concerns center on the need to protect the fragile wilderness in the area and to ensure long-term community sustainability. The company’s environmental impact studies did not focus on all wildlife the Nak’azdli know to be in the area, and the Nak’azdli feel that the “comprehensive” study done by DFO and NRCan falls far short of its name. Community hunters and fishers have observed how caribou and Arctic grayling are just starting to return to the area after the detrimental impacts caused by the 1960s flooding of Williston Lake.

The people believe that an ongoing relationship with their traditional ways on the land will give strength to their community. In Anne’s view, the mining company’s plans focus on extracting as much gold and copper as quickly as possible rather than maintaining a smaller mine over a longer term.

At the federal government’s presentation in Prince George, I heard representatives from the Fort St. James and Mackenzie Chambers of Commerce express support for the mine. They said that their communities need the jobs they anticipate the mine will bring; they have confidence Terrane Metals is a responsible company.

Meanwhile, I thought of the Nak’azdli people outside, and felt the silence in the room where their voices of opposition should have been. What supporters of the mine share with the Nak’azdli people is hope for security and well-being for northerners, but their ideas on how to bring about this vision differ.

“We know that First Nations communities are healthier with a connection to the land and traditional ways. We need the opportunity to provide input into the direction and scope of proposed developments in our territory. The mine is a direct threat to my children and grandchildren’s identity. What kind of identity will they have when their keyoh includes a large tailings pond and a 350-metre-deep open pit?”

Boom and bust
Anne sees the need for economic development; the Nak’azdli already operate a large grocery store and mill. In her view, long-term sustainability and health are imperative. She is concerned about increased alcoholism, drug abuse and other social problems that can result from the boom and bust economy that a large mine could bring to the area.

Although they provided input about their concerns, the Nak’azdli people chose not to participate directly in the environmental review processes, systems they believe do not adequately provide for First Nations consultation; they did not want to acquiesce to processes that do not provide meaningful consultation. The Aboriginal right to be consulted in good faith by the government in unceded traditional territory is entrenched in the Canadian Constitution and repeatedly confirmed by Canada’s Supreme Court.

In December 2009 the federal Environment Minister approved the Mount Milligan Mine on the basis of the Federal Report by DFO and NRCan. The Minister decided that no additional information is necessary and that there are no further public concerns that need to be addressed, and that the project with its mitigation measures is not likely to cause significant adverse environmental effects. The Nak’azdli only heard of the approvals from media reports; they were not informed of the decision by either the federal or BC governments.

After recommending approval of the mine, DFO and NRCan stated that they will “continue to consult with First Nations regarding the anticipated regulatory approvals for the project…in order to identify any additional appropriate accommodation measures that may be required.” Meanwhile, Terrane Metals has recently been quoted in the media as stating they are planning to begin construction on the mine this coming summer.

The Nak’azdli First Nation has now issued an “eviction notice” to Terrane Metals to leave their traditional territory. They have also filed a petition in the British Columbia Supreme Court and a notice of application with the Federal Court respectively. At the time of this writing, the cases are still pending before the courts.

Shus Nadloh waits.
Post script: Anne Marie Sam has now joined with other First Nations Women Leaders from northern British Columbia to form First Nations Women Advocating for Responsible Mining, or FNWARM. For more info contact Corrine Porter at 867-335-4667, or by email: