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«Amazay Lake Photo by Patrice Halley Draft Submission to the Kemess North Joint Review Panel May, 2007 Report Prepared By: Loraine Littlefield Linda ...»

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The following report summarizes the findings of Master’s thesis research conducted with Takla Lake First Nation and Tsay Keh Dene in northern British Columbia. The aim of the project is to better understand the perceptions of risk and environmental values of these two First Nations in the context of a specific resource development proposal, the Kemess North gold and copper mine. The report provides a brief overview of the study’s context and research methods. A discussion follows that links the findings to current bodies of literature to argue that perceptions of risk and environmental values are inextricably linked to health and well-being. The report concludes that the social, cultural and health impacts to Takla Lake First Nation and Tsay Keh Dene are not adequately incorporated into the Kemess North environmental impact assessment (EIA).


In British Columbia, uncertainty concerning the long term future of the province’s forest industry has led to renewed interest in the mining sector as a means of generating economic growth. Kemess Mines Limited, a subsidiary of Northgate Minerals Corporation, carries out mining and exploration on its 35,312 hectare property in the Omineca Mountains (see Figure 1) (Northgate Minerals Corp., 2005). This region – the Toodoggone – is well known for its abundant mineral resources, and the Kemess property has several substantial reserves of copper and gold ore (Northgate Minerals Corp., 2005).

Only one of the reserves – an open pit mine called Kemess South – has been developed.

It is one of Northgate’s principal assets with proven reserves of 87 million tonnes of gold-copper porphyry (Northgate Minerals Corp., 2006). However, it is estimated that there is only enough ore at the Kemess South site to continue operations until 2009 (Northgate Minerals Corp., 2005).

Figure 1: Location of Kemess Property Source: Census Canada and BC Ministry of Energy and Mines data adapted by J. Place The development of another mineral reserve is necessary if production at Kemess is to continue. Northgate plans to expand their operations and prolong productivity by developing the Kemess North site where 414 million tonnes of proven and probable reserves have been found (Northgate Minerals Corp., 2005). The Kemess North deposit is approximately 5 kilometres north of Kemess South and it is estimated that the development of this site will sustain mining operations until 2020 (Northgate Minerals Corp., 2005).

Gold and copper mining produces a large amount of waste material that can have a detrimental affect on the environment if not handled properly (Environmental Mining Council, n.d.). Open pit mines, such as Kemess, extract the desired mineral from “waste rock” by crushing the ore into fine particles, called tailings, which are then treated by chemicals to separate out the target metal (Environmental Mining Council, n.d.). The waste from this process contains acid-generating sulphides that react with air and water to produce sulphuric acid that can leach out of the waste and pollute the surrounding environment (Environmental Mining Council, n.d.). This process is called Acid Mine Drainage (AMD) and is the main threat to water bodies and groundwater in areas where open pit mining occurs (Environmental Mining Council, n.d.).

The EIA for the Kemess expansion indicates that a “waste disposal facility in the Duncan Lake valley will be developed” (Northgate Minerals Corp., 2005, 1). This plan involves the construction of a large dam (90 metres high) and two smaller ones to block creeks flowing in and out of Duncan Lake – known as Amazay Lake in Sekani – thus creating a “zero-discharge” waste disposal facility (Northgate Minerals Corp., 2005, 1). Waste would be dumped into the tailings disposal facility where it would be stored under water, thus reducing the AMD.

Amazay Lake is a natural, fish-bearing water body near the proposed site of Kemess North. Dolly Varden, rainbow trout and whitefish populations inhabit the six kilometer long wilderness lake which is located at the headwaters of the Findlay watershed. Using Amazay Lake as a waste disposal site would effectively eliminate the lake’s ecosystem and make it uninhabitable for fish.

Northgate asserts that this proposed method of waste management is the only viable option. It is claimed to be the safest and least environmentally damaging, and it is an estimated to be $800 million cheaper than the second option (Northgate Minerals Corp., 2005a). However, the transformation of Amazay Lake into a waste disposal facility is a point of contention with the region’s First Nations because it is seen as a threat to the environmental integrity of their traditional territories (BC First Nations, 2005). Of the First Nations who have declared their opposition to the waste disposal plan (i.e., Takla Lake First Nation, Tsay Keh Dene and Kwadacha First Nation), the concerns of Takla Lake and Tsay Keh Dene First Nations are the focus of the research that this report summarizes.


The purpose of this research is to determine how the proposed mine, Kemess North could impact the health and well-being of Takla Lake First Nation and Tsay Keh Dene.

The research questions are:

1. What are the risks associated with the expansion perceived to be?

a. What cultural activities are threatened?

b. What social impacts would the Kemess expansion have?

c. How will these perceptions of risk and the social and cultural impacts affect health?

2. Do the mechanisms for regulating the Kemess expansion acknowledge First Nations’ environmental values and perceptions of risk?

3. What are the implications of these existing frameworks for the health and wellbeing of First Nations people and communities if they do not?

In other words, are Takla Lake First Nation and Tsay Keh Dene’s environmental values and perceptions of risk acknowledged in the environmental review process, and how is this related to the overall health and well-being of Tse Keh Nay people.


This project is an ethnographic case study which links First Nations’ perceptions of risk to broadly-defined health outcomes in the context of resource development. The primary qualitative methods for data collection were in-depth interviews and participant observation. Several qualitative techniques for enhancing reliability and rigour were employed; these included participant checking, investigator checking, source triangulation and methods triangulation (Baxter & Eyles, 1997). This multiple methods approach serves as a means to triangulate the findings (Hay, 2000; Baxter & Eyles, 1997).

