No aboriginal prayer ceremonies, please, and no kindergarten plays about dead fish: The request from Taseko Mines Ltd. seeks to reshape the federal environmental review for its new Prosperity Mines application.
The review is expected to get under way as early as this week, with the appointment of a panel and terms of reference, after the company’s first proposal for a copper and gold mine was rejected because of significant adverse environmental effects.
With the Harper government clamping down on environmental opposition in the Northern Gateway pipeline hearings, first nations leaders are worried that Ottawa is now sympathetic to the request to limit their opposition to the massive open pit mine.
“It scares us, we’re afraid this company will influence them,” said Chief Joe Alphonse, chair of the Tsilhqot'in National Government. He said the company should abandon its project if it isn’t willing to respect the community’s traditions, which include prayers and drumming.
“That is who we are,” he said in an interview Monday. “If you don’t respect our culture and our spirituality as a company, then pack up and leave, this is the way things are in the Tsilhqot'in. We are spiritual people.”
The federal environmental review panel rejected Taseko Mines’s Prosperity project in November, 2010. Taseko’s revised proposal no longer includes the destruction of Fish Lake, but the Tsilhqot’in still oppose it.
In a letter to federal environment minister Peter Kent, Taseko president Russell Hallbauer complained last November that the “fairness and objectivity” of that the first panel review was tainted by allowing a first nations activist to sit on the panel.
The panel gave “priority status to the interests and perspectives” of first nations by allowing aboriginal prayer ceremonies at the opening of the hearings, he wrote. And science was given short shrift when the panel allowed a group of kindergarten children to present a play “in which the children wore fish cut-outs on their heads, moved around the floor, and then all fall over simultaneously, symbolizing the death of the fish.”
Taseko spokesman Brian Battison said the company believes Ottawa is sending out a more encouraging signal to industry because of its stance on the Northern Gateway pipeline hearings.
“We’ve been listening very carefully to what the Prime Minister and [natural resources minister]Joe Oliver has been saying, and we are encouraged by their sentiment and the content.”
In April, the federal government proposed legislation to take from regulators the final word on approvals and to limit the ability of opponents to intervene in environmental assessments.
In an interview Monday, Mr. Kent rejected Taseko’s complaints that the first panel hearing showed bias, noting that under the law, first nations have standing if they have an interest in a project.
However, he said it may be appropriate for the panel to try to limit the “hyperbole” around a given proposal.
“When outside forces try to play on emotions and anxieties and quite legitimate concerns, there is something to be said about trying to reduce the temperature and get on with looking at the project’s totality.”
B.C. environment minister Terry Lake said he has been told by Ottawa that the Prosperity review will not be covered by the new rules, when they come into force.
In its own assessment process, the B.C. government did approve the original mine project. But Mr. Lake doesn’t agree with the company’s approach to limiting the input of first nations. “I’m not in favour of shutting down that kind of emotion,” he said Monday. “It’s a very diverse province, there are historical factors that come into play and the Tsihlqot’in have different values they hold dear.”
The mine site, southwest of Williams Lake in B.C.'s Cariboo region, is one of the largest undeveloped gold and copper deposits in Canada.
Bob Simpson, the Independent MLA for Cariboo North, called the company’s complaints “inflammatory.” But he said Taseko should not translate Ottawa’s pushback on environmental opposition into a chance to limit engagement by first nations.
“The federal government is going after the environmental ‘outsiders’ and has tried to limit non-aboriginal presentations, but nobody is going after first nations right to have their say in the way that is most meaningful way to them.”