As an English guy writing about the First Nations of Canada, I’m starting on thin ice here, but until recently, I wasn’t really sure why. You see, English schools have a habit of only telling their kids the good things Britain did, like winning WWII (while ignoring Russia and the USA), like the railways (while ignoring the slavery and trail of death), and like, it turns out, making Canada a part of the commonwealth (without ever mentioning the people who’d found it first).
I sat down with James, a proud Tahltan driller working up at Newmont Lake with Swiftsure this season and Jacqueline, Crystal Lake Mining’s community ambassador and core shed manager, to discuss the relationship here between miners and local communities.
The following script is a representative transcription from our discussion, allowing error for my interpretation of the Oxford comma and my general regional social ignorance. [x] represents something I had to google or add for reading clarity.
Liam: What do you think are the most important issues to the local community here?
Jacqueline: Their number one concern is that we’re polluting their water. They often believe that every mining company is out there to pollute water and rip up the land, take the goods that they want and not do anything beneficial, but I think differently, I believe that if you treat people like they can make a difference, they will. The number one concern though, is definitely the water.
Liam: What are Crystal Lake Mining doing to look after these concerns?
Jacqueline: Right now Crystal Lake are doing water quality surveys around the lakes and streams, they’re monitoring it, because they want to know if they are making an impact on the environment that could grow later on.
The cut-shack [Rock sample preparation shack] is huge, we had Rugged Edge [the camp management contractor] build a sluicebox [plastic lined channel] so that all our cuttings are funnelled into a pit, which we’ll bury at the end of the season and we’re not leaving a great big mess of cut rock, sediments and dirty water behind our shacks.
Liam: What things could they [Crystal Lake Mining] be doing better?
Jacqueline: When I was working up in the arctic, one of the things I really admired was that even at the drill sites, they laid down biodegradable matting that caught all the sediments. They also filtered their water into an envirobag, the chopper would just come and take the envirobag and dispose of it safely, bury it.
To me, especially if the Tahltan communities are worried about pollution at the drill sites, I believe Crystal Lake would take the measures needed to correct anything, if it was a genuine problem. I really like the way Crystal Lake are being pro-active in trying to find out the ways to do better things, it’s the small things that add up.
James: I’m controversial on all of this, first of all, I think we [The Tahltan] need to play a bigger… no… a major role in partnerships at these exploration sites, not small chunks like 15% through a communications agreement or what-not, or taking a handful of employees.
We need to move more towards partnerships at 50/50, because you’re disrupting a territory that you’ll never be in again, you are disrupting trap lines, hunting, wildlife and disrupting a lot of things that’ll never effect your lives directly, but they do affect people here directly.
Taking employees, just a few people compared to the entirety of the Nation, is losing a battle. At the end of the day, we can take these baby steps toward reconciliation between economic development and traditional lifestyles, but by the time we get to the table talking about these major initiatives, we’re not going to have any territory to benefit from or talk up.
When you stake land [for mineral exploration], you [the company] pay the government and then the First Nations people get a small percentage, so people here are immediately opposed to any project because they’re not seeing the income from it. It gets kind of touchy.
Jacqueline: I’ve reached out directly to the Tahltan government to see if there are family trap lines [For catching mink and ferrets for furs] and breeding grounds here, because that would cause major issues with the Tahltan. They’ve already got a foul taste in their mouths after Red Chris [Imperial Metals’ Project, 80km south of Dease Lake], because they did bulldoze through a large breeding ground and that left a sour note across the community of Iskut.
For us, I want to know where these [trap] lines are and where breeding grounds are so we can avoid them.
Its all about rebuilding trust and transparency from the communities and with that information, we can steer clear of the communities. That amount of respect from us to the families would speak volumes.
James: Regarding building on Trap lines, doing that kind of stuff, trying to get hold of families indirectly [for information], even through TCG [Tahltan Central Government] is going to be a very difficult situation, because they don’t have contact and they barely get votes in on it...
Around 200 people [from a community of 1700] voted for KSM [Kerr-Sulphurets-Mitchell, one of the world’s largest gold projects] and they went through with licencing it anyway, assuming an automatic ‘yes’ vote because the others hadn’t voted, well, that’s not the case, ‘no vote’ is a ‘no’ vote for us.
The biggest way to help this is probably [a range of] compensations. There’s not a lot of jobs, there’s a lot of poverty in reservations, a lot of alcohol, a lot of drug abuse and there’s really nothing there.
Every now and again they’ll get funding for something like an arena, Iskut alone is struggling to build an arena, yet, all around there’s so much exploration. Multiple four-wheelers, side-by sides [4x4 golf buggies], fuel for choppers, they see this stuff, and they’re like, how did they get funding for that, but we don’t see a dime, to disrupt a territory in a way we’ll never get back to live off of.
You can change and alter this property, regardless of all the different projects you can plan for afterwards, with reclamation and token buildings, its still not what was there before.
We need opportunity to get into this, facilities and education, or we shouldn’t give it up.
Jacqueline: To turn around the fears here, [we need] more community involvement in the projects, just to show that not every company is out there to rape and pillage the land. I think Crystal Lake is taking the necessary steps in building the trust and transparency, but, like I said, I’ve reached out to the TCG for a list of family trap lines and breeding grounds and, we haven’t heard back so… what can we do…?
Another thing I’d like to see is scholarship programs, give the communities a chance to get into the industry and a degree. Right now, the way it is, most jobs that are offered to the local communities are in the kitchen, or driving rock truck, maybe cutting core, that seems to be the only option.
If they were given opportunities to learn the industry and be a part of it, it would change the way they feel towards mining.
I’m not qualified to have any opinion here on the First Nations communities and development. Jacqueline and James are the best qualified to answer your questions there.
I can say confidently and with a thick pinch of irony, that exploration companies don’t create much chaos to the environment in British Columbia at all. In fact, around 95% of them turn up for a month of each year, fly a few crates of beer in with a helicopter, hike around a few trails, crack a few rocks open, maybe drill a few holes, then trot back to Toronto for a Caesar and sliders at sun-down.
You’d barely know they’d been here at all, for all the noise they make at PDAC. Exploration and mining are linked for fundraising purposes, not for their field practices.
The very fact that Crystal Lake have been on the ground long enough this summer to engage in this topic with local people is probably a very positive sign, for the investors looking at a dedicated company, and for the Tahltan people who they’re working with, to have a voice and a say in this stunning region, long into the future.