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Transboundary river protectors seek recognition by British Columbia

Wrangell Sentinel Publication - Dec. 7th, 2022

A Southeast advocacy group dedicated to protecting the transboundary rivers that flow from Canada through Alaska to the sea want the British Columbia government to work with Alaska Indigenous people on mine permits the same as tribal members on the other side of the border.

The group’s immediate concern is permitting of mines in British Columbia in the watersheds of the Stikine, Unuk and Taku rivers. The group fears any mine pollution will flow downriver, harming fisheries and other habitat.

Under a 3-year-old law in British Columbia, the province has agreed to abide by the standards set out in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. That means government seeking active consent from Indigenous communities when making decisions, rather than merely consulting with them, Bruce McIvor, a principal at First Peoples Law, an indigenous rights law firm in Vancouver, said when the law passed.

In June, the province signed its first agreement under the 2019 law, governing the proposed Eskay Creek gold and silver mine, about 75 miles east of Wrangell. The agreement with the Tahltan Central Government sets up a process for “the first mining project to have permits authorized by an Indigenous government,” according to the project developer, Skeena Resources.

The law also is important to Tlingit and Haida tribal citizens in Alaska, said Guy Archibald, executive director of the Southeast Alaska Indigenous Transboundary Commission.

“We’ve put them (British Columbia) on notice” that the transboundary group and its tribes want the same status as the Tahltan in provincial review of mining permits, Archibald said.

An intent of the British Columbia law is to recognize that the traditional lands of Indigenous people don’t necessarily conform to national borders, he said. It’s clear that Tlingit and Haida traditional lands straddle the U.S.-Canada border and, as such, Alaska tribes should have a role in permitting decisions in British Columbia that could affect their lives, Archibald explained.

“The question is how is that going to be implemented for Southeast Alaska tribes,” he said. “B.C. really has no idea” how they are going to accept or accommodate any cross-border decision making, he said. The 9-year-old Indigenous Transboundary Commission represents 14 Southeast tribes, including the Wrangell Cooperative Association.

“I’m anticipating a fight,” Archibald said, though he also added, “It’s looking hopeful.”

He further explained that the British Columbia law does not grant veto power over permits to tribes. Rather, it requires that the government include them as active participants in the permitting process, which could include writing mitigation plans and ongoing monitoring of mining operations.

Eskay Creek operated from 1994 to 2008 as an underground mine. The developer wants to restart operations as an open pit mine. The company has completed its feasibility study and is working through permitting issues and the project’s economics before making an investment decision.

The agreement with the Tahltan is the first such “consent-based agreement for decision-making ever to be negotiated” under the 2019 law, Murray Rankin, provincial minister of Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation, said when the deal was signed in June.

“Together, the Tahltan Central Government and the province are leading the way toward a new model for advancing free, prior and informed consent.”

The Southeast Alaska Indigenous Transboundary Commission and individual tribes have been increasingly active in pushing U.S. and Canadian authorities to recognize their concerns and include them in permitting decisions.

“The Taku, Stikine and Unuk transboundary rivers are the lifeblood of Southeast Alaska,” Ketchikan Indian Community President Trixie Bennett wrote in a Nov. 28 letter to the U.S. Secretary of State. The Ketchikan tribe called for an international framework “to resolve and prevent future transboundary water pollution” from British Columbia mines.

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