WILLIAMS LAKE, B.C. - British Columbia Mines Minister Bill Bennett met with a trio of federal ministers in Ottawa on Thursday to urge them to approve a controversial gold and copper mine that has already been rejected once by the Conservative government.
But the First Nations fighting the proposal said it's a disgrace that Bennett is pressuring Ottawa to approve the New Prosperity mine, against the advice of an environmental review panel.
And the Tsilhqot'in National Government said if the federal government does so, it could be on the hook for compensation because the bands involved will take the project to court.
"We hope the ministers have our constitutional rights in mind, because this project clearly violates our aboriginal rights, as well as our human rights as indigenous peoples. If the federal government approves this mine, it could be on the hook for millions to the company in compensation when the courts strike down those approvals," Chief Roger William of the Xeni Gwet'in First Nations said.
Two federal environmental reviews have now found that the mine proposed by Taseko Mines Ltd. would infringe on aboriginal rights to hunt and trap — an impact that cannot be mitigated, William said in a statement.
A Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency report last month found that the billion-dollar project would cause "significant adverse environmental effects'' on water quality, fish and fish habitat in a lake of significance to area First Nations.
It was the second time the agency panel found fault with the project. The federal environmental minister rejected the mine in 2010 because Taseko's plan was to drain
Fish Lake, or Teztan Biny, for use as a tailings pond. The company revised the plan and reapplied.
The B.C. govenrment approved the original project in 2010, saying the benefits outweighed the environmental impacts.
Taseko has applied to the Federal Court for a judicial review of the latest assessment, saying the panel used the wrong information to conclude the mine will eventually contaminate Fish Lake.
The site 125 kilometres southwest of Williams Lake, B.C., is the tenth largest undeveloped gold-copper deposit in the world and Bennett said the mine will create 750 construction jobs and 500 permanent jobs in an area that has been devastated by the pine beetle epidemic.
He met with Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver, Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt and Government Services Minister Diane Finley.
Bennett didn't mention Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq, in whose hands the decision rests.
"I made sure that the federal ministers understand how important this project is to the Cariboo region that's really suffering right now because of the pine beetle epidemic, and I made sure that they understand that we have the technology in British Columbia, in our mining industry, to actually build this mine in a way that is environmentally safe," Bennett said after the meetings on Parliament Hill.
He rejected assertions that it was inappropriate for him to make the appeal to the federal government.
"I'm not lobbying on behalf of a company," Bennett said. "I'm here on behalf of the people of British Columbia. We need the jobs."
Chief Joe Alphonse, tribal chairman of the Tsilhqot’in National Government, said the federal ministers should also hear from his community, "about the legal situation and their constitutional obligations to us as a First Nation," before making any decision.
"It’s disappointing that the provincial government is not more concerned with relationships with First Nations, who hold the keys to an estimated $650 billion in development projects in western Canada," Alphonse said.
Alphonse said B.C. is on the path to "all-out conflict" with First Nations over the project.
"This is a bad project and there’s no way it can be approved. We’d rather work with the province on acceptable proposals elsewhere, so this is all a waste of time and energy."
Bennett said he expects a decision from Aglukkaq in February.
- By Dene Moore in Vancouver