Bill Gallagher, Author, Lawyer, Strategist
Resource Rulers: Fortune and Folly on Canada’s Road to Resources
B.C.’s road to resources traverses the Chilcotin, a vast central region that has now seen more political and project fallout than perhaps anywhere else in Canada. At its heart lies picture-perfect Fish Lake, the site of Taseko Mines (twice proposed / twice denied) gold-copper open pit mine project. It was just in the business news for all the wrong reasons: “Harper rips Taseko’s B.C. mine proposal: environmental report ‘damning’ Harper says” (Financial Post headline Mar 4 2014).
Four years ago, that proposed mine was ground-zero where the political careers of former B.C. premier Gordon Campbell and former federal environment minister Jim Prentice collided as they tried to navigate this treacherous intersection of aboriginal rights, determined miners, eco-activists and panel reviews. Campbell had wanted this project – but Prentice denied it – as a direct result both walked away from politics in the immediate aftermath. That happened in late 2010, after Prentice turned ‘thumbs-down’ on the (1st) Prosperity Mine because there was a ‘scathing’ joint panel review. Premier Campbell resigned 24 hours later; then Prentice did likewise.
It was strident native opposition to the proposed mine that was ‘the elephant in the room’ - then and now - more so than rampant eco-activism.
During the review process, Taseko had sued for the removal of panelist Natalie Morin (a Tahltan from northern B.C.) alleging that her: ‘beliefs … and the advocacy role she plays in her community, disqualify her from being a neutral and unbiased member of the panel.’ She was a trained metallurgist. The litigation caused a lengthy disruption in the proceedings, as all sorts of intermediary steps were undertaken to restore public confidence in the integrity of the environmental review process. Taseko’s legal challenge was withdrawn - the process resumed with Morin - the panel’s final report did not favour Taseko.
Jumping ahead to 2014 when current federal environment minister Leona Aglukkaq likewise turned ‘thumbs-down’ on the (2nd) New Prosperity Mine proposal - citing another failed joint panel review. Such was the concern of an industry backlash that days later; the Prime Minister, environment minister Aglukkaq, and natural resources minister Joe Oliver took Ottawa’s message directly to PDAC 2014, where Oliver declared at the opening ceremonies:
‘Regarding our decision to reject Taseko’s mine, some people were questioning … note that our government has advocated for your industry … but we have a responsibility to be environmentally rigorous and in 2010 and 2014 this project was not approved based on panels - we invite a submission for another application’. (PDAC March 3 2014)
Here was history repeating. The B.C. government had lobbied hard for this project only to be denied again. Any informed reader of the subject reports would readily see the government’s logic for rejection as being entirely justified, given that native opposition remained unrelenting throughout. Clearly there was a major ‘social license’ deficiency when it came to either political decision point (2010/2014).
To further complicate matters, the biggest lawsuit of all will be decided later this year by the Supreme Court of Canada: Roger William (Tsilhqot’in Nation) vs B.C.
This ruling will finally decide the extent that aboriginal title applies in the Chilcotin: either on a broader ‘territorial’ basis or on a site-specific ‘postage stamp’ basis? (The latter template represents the current judicial view on aboriginal title and thus is the raison d’etre for the native appeal.)
However that ruling is framed, it’ll be natives once again putting down a major marker on the road to resources. They’ve done it twice already on Prosperity and New Prosperity. As I’ve profiled at length in Resource Rulers, it’s natives (not eco-activists) who determine outcomes in Canada’s resources sector.
That’s why I treat Minister Aglukkaq’s Decision Statement of Feb 25 2014 (turning down New Prosperity) as native legal win # 191.
That’s also why they’re ‘Resource Rulers’!