Taku River Tlingit ready to stop Chieftain

The Taku River Tlingit First Nation has formally expressed its disapproval of plans to develop the Tulsequah Chief mine near Atlin, B.C. And it has directed its officials to do what they can to stop the project.

The Taku River Tlingit First Nation has formally expressed its disapproval of plans to develop the Tulsequah Chief mine near Atlin, B.C. And it has directed its officials to do what they can to stop the project.

On Nov. 18, the First Nation’s joint clan forum passed a mandate outlining its concerns with the project. The mandate directs the First Nation’s leadership to “take all necessary steps to ensure that the Tulsequah Chief project, as currently proposed, is not developed on Taku River Tlingit territory.” The joint clan is the First Nation’s highest form of government, said spokesperson John Ward.

Chieftain Metals Inc., which took ownership of the property after previous owners Redfern Ventures went bankrupt, plans to develop Tulsequah’s underground mines, which closed more than 50 years ago. The company and the First Nation signed a letter of understanding in May 2011.

But, in recent months, the First Nation has stated its disapproval with the project.

In June, the company shut down its interim water-treatment plant. Operating the plant was part of the company’s agreement with the First Nation, but the company has said the plant’s operation has become too costly. It has not said when it will re-open.

Chieftain CEO Victor Wyprysky declined to comment.

In September, the First Nation announced it was pulling its teams from provincial review processes. It had previously written the B.C. government to express its concerns.

Earlier this year, a group of Taku River Tlingit who live in the Yukon formed Children of the Taku, a not-for-profit dedicated to preserving the First Nation’s traditional way of life in its traditional territory. The organization issued a release applauding the mandate.

“Many people are fed up with the broken promises and lack of respect from Chieftain and the B.C. government,” member Yvonne Jack said in the release. “This mandate gives our leadership strong and specific guidance to oppose the Tulsequah Chief proposal and we look forward to working together. We need time to plan our future on our terms and not be rushed by B.C. or Chieftain.”

“We’ll do whatever is necessary to comply with this mandate to stop,” said Ward. For now, tha has meant writing letters to the B.C. government. A letter has also been sent to Chieftain, but there has been no response yet, said Ward.

If the company begins building an access road to the site, “we’ll see to it that that doesn’t happen,” said Ward.

Chieftain possesses the approval needed to build an access road.

In October, Chieftain received approval from the B.C. government for revised plans to build an access road. The new route has fewer stream crossings and avoids direct contact with the Nakina trail, an area with particular cultural significance to the First Nation.

Every year, their ancestors would travel the Nakina trail so they could harvest salmon for the year, said Ward. The trail gave them access to the Taku watershed. In recent years, the trail has been re-opened and that tradition has begun again, he said.

Continued pollution from the site could harm the salmon in the Taku River, which borders British Columbia and Alaska. Salmon fisheries make up a big part of Alaska’s economy. And every year, youth from the Taku River Tlingit work at the salmon weirs.

The First Nation is worried about how the proposed access road could affect the trail. There are also concerns that the road would open up the area to other mining companies.

“We all can’t afford, you know, a $1,000 plane ticket to fly to the watershed and go fish. But we can walk. That’s just an exercise of our rights and our way of life, and if that trail is obliterated, what do we do? We’ve seen every other trail in the North with a road built over top of it,” said Ward. “There’s no acknowledgement of our people. There isn’t.”

These concerns aren’t new.

Residents of Atlin often feel neglected by the provincial government, said Nathan Cullen, the NDP MP for the Skeena-Bulkley Valley in October.

The community has always had a boom-or-bust economy, he said. Atlin residents are resilient and creative, he said, but they need jobs.

“If a decent mining company showed up, it would become the main employer (in Atlin) that day,” said Cullen.

But more than jobs, the project would bring “a lot of division,” he said.

And the jobs aren’t worth the environmental risks. “We can do a whole lot better than Tulsequah Chief,” he said.

Ward agrees. “A large number of our people do understand that the economy must go on. But not at the cost of our way of life and our land,” he said.

Contact Meagan Gillmore at

mgillmore@yukon-news.com

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