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The First Nations community and the mining company are in a standoff over Fortune Minerals's plans to build an open-pit coal mine in the Sacred Headwaters of Northern British Columbia. Pictured, a woman holds a sign at a solidarity gathering in Vancouver.

John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

Although it has embraced several developments recently, the Tahltan First Nation in northern British Columbia is determined to halt a massive coal mine proposed in an area known as the Sacred Headwaters.

Fortune Minerals Ltd. is equally determined to push ahead with the Arctos Anthracite Project, which the company said will generate $10-billion in revenue.

The two sides are in a standoff this week at a mining field camp near the small community of Iskut in the Skeena Mountains, about 300 kilometres northeast of Prince Rupert. With RCMP officers looking on, a group of about 30 elders has been drumming and singing outside the camp and is threatening a full blockade.

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"They are angry and they are frustrated that this company is there," Annita McPhee, president of the Tahltan Central Council, said on Wednesday.

Ms. McPhee said the Tahltan have supported a number of projects, including BC Hydro's $700-million Northwest Transmission Line and a $200-million hydro generation project by AltaGas Ltd., and is in discussions with Imperial Metals Corp. over the $500-million Red Chris mine.

But she said the Fortune Minerals mine is a no-go because it threatens the headwaters of three important salmon rivers: the Skeena, Nass and Stikine.

"Ultimately with the Tahltan Central Council, our goal is to have permanent protection in this area. We're not unreasonable people. We've been very supportive and partners with industry in development projects in our territory," Ms. McPhee said. "But there are some things that we want to protect for ourselves and we have to draw the line. … We want to see this company leave."

Troy Nazarewicz, a spokesman for Fortune Minerals, said the mining camp is important because it is gathering scientific and baseline data for the environmental-assessment process.

He said the camp shut down over the weekend because of concern about the protest, but began operation again Monday. "We're going day by day I guess is the best way to look at it," he said when asked about the threat of a full blockade. "If they escalate it or interfere with any of the work ... they would be arrested."

RCMP Constable Lesley Smith said police are monitoring the dispute. "Right now, the protest is peaceful and lawful," she said.

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At a small rally outside the Vancouver Art Gallery on Wednesday, Tahltan First Nation member Colleen Collins said she hopes the public will get engaged. "We're hoping to get a lot of [public] recognition and have people come in to support us," she said as she handed out pamphlets.

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