VAVENBY — Drawing comparisons with B.C. Liberal government’s treatment of the Enbridge pipeline, an area First Nations group wants its own share of benefits — and promises of the highest standards — for a proposed mine.
About 15 members of the Simpcw First Nation held an information picket Thursday beside the Yellowhead Highway at the entrance to Vavenby to raise awareness of the Harper Creek mine.
RCMP vehicles along with highway maintenance trucks took position at each end of the gathering and warned drivers to slow to 70 km/h.
Few drivers or local residents bothered to pull over to hear First Nation concerns about what is otherwise considered a project that will restore the valley’s economy.
The band has not taken a stand for or against the low-grade mine proposed by Yellowhead Mining Inc., but it is concerned the project is being fast-tracked at the expense of long-term environmental concerns.
“We’re not opposed to the mine,” said Simpcw Chief Rita Matthew, as cars and tractor-trailers rumbled past.
“We understand the economy of the valley. . . . But we don’t know they’ve (communities) been given the information we have.”
Band manager Doug Brown said “there is a parallel” with Enbridge’s proposed Northern Gateway pipeline.
Premier Christy Clark has set five conditions, including a fair share of benefits and the highest environmental standards if the province is to go along.
“What does Christy Clark say about Enbridge? She says B.C. will take all the risks and other people outside B.C. get all the benefits.”
The band, located about one hour’s drive south of Vavenby, has hired a raft of consultants to study everything from salmon to economic benefits.
Concerns include damage to endangered mountain caribou habitat, threats to fisheries in Harper Creek and Barriere River watersheds due to potential seepage of tailings, intrusion of powerlines and roadways that would bring access for predators, hunters and recreationalists thus disrupting traditional uses, dust contamination and the prospect of a collapse of the tailings dam leading to a catastrophic slide into the North Thompson River.
The mine, at one time called the world’s eighth-largest untapped deposit of copper by a financial analyst, has many parallels with Ajax in Kamloops. Both are open-pit, low-grade copper deposits. Both entered a harmonized federal-provincial environmental assessment at the same time.
Unlike Ajax, however, scrutiny of potential environmental damage weighed against benefits to North Thompson communities has rested almost entirely with government officials. While Ajax has been slowed by concerns and extra studies, Harper Creek seems to have support, including from the premier.
“Short-term benefits are proposed — employment and training opportunities,” said Matthew. “I have concerns with short-term opportunities where we get people working for two or three years and they make a bit of money. What happens when it’s over?”
Unlike Ajax, which is in part a brownfield site, the Harper Creek mine is proposed for wilderness areas within a few kilometres of Vavenby, located about 20 minutes drive north of Clearwater.
At the Vavenby General Store a few kilometres away, the band’s concerns were not shared.
“I’m all for it and I’ve never heard anything negative,” store owner Debbie Barrett said of the mine and its projected 350 jobs. “I think there will be a big boom here.”
Vavenby and the North Thompson River valley took a blow more than a decade ago when Weyerhaeuser Co. closed its mill here. It was worse when Canfor shut down its mill for more than two years, causing a depression.
While Canfor reopened last year, residents say they want more security and more people.
“There’s a lot of young men in the community who can’t find a job,” Barrett said.
Pam Richie grew up in the valley and raised her two children here. She remembers when Vavenby elementary school’s yard was bustling with 120 chattering and laughing voices. Today, there are eight kids in the school, which is now reduced to a K-3 school.
“It would make a lot of sense to have more families here,” she said.
Richie’s daughter graduated two years ago and is now studying at University of Northern B.C., where she one day hopes to study medicine.
“I’m hoping the mine goes through,” Richie said. “My daughter needs to get employment in the summer months.”
But First Nations are concerned the damage will last forever while jobs may dry up if copper prices slide. Simpcw member and former chief Fred Fortier said the mine will occupy the same geographic space as the city of San Francisco.
Meanwhile, Fortier said Yellowhead Mining has pushed off talks of revenue sharing to the provincial government.
“The time will come that people will stand up and say enough is enough. It’s not me or this generation — it’s the seventh generation. What benefits will they receive from a hole in the ground?”
BANDS DIVIDED ON CLAIMS
While they share a common language and tribal council, two local Shuswap bands have competing claims on the Harper Creek mine and its potential for millions in revenues.
"We've said, 'produce the evidence of use and occupation,'" said Simpw First Nation member Fred Fortier.
"We're being clear: it's about the use and occupation."
Simpcw's reserve lands are located about one hour's drive south of here, near Barriere. It is the closest First Nation administration and considers the north valley its traditional territory.
Unlike in most parts of the region, however, there is little First Nations presence in the valley from Clearwater north to Valemount.
Chief Rita Matthew said Adams Lake Indian Band has filed a claim on revenues with the province, something she said is being done without evidence.
Simpcw has records from early anthropologist James Teit as well as its own archives showing tradition use and occupation of the region, she said.
"We have that evidence up and down the valley."
The province has recognized Adams Lake Indian Band's claim.
"We're saying 'on what basis?'"
In addition to dividing bands, the proposed mine is also creating divisions within bands.
Former band chief Keith Matthew is now an advisor to Yellowhead Mining Inc.'s board. Fortier said he should work alongside people who are holding the company to task.
"People shouldn't build their retirements on the backs of the Simpcw people, friends or not," he said.