We’ve never had to hold a ceremony like this before

by Craig Benjamin,
Campaigner for the Human Rights of Indigenous Peoples

Walking up the long dusty road to where the Mt Milligan gold and copper mine is now under construction, Anne Marie Sam of the Nak’azdli First Nation describes the many ways – including hunting, fishing and gathering plant medicines – that her family has lived on the land that is now consumed by the mine’s footprint.

“This mine,” she says, “means that my children will not have the opportunity to grow up experiencing that same connection to the land.”

The Mt. Milligan mine, located northwest of Prince George in British Columbia is expected to begin operation this year and to continue production for at least 22 more years.

The mine affects lands, rivers and streams that are the subject of unresolved legal claims involving four First Nations, including Nak’azdli, which has never entered into a treaty with Canada.  In their traditions, the people of Naka’zdli follow a Keyoh system in which responsibility to care for specific areas of the territory are handed down with the family from one generation to the next. The Mt. Milligan mine development consumes most of Anne Marie Sam’s family Keyoh.

The mine development was approved by environmental assessments carried out by the provincial and federal governments. The federal assessment acknowledged the importance of Indigenous peoples’ multigenerational use and traditional management of the land. Nonetheless, the assessment concluded that the mine would not cause significant harm because this use could resume some day in the future after mining ends.

Over the weekend of May 18th, Anne Marie Sam was one of five women from Nak’azdli who the mining company allowed to enter the construction site to hold a ceremony to honour the land. At each of the four corners of the land, they offered prayers for the water, animals and plants and for the safety and well-being of the mine workers and the company and for the neighboring First Nation of McLeod Lake.

“We’ve never had to hold a ceremony like this before,” says Anne Marie. “In our language, we don’t say good-bye. We say, we will see you again. That’s what we were saying to the land. In 20 years when they close the mine, we’re the ones who will still be here.”

While the ceremony was being carried out, I was honoured to join other Nak’azdli members, Grand Chief Stewart Phillip of the Union of BC Indian Chiefs, local Amnesty International organizer Seiko Watanabe, and representatives of many other environmental and social justice organizations in holding a solidarity vigil outside on the mine road.

The Mt. Milligan story has important lessons for the protection of human rights in Canada. Mt. Milligan is the first new mine to enter production in the region in many years, but it is part of a massive new wave of resource development being promoted by the provincial and federal governments. In northern BC alone, more than 100 major projects in mining, oil and gas, forestry and other industries are currently planned or under development, including the proposed Northern Gateway Pipeline which will also affect the people of Nak’azdli. Across Canada, the federal government predicts that more than 600 major resource development projects will get underway in the coming decade. Almost all this planned development will affect lands and waters of continued importance to First Nations, Inuit and Métis cultures, societies and economies.

The federal government points to the environmental assessment process as a crucial measure to ensure Indigenous peoples’ rights are protected in resource development decisions. But how effective is this protection, if the assessment process can simply ignore the impact of denying a generation of children and youth the opportunity to practice their traditions?

Roads built on either side of Rainbow Creek

Talking around the fire I was reminded of another powerful ceremony I had attended just days earlier, and much farther to the south. In the Town of Williams Lake, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission held a powerful, moving ceremony to honour the children taken from their families – and their land – in order to attend residential school. Residential school survivors told powerful, moving stories of the continued loss that is being felt, both because of the terrible individual abuse that was inflicted, and because of the much broader loss of culture and tradition. As part of the ceremony, the town of Williams Lake raised a monument quoting Canada’s residential school apology.

There is no place in Canada for the attitudes that inspired the Indian Residential Schools system to ever prevail again.”