By Derrick Penner, Vancouver Sun
With B.C. Energy and Mines Minister Bill Bennett in Ottawa lobbying in favour of Taseko Mines Ltd.'s New Prosperity mine proposal in the province's Interior, the First Nation affected by the project is seeking equal time with federal ministers to make their case as to why the mine shouldn't be built.
And the Tsihlqot'in National Government warned federal decision makers that it will oppose any decision approving the project in court, which could leave the Crown on the hook for millions of dollars in compensation to Taseko if an approval is rejected.
Chief Joe Alphonse, Tribal Chair for the Tsihlqot'in National Government, said "it is a disgrace" for Bennett to be lobbying for the mine project despite two versions of Taseko's proposal both receiving federal environmental assessment reviews that concluded the project would pose significant, irreversible risks to the environment.
Bennett went to Ottawa for meetings with four federal ministers and a dozen B.C. MPs to express his confidence in Taseko's ability to build the mine without serious damage to the environment and deliver the message that the project is important for the economic development of the Cariboo region.
However, Chief Roger William of the Xeni Gwet'in First Nation, the Tsihlqot'in community closest to the proposed mine, said the ministers also have to consider that New Prosperity would infringe on their aboriginal rights to hunt and trap in the area.
"We hope the ministers have our constitutional rights in mind," William said, "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."
Bennett, at a pro-mine gathering in Vancouver on Tuesday, said he had lined up meetings with his federal colleagues, including Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver, Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt, and Labour Minister Kellie Leitch.
"I'm going to seek to influence the decision, of course," Bennett told reporters. "I want them to say yes because they can say yes. I want to make sure they have all the information to do that."
The New Prosperity proposal enjoys wide support among non-aboriginal communities in the Cariboo such as Williams Lake, 125 kilometres northeast of the proposal site, and within the broader resource-development sector.
Williams Lake Mayor Kerry Cook and Mining Association of B.C. CEO Karina Brino were among supporters who spoke at the pro-mine presentation Tuesday.
Taseko disputes findings related to assumptions about seepage from the project's proposed tailings pond contained in the latest federal environmental review, contending that Natural Resources Canada was looking at the wrong design.
However, Alphonse on Thursday maintained "this is a bad project" that can't be approved. He said the Tsihlqot'in would prefer co-operating with the province on "acceptable proposals elsewhere."
"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.