Marilyn Baptiste, 45, will pocket US$175,000 at a ceremony tonight at San Francisco's opera house. She will join five other recipients from Kenya, Myanmar, Scotland, Haiti and Honduras at a ceremony attended by more than 3,000 people.
Baptiste is an elected councillor and former chief of the 400-member Xeni Gwet'in First Nations, located about 200 kilometres west of Williams Lake.
The Goldman Environmental Foundation says Baptiste was chosen because of her work in leading the battle against the Prosperity Mine which would have destroyed Fish Lake, a source of spiritual identity and livelihood for First Nations in the south Chilcotin area.
Goldman Prizes are presented annually to people it classifies as environmental heroes from each of the world's six inhabited continental regions. The awards recognize grassroots activists working against all odds to protect the environment and their communities.
"I was like wanting to hang up the phone and say,' No,' I don't want this,'" said Baptiste in an interview from San Francisco.
"But when I look at the fight and the process ahead of us and all the work we have ahead of us, this kind of an award is something that will help us move forward and will help us gain more allies and more public international education."
Previous Canadian winners include the former national chief of the Assembly of First Nations Matthew Coon Come and now-deceased B.C. environmental activist Colleen McCrory.
Baptiste is credited with contributing to two federal environmental review decisions rejecting plans by Vancouver-based Taseko Mines Ltd. (TSE:TKO), to proceed with its Prosperity mine proposals. The B.C. government's environmental assessment agency had granted approval for the mine.
Baptiste presented and prepared comprehensive environmental, cultural and economic data at federal environmental hearings. She also initiated a one-woman blockade in 2011 that prevented construction crews from reaching the proposed mine site.
The B.C. Supreme Court denied Taseko's request to end the blockade, which included Baptiste and members of the Tsilhqot'in Nation, of which the Xeni Gwit'in are members.
"Everybody figured we could never win," she said.
"Our ancestors have passed the torch forward for us to continue to protect the land, our wild salmon, our way of life that is connected to the land, and our future generations. Mother Earth needs our help."
Baptiste said her people have been fighting to protect their land for hundreds of years.
Last June, the Supreme Court of Canada granted the Tsilhqot'in Nation title to more than 1,700 square kilometres of land in the Nemiah Valley, where Baptiste lives. It's the first time in Canadian history a court granted such title.
Last October, the B.C. government pardoned six Tsilhqot'in chiefs who were hanged 150 years ago for their part in what became known as the Chilcotin War of 1864. Attempts by B.C.'s colonial government to build roads from the coast through Tsilhqot'in territory to the gold fields of the Cariboo were met with aboriginal resistance. Twenty non-aboriginals died.
Baptiste said her fight against the mines has roots in that war.
"When we talk about the war leaders of 1864, they stopped a road crew from coming in on the southwest side of the territory," she said. "They were after gold then, and now with this fight they are after gold in the southeastern side. The story is the same. It's just hundreds of years later."
Baptiste plans to use the prize money to help her family and community. She will also be honoured in a ceremony Wednesday — Earth Day — in Washington, D.C.