The Tse Keh Nay are a group of three Sekani Nations: Takla Lake First Nation, Tsay Keh Dene and Kwadacha First Nation. While it would have been preferable to work with all three Tse Keh Nay Nations, Kwadacha First Nation was unable to participate. The findings presented here are from interviews with Takla Lake First Nation and Tsay Keh Dene, as well as from conversations and informal interviews with some Kwadacha members. Thus, while Kwadacha First Nation did not formally participate in the research, they have contributed, and the findings may be considered to extend to all three Tse Keh Nay Nations.

Purposeful sampling was employed with the goal of targeting people who have particular knowledge of the region, also known as “key informants” (Hay, 2000). These people included elders, trap-line holders, and Chief and Council members of Takla Lake First Nation and Tsay Keh Dene First Nation. Snowball sampling was also employed whereby key informants directed the interviewer to other key informants (Hay, 2000). The goal was to reach saturation, which occurs when no new themes are emerging from the interviews (Hay, 2000).

The interviews were semi-structured; that is, a set of questions provided the basis for the interviews (Hay, 2000). However, the interviews also diverged from the prepared questions and the interviewer was able to follow up on themes that emerged during the discussions (Fontana & Frey, 2000). Nine participants from Tsay Keh Dene and seven participants from Takla Landing were interviewed. Data collected on behalf of the Tse Keh Nay also contributed to the findings presented in this report.

Data analysis involved transcribing interviews and analyzing them to determine emergent themes. A coding system for identifying key phrases and themes was developed.

Background literature about Takla Lake First Nation, Tsay Keh Dene, northern resource development and mining practice and policy informed the coding and analysis of primary data (i.e., interviews and observations). Notes taken during interviews and research journal entries were consulted to ensure that the themes identified were in context and matched the observations noted at the time of the interview.


Political ecology examines the scientific evidence informing environmental issues for political, economic and cultural influences. Forsythe (2003) argues that environmental science is socially constructed and a powerful political tool, and that science can be used to legitimize a variety of environmental policies without sufficient acknowledgement of the biophysical uncertainties or political conflicts behind them (10). Critical political ecology seeks to integrate the social and biophysical explanations of the environment.

Through its theoretical link to political economy, political ecology has a fundamental interest in distribution, for example of risks or negative externalities, and thus, it focuses on aspects of social justice in environmental disputes involving state, industry and local stakeholders. Where there is environmental injustice, political ecology seeks to empower by giving the information gathered through the research process to the people being impacted so that they can, in essence, have more power to affect the change they are seeking.

First Nations generally have a strong cultural attachment to place and their identities are often tied to the land and land-based activities (Wilson, 2003; Elliott & Foster, 1995).

First Nations people often consider their environment to be inextricably linked to their overall health, and, generally speaking, from a First Nations’ perspective, it is impossible to separate the biophysical and socio-cultural aspects of the environment. As a result, environmental degradation is of particular consequence for First Nations peoples’ health because the physical environment is an important source of food, medicine, cultural identity and spiritual expression (Kelm, 1998). Thus, when First Nations lack power, or agency, to protect their environment according to their own values, there can be significant health consequences. Empowerment, or sense of control over one’s destiny, is also a significant indicator for health outcomes. Thus, health and well-being (broadly defined) is impacted through a sense of disempowerment to express and protect environmental values, as well as by having reduced access to land-based resources and greater exposure to contaminants.

Political ecology fits as a framework for understanding how Kemess North will impact the Tse Keh Nay’s health because it tells us that health cannot be considered outside of time and place or in a context independent of the people who define those localities. It also acknowledges that human agency, which is at the heart of political ecology, is a significant indicator for health outcomes. As Richmond et al. (2005) argue, “good health and well-being is dependent not only on economic development, but also on participation in the political decision-making that fundamentally undermines environmental resource development” (361).


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1. Perceptions of Risk The study of risk has its roots in fact-gathering; risk researchers compiled injury and mortality information for insurance companies, health planners and safety engineers (Krimsky & Golding, 1992). This coincided with the quantitative revolution of the 1950s and 1960s whereby positivist research was considered more rigorous, and was thus more highly valued. As the field of risk study expanded, however, the focus shifted from measuring risk to understanding how people experience risk. Human response to, and perception of, risk became increasingly important to risk studies as the awareness of the social dimensions of risk became more widely recognized.

Risk is, in part, due to measurable physical processes, but whether an environmental hazard poses a risk to a human group is heavily dependent on social and cultural processes. Usher et al. (1995) point out that environmental contaminants are of particular concern to First Nations because of cultural practices such as subsistence hunting that increase their exposure to the physical risk. Thus, when environmental hazards are distributed to First Nations their health is impacted by physical, social and cultural processes that they may not have the political power to alter.

Members of the Takla Lake First Nation and the Tsay Keh Dene are very knowledgeable about their territories including the landscape and resources contained within them. They have extensive experience with resource development, much of which is not positive.

Thus, when a new development is proposed, people from Takla Landing and Tsay Keh Dene consider the risks and try to weigh the potentially positive and negative impacts.

When asked to describe what the main impacts would be, the interviewees always expressed concern for the environment. These responses are summarized next.

a. Environment The integrity of water systems in the region is of primary concern. Every interviewee spoke about the contamination of Amazay Lake that would result from using it as a tailings disposal facility. Amazay Lake is valued as an individual water body and also as an integral part of the Findlay watershed. Participants expressed concern for the fish in the lake, for the wildlife who drink from the lake and the connected creeks, and for the people who depend on the fish and wildlife. Most importantly, however, people were afraid of potentially degraded downstream water quality because it supplies the drinking water for Fort Ware and Tsay Keh Dene.

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