Our Lands Are Not "Waste Lands of the Crown"

Nuxalk eviction of mining company is the most recent action in a 170-year long fight – colonizers have been illegally occupying their territory for gold since the gold rush, says Nuskmata, Jacinda Mack.

Odette Auger

Community members came out to support the eviction of Juggernaut Exploration, a Vancouver-based mining company, from Nuxalkulmc (Nuxalk Territory). Photo Credit: Banchi Hanuse

When the people of Bella Coola valley started hearing and seeing helicopters going to and fro, they knew they had to organize – quickly, says Nuskmata, Jacinda Mack. “We value the water and the salmon and our way of life too much,” she says.

Nuskmata is from both Nuxalk and Secwepemc ancestry, and was involved with the response to the 2014 Mt. Polley mine disaster in Secwepemc territory. When the helicopters ramped up in mid-July, the grassroots group Ancient Roots Collective (ARC) called her home to help with the mining threat to her other home, Nuxalkulm.

“[Juggernaut] has been sneaking around in our community doing this work, but you know, it’s a very small town. So people notice when a new helicopter company shows up and it’s flying into the back valley. When all of these workers are showing up that have no connection to the community, and we are left to wonder who they are.”

“It’s a poor way to do business, and a poor way of building relationships. They’ve basically done the opposite of what they should have done,” Nuskmata says.

On August 16, a 48-hour eviction notice was served to Juggernaut Exploration Ltd., for unauthorized mining in Bella Coola, BC. This eviction comes from the combined strength of both elected and ancestral governance. Stataltmclh (ancestral governance) sent a cease operations notice to Juggernaut. The letter demands the company to return core samples, and remove equipment. A second letter from the elected Chief and Council, was sent in support.

Juggernaut has known for over a year that they had no consent to mine in Nuxalkum. In May 2020, Stataltmclh issued a formal letter of non-consent to Juggernaut. An earlier letter was sent in 2019, when Juggernaut was partnered with a company named Goliath.

“At no time has the British Crown, Canada, or the Province of British Columbia ever had jurisdiction over we, the People of Nuxalk,” reads the eviction notice. The Nuxalk Nation has never ceded rights or title to its territory, and has never had treaty negotiations.

Nuxalk Stataltmc (Ancestral Governance) stand in support of their eviction notice served to Juggernaut Explorations Ltd. Photo Credit: Michael Wigle.

The Vancouver-based mining exploration company previously said they didn’t have to consult unless they were drilling. Despite the letter of non-consent, they are now test drilling at two sites in Nuxalk territory.

“They are looking for gold and other precious metals and are breaking Nuxalk law,” says the leadership’s press release.

On November 16th, 2020, Juggernaut received its five-year advanced exploration permit for drilling for their Goldstandard site, and on March 11th, 2021 received one for their Goldstar site.

The Goldstar permit contains 1249 hectares “in close proximity to infrastructure providing for cost effective exploration,” says Juggernaut’s press release. The site is only 4 kilometres from the town of Bella Coola.

Remembering Mt. Polley

At the Mt. Polley mine, an enormous tailings pond broke a barrier in August 2014, and more than 26 million liters of effluent containing toxic copper and gold mining waste flowed into Quesnel Lake, Polley Lake, and Hazeltine Creek.

“Mining pollution never goes away,” says Nuskmata, “especially if it starts to produce acid from the waste rock. This rock has been underground forever. They bring it to the surface, crush it, mix it with water and chemicals to pull out the gold or whatever they’re after. A mine site is really a waste containment site because there’s a very small amount of gold in comparison to the amount of the waste that’s produced to get to that gold.”

“People need to understand that our lands have been illegally occupied since the gold rush.”

Examples of the continued damage can be seen at the Brenda Mine on Babine Lake and Silver Creek Mine near Smithers. They will both require water treatment for over 200 years, according to a report by Skeena Wild and Reform BC Mining.

“All of that waste – it’s still sitting there. [Imperial Metals] tries to say that they’ve cleaned it all out, but they haven’t. It’s still at the bottom of Quesnel Lake. It’s still in the forest on the sides of the Creek. They only removed enough to go back into operation, and BC allowed that.”

Nuskmata has been working with First Nations Women Advocating Responsible Mining (FNWARM). Her mother, Bev Sellars, was an advisor for the BC Treaty Commission and Chair of FNWARM.

“My mother personally charged the company through private prosecution – there were 15 distinct environmental laws broken.” When the BC Prosecution Service took over, the charges were dropped. In the end, Nuskmata notes, the company received permission from the province to dump waste directly into the lake.

Last week, two engineers – not the company – were disciplined for their involvement in the Mt. Polley breach. These engineers were only disciplined by their professional regulatory body, Engineers and Geoscientists BC – not by the province.

“The province is heavily invested into mining, and do not want to make changes,” says Nuskmata.

In BC the “free entry” and online mineral titles continue to be used, contradicting the province’s claims to reconciliation, says Nuskmata. “Think of the mining laws and so-called reconciliation. We haven’t seen that in our communities. We haven’t experienced any of the protections for our people or for the land.”

“It’s just mining at all costs, and mining companies have deep pockets. They have a lot of money to influence the law.”

“Waste lands of the crown” polluted forever

The sites are all 100 per cent owned by Juggernaut, meaning it will be easier for Nuxalk to have one target, she says. “But really the fight isn’t with the company, it’s the Province issuing those licenses where they have no authority,” says Nuskmata.

Promises of reconciliation and adopting the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) ring a little hollow when the province continues to hand out mining licenses with no attempt to consult. UNDRIP affirms the rights of Indigenous peoples both to participate in decision making about their traditional territories, and to give or withhold free, prior, and informed consent before development can occur. And, consultation is not consent.

