A proposal to reopen a northern British Columbia mine that once produced the world’s highest-grade gold will legally require the consent of the Tahltan Central Government, under a pact signed between the First Nation and the province.
Skeena Resource’s Eskay Creek $600-million revitalization project will need three levels of government approval to reopen the mine, according to Monday’s agreement – which is the first to be reached under B.C.’s Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Act (DRIPA), enacted in 2019.
The project must first go through a B.C. environmental assessment and possibly a separate federal environmental review, unless Ottawa accepts the provincial review as its own. If it passes those hurdles, the Tahltan’s 4,000 members will hold a ratification vote to determine if the mine, which was closed in 2008, will reopen.
The Tahltan Nation’s traditional territories span 11 per cent of B.C., including the mineral-rich “golden triangle” in the northwest corner of the province.
Chad Day, president of the Tahltan government, said at a news conference in Victoria that he expects that the agreement will lead to a more prosperous future for his community. But, he added: “The Tahltan people will ultimately decide whether or not this project goes through.”
In a province with few treaties, the majority of B.C.’s land base remains subject to Indigenous rights and title claims. The clarity around the environmental-review process should be reassuring to investors, Premier John Horgan told reporters.
“We recognize the inherent rights of the Tahltan to make decisions on their territory. The Tahltan recognize that they are part and parcel of British Columbia and Canada, and working together, we can do extraordinary things,” he said. “That will of course, mean less uncertainty, more reconciliation. It will remove restrictions to economic growth, and will help us to build investor confidence.”
DRIPA is B.C.’s vehicle to implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which states that resource developments require the “free, prior and informed consent” of affected Indigenous peoples. When DRIPA was passed into law, the province was emphatic that it does not grant First Nations veto power over resource development. However, it does promise redress and restitution when a project is approved without Indigenous consent.
The environmental review for the Eskay Creek mine will be conducted under the province’s assessment process, but it will be governed under the umbrella of Section 7 of DRIPA, which requires the consent of the Indigenous governing body before the province can exercise its statutory power to make a decision.
B.C.’s environmental assessments typically take between three and five years to complete, and the process for Eskay Creek is now in the early stages. The province is asking Ottawa to accept the provincial environmental assessment process as its own, which would mean the project would only go through a single review. Both levels of government would each need to issue a decision based on the review’s findings.
Murray Rankin, B.C.’s Minister of Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation, said the Tahltan have given advance consent to the process, but the environmental review itself is unchanged.
“There’ll be the certainty upfront that’s created through this: We know where the Tahltan Central Government stands on the project,” he said.
Skeena Resources is still working on its feasibility study for bringing the mine back online, said Justin Himmelright, the company’s senior vice president of external affairs and sustainability, in the news conference.
Reopening the mine would require a $600-million capital investment, and would create up to 500 jobs and deliver about $730-million of direct tax revenue to the province, he added. The site already has road access, permits for a tailings pond and access to hydroelectric power.
“So today, the project has all of these great assets that are the legacy of the previous project. The part that has been missing from the Eskay Creek project is … it has never achieved formal consent from the Tahltan Nation. And so it’s a very, very important step,” Mr. Himmelright said.
The Tahltan have embraced a wide range of entrepreneurial ventures including aviation, road construction, IT management, power line construction, clean energy and engineering. Many Tahltan members work in the mining industry. The First Nation has been strategic in what projects it will embrace, however, and has blocked a string of coal mines that would have operated in what it regards as sacred land.
The Association for Mineral Exploration, in a statement, welcomed Monday’s agreement.
“AME supports the modernization of the laws that regulate exploration and development activity in B.C. and applauds the clarity agreements such as this can provide,” president and CEO Kendra Johnston said.
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