“Our economy walks on the land and swims in the waters”
In a one-room, circular building, modelled on a traditional Secwepemc winter pit house, water defender Jacinda Mack stands before the UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights and describes the effects of 150 years of colonialism on her people, the Secwepemc of British Columbia. The consequences of more than 150 years of government assault on Indigenous identity and self-determination are personally exhausting, she says. However, her love of her people and the waters of her territory motivate her to keep fighting for justice.
Jacinda is the coordinator of First Nations Women Advocating Responsible Mining. She tells the UN representatives during their first country visit to Canada that the 2014 Mount Polley copper mine disaster is a “death that is not yet over”. The disaster destroyed aquatic life in Hazeltine Creek and inundated Quesnel Lake with 25 million cubic meters of mine tailings, comprised of copper, arsenic and other mine processing chemicals when the earthen tailings dam burst. Quesnel Lake is the incubator to 25 percent of the province’s endangered wild salmon and a sacred place of birth for the Secwepemc people. Those tailings, she told them, remain at the bottom of Quesnel Lake and people no longer trust the safety of its water and fish.
“Our people are grieving. My grandchildren will never know what it’s like to swim and fish in Quesnel Lake”, Jacinda says.
Mount Polley is Canada’s largest environmental mining disaster. Its impacts on the food security and cultural practices of Indigenous peoples in the disaster zone are still unfolding. A health impacts scoping study commissioned for the First Nations Health Authority concluded that the health, psychological well-being, food security and cultural practices of the region’s Indigenous peoples were seriously harmed by the disaster. It called on Canada to implement free, prior informed consent for all aspects of mining operations.
In May, 2016, BC’s Auditor General released a scathing report into the ‘decade of neglect’ of BC’s mining sector and blamed the Ministry of Energy and Mines for a culture of weak oversight and compliance enforcement which contributed to the disaster. The Auditor General noted that MEM’s dual role of mining promoter and regulator puts it in an ‘irreconcilable conflict’ in terms of protecting the environment from harm and recommended that MEM move compliance enforcement to a unit outside the Ministry. The government rejected the recommendation and continues to operate ‘business as usual’.
A criminal investigation into the disaster by the Conservation Officer Service, RCMP and Fisheries and Oceans Canada is underway, but three years on, the company has not faced charges or fines. On June 23, 2016, the mine resumed full operations despite the outstanding criminal investigation and lack of a long-term water management plan. Indigenous peoples have not received any reparations for their losses from any level of the Canadian government.
Instead, several Indigenous nations have been forced to file costly lawsuits in British Columbia’s Supreme Court. The outcomes of those court cases are many years away.
“We are accused of being ignorant about our own lands and of being troublemakers. We are silenced when we disagree and our concerns are not listened to in so-called consultation processes,”Jacinda says. She recounts how in 2017, against the wishes of Indigenous peoples, the BC government gave Mount Polley Mining Corporation a 5-year permit to dump mine waste water – which is not required to meet BC’s drinking water guidelines – into Quesnel Lake.
Jacinda and other Indigenous leaders in British Columbia say the company does not have their consent to dump its waste water into their sacred waterways.
“We are afraid to eat our fish. We don’t want that sickness in our bodies and our children’s bodies,” Jacinda told the UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights. “We call on Canada to respect our Indigenous law and our rights. This is a crisis situation for our people and our land. We are in crisis, as are the salmon, the moose and the water for our children. I want to be able to look my children and grandchildren in the eye and to say I did all I could to protect the land and water.”
In 2014, the company’s President, Brian Knyoch, apologized for the disaster, saying, “I know that for our company it would take a long time to earn the community trust back”.
In August, 2017, UN Committee for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination reviewed Canada’s policies and practices regarding eliminating all forms of racial discrimination. It heard formal testimony from Indigenous peoples about the harms caused by the Mount Polley disaster. Civil society organisations like Amnesty International also provided CERD with written submissions. In its Concluding Observations, CERD noted the disproportionate and devastating impacts of the disaster on water, traditional foods and the health of Indigenous peoples. It called on Canada to monitor and address the health impacts of the Mount Polley disaster on Indigenous peoples and provide them with safe water, food, access to health care, fair remedy and reparations.
Amnesty International stands with Jacinda Mack and Indigenous peoples in British Columbia to call on Canada to implement the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and to ensure justice for people and nature harmed by the Mount Polley mine disaster.