At least two Conservative MPs have criticized their own government’s decision to block the development of a gold and copper mine in British Columbia, with one saying it has shattered the hopes and dreams of his constituents.
In a rare display of dissension from the Conservative backbench, Dick Harris said Thursday he strongly disagrees with Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq’s decision to halt the development of Taseko’s proposed New Prosperity mine about 300 kilometres north of Vancouver in the province’s Interior.
“My immediate thought was the people of the Cariboo-Tsilhqot’in area who have been suffering still under the effects of the mountain pine beetle infestation,” Mr. Harris, the Cariboo-Prince George MP who has represented the area for 21 years, said when asked for his reaction to the decision released late Wednesday night.
“Jobs are pretty scarce there,” Mr. Harris said, “and they’ve lost a few thousand people to Alberta who want to come home and the Prosperity mine was going to be a great catalyst for getting them back and boosting the local economy.”
Cathy McLeod, who represents the neighbouring Kamloops-Thompson-Cariboo riding, called it a huge blow.
“There are tens of thousands of people in the Cariboo who were looking at this project as a lifeline and an opportunity in communities that have been very hard hit,” she said. “I really am feeling incredibly disappointed.”
Ms. Aglukkaq said in a statement that the mine is likely to cause “significant adverse environmental effects that cannot be mitigated” and that the government had determined those effects “are not justified in the circumstances.”
The decision was welcomed by chiefs of Tsilhqot’in First Nation communities who say the project would have destroyed Fish Lake, a body of water they consider to be both spiritually and culturally significant.
But Mr. Harris said most of his constituents wanted the mine to go forward.
“When I was elected, my commitment to them was to ensure that every opportunity that’s available to any other part of the country would be available to them, including natural resource development,” he said. “So I did what members of Parliament do when they’re working for their constituents. You try to talk to everyone who will listen where you might be able to effect a favourable response.”
Although the leaders of the Tsilhqot’in rejected the project from the outset, Mr. Harris said, some of the young people in the local native communities saw its potential for job creation.
“They saw the Prosperity mine as an opportunity to get some skills training, which Taseko was going to provide, and give jobs at the mine, either at the mine or doing auxiliary jobs that are connected to the mine,” said the MP. “And this offered hope.”
Since Prime Minister Stephen Harper took office in 2006, there have been relatively few times when Tory backbenchers have stood in opposition to government policy. In the past year, however, there were several instances in which Conservative MPs spoke against the direction taken by the government. Edmonton MP Brent Rathgeber, for instance, left the Tory caucus after his own private member’s bill was overhauled against his wishes.
Mr. Harris, who has indicated that he will seek re-election in 2015, said he doesn’t believe MPs can be penalized for representing their constituents.
“I don’t agree with the government’s decision. It doesn’t mean I am criticizing the Prime Minister or the government because I’m not. I just don’t agree with the decision,” he said. “I am still a Conservative and I still think we’ve got the best prime minister that the country’s ever had but, on this issue, I am at odds with the decision that was made.”
Jason MacDonald, a spokesman for the Prime Minister, said the government understands that Mr. Harris is disappointed.
“But we’re committed to making project decisions based on the best available scientific evidence, while balancing economic and environmental considerations,” Mr. MacDonald said. “We’ll continue to make responsible resource development a priority and invite the submission of another proposal that addresses the government’s concerns.”