Darlene Simpson, chief negotiator for the Skii km Lax Ha, says almost every mine built in British Columbia comes with an environmental cost to native communities.
But she knows there is something worse: poverty.
That explains why the Skii km Lax Ha, a small band near Hazelton that claims the headwaters of the Nass River in its traditional territory, is embracing mining. The band has endorsed two big projects that are in the early stages of development and is thinking about supporting a third.
To the Skii km Lax Ha, support means more than just giving a project approval – it means actually helping build it.
"We are the largest employer in the Hazelton area," she says of Tsetsaut Ventures Ltd., a native-owned contracting company she and her husband, George Simpson, founded several years ago. "We have put 100 people to work so far, and we hope to see more hired. … We get four or five new résumés a day. It is hard to turn away young people who desperately want to work."
That's a dramatic turnaround for a community where unemployment has been endemic for so long that many young people have grown up in homes where their parents never had jobs.
Through Tsetsaut Ventures, the Skii km Lax Ha supply trucks, excavators and earthmovers, manage work camps, build core boxes, construct mine buildings, provide cooks, first-aid attendants, geotechnicians and environmental monitors. While 60 per cent of the employees are native, 40 per cent are not.
"We hire the best people," said Mr. Simpson. "And the mix is good. On the job site, you don't see that segregation in the lunch room where the native workers sit at one table and the non-natives at another. Everyone sits together."
But there have been some difficult choices along the way.
The Skii km Lax Ha territory is laced with salmon rivers and rich in wildlife. The band members descended from the Tsetsaut, a nomadic tribe that wandered from hunting camp to fishing camp, only putting down roots in the late 1800s, after European contact.
"Traditionally, we were trapping, hunting, fishing people," said Ms. Simpson. "And that is still important to us today."
But increasingly they are heavy equipment operators, too.
"The hardest thing for me is the question of where you find the balance between resource extraction and environmental protection. Every project has a cost attached to it, a cost to the land. Most of my life has been about hunting and fishing. Now it's about dealing with human capacity. I understand the environmental risk – but seeing people getting healthy and leading a better life makes it worth it to me."
Ms. Simpson says families are transformed when a member of a household gets a good job.
"You see people who were down and out, who had nothing, developing skills and becoming proud of who they are," she said. "I see kids we employ helping their parents [financially] or helping their brothers and sisters. … I see them putting their own kids into organized sports more. It is healthy for the whole community."
The two mining projects the Skii km Lax Ha are involved with are big. Pretium Resources Inc. is gearing up to take a 10,000-ton bulk sample of gold ore from the Brucejack site, in the Valley of the Kings. Castle Resources Inc. is planning to redevelop Granduc Copper, a mine that processed more than 15-million tons of ore before closing in 1984.
Ms. Simpson said the key to good relations is that on both projects the proponents engaged early with the band and listened to concerns about culturally or environmentally significant areas.
But while a lot of damage can be avoided with good planning, she said, you can't mine a mountain without doing some harm.
"You sacrifice a lot, no matter what," Ms. Simpson said. "However big or small the footprints are, there are still footprints. But if the agreements we sign mean my people are part of the project, then it's going to be a healthy footprint."
In a province, and a country, where resource companies and native communities are often in conflict, the Skii km Lax Ha offer an alternative model. And it looks like one that works.