Provincial authorities issued a work permit for a controversial mining project near Williams Lake days before the new government was to be sworn into office and as Tsilhqot'in communities in the area were under evacuation orders over wildfires.
The permit authorizes Vancouver-based Taseko Mines to conduct exploration work at the site of the proposed Prosperity Mine, a copper-gold project that has twice failed to obtain necessary federal approvals to proceed.
The province said the decision was made July 14 and communicated to the Tsilhqot'in National Government on July 17.
Leaders of the TNG, which represents six Indigenous communities in the region – four of which were under evacuation order when the permit came through – criticized the permit, calling the timing an insult and saying the province had ignored their long-standing concerns about the project by allowing exploratory work to go ahead.
"We didn't think this decision would go this way, let alone come down when we are in a crisis," Roger William, chief of the Xeni Gwet'in First Nation and vice-chair of the TNG, said on Tuesday.
"We've got two communities who are taking in evacuees and supporting those other communities that are under evacuation order and fighting for their homes," said Mr. William, adding that he learned of the permit while on a conference call related to wildfire response.
TNG leaders also questioned the timing of the permit, noting it was issued the day before a new NDP government was to take office.
"This is a typical move by the Liberal government," Tl'etinqox chief and TNG tribal chair Joe Alphonse said Tuesday in a statement. "They are a dead political party trying to mount a dead horse and hoping to ride it to a comeback."
Taseko spokesman Brian Battison said the company applied for the permit in November, 2016, and denied there was any politics involved.
"This is in no way a political decision – these are decisions made by statutory decision makers, who have a obligation to perform their duties … so it's not at a political level," Mr. Battison said.
Statutory decisions under the Mines Act are made in accordance with provincial legislation and decision makers are not subject to political interference or influence, a government employee said in an e-mail.
The province understands that the timing of the decision was unfortunate, but that timing had to be balanced with procedural fairness and repeated extensions already provided at TNG's request, the employee added.
The TNG said it would file a legal challenge to the permit.
The province declared a wildfire-related state of emergency on July 7 in response to wildfires that have forced nearly 40,000 residents from their homes and resulted in numerous evacuation orders, including one for Williams Lake this past Saturday.
The TNG represents six Indigenous communities west of Williams Lake, four of which are in areas covered by evacuation orders. Some residents of those affected communities have stayed behind to fight the fires.
The controversy over the permit is the latest in a string of conflicts and legal actions concerning the proposed mine, which Taseko describes as one of Canada's largest undeveloped copper-gold projects that – if developed – would generate billions of dollars in tax revenue and hundreds of jobs.
The TNG, meanwhile, has for years opposed the mine, saying it would destroy Fish Lake and put other waterways at risk.
The province issued an environmental assessment certificate for the proposed mine in 2010. The federal government rejected it later that year on environmental grounds.
Taseko submitted a revised proposal, called New Prosperity. In 2014, Ottawa rejected that proposal.
Taseko says it "fundamentally disagrees" with the federal government's decision, maintaining it was based on a flawed report, and has applied for two judicial reviews: one challenging the panel's findings and the other asking for federal decisions to be set aside.
Those actions are under way.
The tension between First Nations and the company was underscored by a 2014 Supreme Court of Canada decision that granted aboriginal title to about 1,700 square kilometres of land to the Tsilhqot'in – an area that does not include the proposed mine site.
The company welcomed the decision, saying in a news release at the time that "New Prosperity is the only proposed mine in B.C. that people know for sure is not in an area of aboriginal title."
Since then, the company has continued to pursue the project, with TNG voicing its continued opposition.
"The company could not prove to Canada this mine is safe," Mr. William said.
"The company is not in good standing with the TNG or the community and they're still at it."