Lower Bella Coola Valley, view to the West | Photo: Michael Wigle

“BC mining law is archaic, written during the gold rush,” says Nuskmata.

Since the 1859 Gold Fields Act, miners have been able to apply for a “free miner’s certificate” – and still can today, for a cost of $25. The certificate grants “free-entry” rights, including “the right to enter and access land that may contain minerals, the right to locate and register a claim, and the right to apply for a mineral lease.”

Indigenous lands are described as being at the province’s disposal, as “waste lands of the crown.”

“They’re in the wrong place – because these are definitely not waste lands and they definitely do not belong to the crown,” Nuskmata says.

“To call it ‘waste lands’ is pretty indicative of their line of thinking. To us, this is the most precious lands, the wealthiest lands. Otherwise, we wouldn’t be here. We’re so rich in what we have – and it’s our job to take care of that.”

The people who are currently living here continue to have a strongly land-based way of living. “They’re cutting fish right now, to hang in smoke houses. They’re still picking medicines. They are still speaking our language that is based on the land, our relationship with land,” she says.

It reminds her of another term used in mining: “overburden” – the earth, rock, and other materials that lie above a desired ore or mineral deposit. “They call it overburden, it’s a burden to get down into the rock,” she says.

Nuskmata knows it differently.

“The whole living layer on top of the rock, all the soil and the bugs and the plants and the trees and the forest – and all the complexity.” It’s what they need to remove to get to the gold, silver, and other precious minerals.

“This isn’t a new story, we’ve been dealing with the impacts of the gold rush for the last 170 years. And, this is the same fight – with the new generation picking up the fight, picking up the work.”

It’s a continuation of the terra nullius principle, not considering Indigenous people human beings, Nuskmata notes.

“In 1995 and 1997, there was a stand for the land in another part of our territory called ISTA. Our people got arrested, our chiefs and youth. A hereditary chief at the time asked the judge, ‘Do you consider me a human being? Am I a human being?’ And the judge said, ‘you know, I can’t answer that question.’”

“To not be able to call us human beings in their court of law, and to call our lands ‘wastelands’ says a lot.”

Once mining has taken place on a tract of land, it’s no longer included within the normal environmental protection laws.

“If a logging company comes in after a mining company, they don’t have to abide by the same environmental standards. The mineral act allows for a lot more pollution,” explains Nuskmata.

Free, prior, and informed consent

“Recent glacial recession has opened up previously covered areas revealing newly exposed mineralization never seen before,” touts Juggernaut’s website.

“These mountain glaciers are all melting because of the climate crisis. That’s how they’re getting into these new areas that aren’t covered anymore by glaciers. They’re all excited – and they’re coming for the whole west coast,” says Nuskmata.

“People need to understand that our lands have been illegally occupied since the gold rush,” reminds Nuskmata.

Nuxalk people today have Elders who still hold the living memories of the Gold Rush. Their parents and grandparents lived it, and the impacts persist to this day. To get to the gold, their relations were displaced from their villages, and assigned to reservations.

Nuxalk Elders remember the smallpox blankets had a purpose.

“Gold fever swept through the land and they were willing to do anything to get to the gold. Our lands were heavily occupied. We had complex trade networks and complex systems. Indigenous people outnumbered the new settlers. We were 20-30,000 people in our territory and it was reduced to less than 250 people.”

“It’s not enough just to tell people about it. We have to take concrete action to stop it and to change it and to protect our community, our children and future generations.”

The government intentionally and systematically introduced smallpox to remove the Indigenous communities in an effort to clear the land. Bella Coola was a strategic location, and the government wanted a railroad from Bella Coola to the goldfields in the Interior.

In Canada’s “War” of Extermination on the Pacific, Tom Swankey traces the history of smallpox being spread by land speculators led by Attorney General George Cary. The agents were tasked with clearing the land of inhabitants.

Nuskmata explains, “So this isn’t a new story, we’ve been dealing with the impacts of the gold rush for the last 170 years. And, this is the same fight – with the new generation picking up the fight, picking up the work.”

Mt. Pootlass on the right and the Bella Coola estuary below. The estuary, critical habitat for both out-migrating juvenile and spawning adult salmon, would be highly vulnerable to impacts from any potential toxins or waste from mining operations. Photo Credit: Michael Wigle

“We need to ring the bell for our nation and for our neighbouring nations. They should be aware of it, to be doing their work as well. And we call on them for solidarity and support to really bring this injustice to light and to do something about it.”

Nuxalk leadership are asking for help from all voices, and they invite letters of support, And, Nuskmata notes, “It’s not enough just to tell people about it. We have to take concrete action to stop it and to change it and to protect our community, our children and future generations,” she says.

Reconciliation is land back, she says. One example of action is “my family building in our home village, which is outside of the reserve. We’ve gone back to our home village and we’re building homes there and we’re just taking it back.”

“We’re camping right now while we’re building. So, it’s very real. We’re bathing in the river, we’re cooking simple meals and we’re coming together. And so that’s the kind of action that we need to take. To reconcile, to make it right. It’s to go back to where we truly come from to go back to our own ways.”

“You know, the government is using this word as a way to entice people into framework agreements. So the government can interpret what UNDRIP means. We need to define that for ourselves. We need to be doing the work for ourselves, nobody’s going to come and save us.”

“We have to think beyond our own lives, step up to those responsibilities and get busy and take action.”

Odette Auger, Sagamok Anishnawbek, is a guest on Klahoose, Homalco, Tla’amin territories. She works with IndigenEYEZ, has written and produced for First People’s Cultural Council and Cortes Radio. Her journalism can be found at Watershed Sentinel, IndigiNews, the Discourse, APTN, and the Toronto Star, among other places.

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