Fish Lake, or Teztan Biny in the Tsilhqot’in language, is a pristine lake with an abundant rainbow trout population. Located on the Chilcotin Plateau, 125 kilometres southwest of Williams Lake, British Columbia, Teztan Biny is a place where the Tsilhqot’in people have deep ancestral connections.
The area is an active hunting, trapping and gathering site that continues to provide vital sustenance to the Tsilhqot’in. But Teztan Biny is more than simply a source of fish and water.
For many Tsilhqot’in families raised on the nearby shores of adjoining Little Fish Lake, this place is home. Tsilhqot’in youth continue to maintain a relationship with Teztan Biny that has spanned generations. The stories and ceremonies associated with the lake are part of Tsilhqot’in identity and way of life.
For Vancouver-based Taseko Mines, Fish Lake is the chief obstacle to development in the region. The company claims the lake must be part of the plan to exploit the rich gold and copper reserves in the area, which it refers to as the Prosperity deposit.
Ignoring Indigenous land claims
While the Tsilhqot’in have never ceded their lands and never consented to mining around Teztan Biny, in British Columbia mining is carried out according to a free-entry system in which prospectors can lay claim to lands without recognizing Indigenous claims to title or rights.
In 2007, Taseko completed a feasibility study, and determined sizable profits could be made if the company drained Fish Lake and used it to store waste rock from the mine. Little Fish Lake would be covered with a massive storage facility for tailings generated by the mine.
This was made possible in 2002 with the introduction of a loophole referred to by the Fisheries Act as Schedule 2. By designating water bodies to the list of lakes on Schedule 2, companies could be exempted from environmental protections under the Act.
Environmental reviews by provincial and federal authorities were initiated in July 2008 and January 2009, respectively. The BC government—without getting the consent of the Tsilhqot’in—approved the mine and the proposal to destroy Fish Lake and Little Fish Lake in the process.
The federal Conservatives, however, halted the unfolding of Taseko’s mining plans. On November 2, 2010, Jim Prentice, then Canada’s Minister of Environment, announced that “the significant adverse environmental effects of the Prosperity project cannot be justified as it is currently proposed.”
The mine’s potential cultural impacts on the Tsilhqot’in were prominently established in this first environmental review. Yet the company immediately announced its intent to submit a revised mining plan, and submitted a new application just three months after rejection.
In the new proposal, Taseko proposed to relocate its tailings storage facility approximately 2 kilometers upstream of Teztan Biny. This would ostensibly avoid short-term destruction of the lake. The company logic was “we saved the lake, now let’s open the mine.” And that continues to be largely how Taseko portrays the project.
The federal government permitted Taseko to reapply for environmental review for its cynically titled “New Prosperity” mine. The “new” proposal was as bad if not worse than the first.
During the proceedings for the second proposal, Natural Resources Canada (NRCan) raised concerns that Taseko was drastically underestimating contaminated seepage from the tailings to Fish Lake.
When Taseko refused a request to refine its modelling, NRCan undertook this modelling itself. It concluded that seepage would be 11 times the rate estimated by the company. At the panel hearings, federal and provincial scientists and other independent experts raised dire concerns that Teztan Biny would be irreparably impacted.
Even if somehow the lake was not contaminated by tailings pond seepage, the development of the New Prosperity Mine would transform the Fish Lake area into an industrial zone.
The Tsilhqot’in raised concerns that burial sites would be disturbed and their spiritual and cultural use of the area would end. The industrial activity associated with New Prosperity would undermine the ability of the Tsilhqot’in people to practice their culture and transfer it to future generations.
On October 31, 2013, the second federal review panel released its report. It concluded that the project would result in significant adverse effects on water quality, fish habitat, Aboriginal land use, and cultural heritage in the Teztan Biny region.
In fact, the panel recognized that not only would the project lead to “significant adverse effects” on Tsilhqot’in land and resource use, but that these effects could not be mitigated. It warned that the project would “endanger their ability to sustain their way of life and cultural identity.”
Like the previous 2010 federal review, the panel findings are advisory to the Minister of Environment. Current Minister of Environment Leona Aglukkaq will make a decision as to whether the mine is likely to cause “significant environmental effects,” based on the submitted panel report. If the answer is affirmative, then the federal cabinet will make a final decision as to whether the mine is nonetheless justified in the circumstances.
In what seems like a transparent effort to distract attention from a second scathing independent review of its project, Taseko publicly alleged that NRCan had assessed the “wrong design.”
Although the review process provided the company with several months to review, challenge, and test the NRCan modelling, the company claims not to have discovered this “extraordinary error” until the days after the panel issued its highly critical report. These allegations have been dencounced as demonstrably false by the Tsilhqot’in National Government.
Taseko’s move is deliberately misleading. It wasn’t just NRCan that was critical of the company’s claims that it could “preserve” Fish Lake. The BC Ministry of Energy and Mines, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, Environment Canada, the Tsilhqot’in National Government, and several independent scientists questioned the mine on technical grounds.
Dr. John Stockner from the UBC Fisheries Centre told the panel that the company’s unprecedented and unproven plan to recirculate Fish Lake’s flows (effectively turning it into a contained aquarium) would render the lake dead to fish within a decade.
Poor design is only part of the story of the already once formally rejected mine. The Tsilhqot’in have never ceded their lands or their right to determine the course of development on their lands. Speaking with the review panel, Tsilhqot’in community members revealed their frustration with having to engage with a second federal review process.
The Tsilhqot’in have clearly rejected the mine. On this basis, as well as scientific assessment of its impacts, New Prosperity mine should be rejected.
Dawn Hoogeveen is a human geographer who writes about resource extraction and colonialism. She grew up on the traditional territory of the Anishinaabe in Peterborough, Ontario. Dawn currently resides on Coast Salish territory in Vancouver, where she is a PhD candidate at the University of British Columbia.
Tyler McCreary is a post-doctoral fellow at UBC and lives in Vancouver on unceded Coast Salish territory. He recently completed his PhD at York University on relations between Indigenous peoples and colonialism in resource extractive industries in BC.