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The political storm watch on Fish Lake Add to ...

On the surface, Fish Lake looks serene - a sun-dappled body of water where fish jump in the shadows of snow-capped mountains.

But this lake, about 125 kilometres southwest of Williams Lake in British Columbia's rugged Chilcotin Territory, is the heart of a battle that has put the federal and provincial governments on a collision course, pitted predominantly aboriginal concerns about the environment against the prospect of jobs and investment in a hard-pressed region, and raised fears of violent confrontations if a proposed mine goes ahead.

The federal government is to make a final decision on the proposed Prosperity copper-gold mine, which the B.C. government has already approved, as early as this month.

"If it doesn't go ahead, I hope people will be smart enough to not blame the first nations for it," 100 Mile House Mayor Mitch Campsall said on Friday. Like many regional politicians, Mr. Campsall supports the project for the jobs and economic benefit it would bring to the area, which has been hammered by the pine beetle infestation and a downturn in ranching and agriculture.

If anyone gets blamed, Mr. Campsall said, "it should be the federal government."

At Fish Lake a day earlier, Roger William said he was counting on Prime Minister Stephen Harper to reject the mine, which would involve destroying Fish Lake and replacing it with an artificial lake that would hold fewer fish.

"They're asking us to allow a project that will drain a lake, destroy 1a lake," said Mr. William, a one-time bull rider who has spent the last two decades pursuing a landmark aboriginal title case on behalf of the Tsilhqot-in Nation. "B.C. approved this mine without hearing what our people were going to say. We feel the B.C. process is just a rubber stamp."



Prospectors have been kicking the rocks around Fish Lake since the 1930s. Vancouver-based Taseko Mines did extensive work on the site in the 1990s, but in the face of low commodity prices, shelved mine plans in 2000. The company dusted off the project in 2005 and has spent the years since developing mine plans and pursuing required approvals.

Following its own environmental assessment process, B.C. approved the $800-million project in January, citing hundreds of jobs and millions of dollars worth of tax revenue the project would generate.

But in July, a federal panel - which had been appointed before B.C. announced its verdict on the project - issued a report that the mine would have "significant adverse environmental effects" in several areas, including fish habitat and "potential or established aboriginal rights or title."

That put the ball in Mr. Harper's court, with investors, environmentalists and first nations crowding the sidelines - and voicing their opinions - from the stands.

The Tsilhqot'in Nation Government, representing six bands in the mine area, and other local bands reached out to provincial and national native groups to oppose the project.

At a recent news conference in Ottawa, flanked by leaders of the Assembly of First Nations and the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs, Xeni Gwet'in chief Marilyn Baptiste said one of the elders in her community had said that, if the mine were approved, she would be on the road in her wheelchair, carrying a shotgun.

Ms. Baptiste said others, herself included, were willing to sacrifice their lives to stop the project.

"A lot of people have their hopes pinned on this mine, on both sides," Randy Hawes, British Columbia's Minister of State for Mining, said Friday, adding that he has heard concerns about a backlash against aboriginal people if the mine proposal is quashed. "My point is that whatever happens with the mine, at the end of the day, aboriginal people and non-aboriginal people are still going to live there. And we all have to agree how to make the best of it."

In Nemaiah Valley, Ms. Baptiste said she merely gave voice to what community members were telling her. And, as Mr. William did earlier in the day, she referred to the Chilcotin War, the 1864 conflict between aboriginals and workers who were attempting to build a road from the coast mountains through to the Cariboo gold fields. That battle is part of local lore here.

"In 1864, they were after gold," Ms. Baptiste said. "If they hadn't been stopped then, we wouldn't be here."

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