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“They have their own agenda already. What impressed me the most about any kind of industry moving in, whether it be logging, BC Hydro, or mining people, is they already have their plan. They have already made long term plans about what they’re going to do […] and then way after – it’s almost as an after thought – they come and see First Nations people.” The overall message from the interviewees is that the environmental impact assessment process and government consultation are not effectively including First Nations knowledge or values. Both the Tsay Keh Dene and Takla Lake First Nation have extensive knowledge of the region where Kemess operates; for example, they know about fish and wildlife populations, health and migration patterns (discussed in previous sections), as well as areas of archaeological importance. However, this knowledge belongs to Tsay Keh Dene and Takla Lake First Nation. They want to be in control of the research and how it is used. Unfortunately, insufficient resources and ineffective consultation practices make it difficult to participate.
There is frustration that traditional environmental knowledge (TEK), cumulative impacts and acknowledgement of title and rights are not effectively included in the process.
Often, mistrust in the government is expressed. As one participant explains, working with the government means working in accordance to “their policies, not ours.” He goes on to say that First Nations have an emotional connection to the land that the government
doesn’t understand. Another interviewee sums up her feelings thus:
“We want to be dealt with truthfully and we want our issues looked at. It’s not that the people here are against any kind of economic development. We realize that there is jobs needed, money is needed. This is right in our face every day because we have no economic base right now here, so we understand that; that is very clear. But the most important thing to us, that takes precedence over everything, is safety.”
Compensation is an issue that was mentioned by several interviewees. There is fear based on experience that resources that are extracted from the First Nations’ territories benefit only the companies, and not the First Nations. One interviewee claimed that if there was compensation in the form of annual monetary supplements controlled by the band and distributed equitably towards housing, the mine might be worth it. The overall perception, however, is that the mine will benefit very few community members and only for a short time; when it is finished operating, even those few benefits will cease and there will be a great deal of environmental contamination left behind that will serve to diminish any independence the communities have.
4. Environmental Values a. Connection to land/environment “They want to get ahead and they don’t think about what they’re doing to the beauty of the land, how they’re destroying it.” Each of the previous sections in this report is directly related to this section about values.
This is the most important section, because it is the particular way in which the environment is valued by Takla Lake First Nation and Tsay Keh Dene people that defines what is at risk for them. Through discussions and interviews with members of Takla Lake First Nation and Tsay Keh Dene, it is evident that the environment is valued holistically.
In other words, the environment is connected to physical and emotional health, culture, identity and social infrastructure, and moreover, each of these is interconnected.
For example, having access to a healthy environment is important to physical health because it supplies excellent sources of nutrition (wild game, fish and plants), which require exercise to acquire. It is also important to maintaining culture and identity because the act of participating in traditional food systems is based on cultural knowledge and inheritance that contributes to having a First Nations identity. As one interviewee explains, “The land is really important. It’s who we are.” Another says, “Our culture is keeping us alive. Our traditions keep us alive, focused and awake.” Access to a healthy environment is important to maintaining the social infrastructure as well, because it contributes to individuals’ health, and also because being on the land is a social activity that families do together. Older generations pass knowledge on to the younger generations so that the younger generations can also have access to a healthy way of life, and an understanding of their culture and identity. When young people are on the land with their elders, they learn how to hunt and process meat, but they also learn important social values, like sharing the meat with the community and important cultural values, such as showing respect by “giving back” to the land after an animal is killed.
Since the environment is valued holistically, cumulative impacts are vitally important to assessing the risk a project has on the local residents. Furthermore, an impact assessment that only recognizes the values of non-First Nations will not adequately calculate the impacts a project will have on First Nations, and thus it has a greater chance of impacting their health, particularly in the long term.
The environment also has spiritual value. Several interviews spoke about their connection to the land as a connection to their Creator. The environment is a crucial part of spiritual practice and experience, and the ability to act as a steward of the environment is a vital part of this connection. Many interviewees stated that they believe that First Nations people are responsible for protecting the land and that doing so is fundamental to their spiritual identity. One interviewee explains her frustrated spirituality like this: “God has made First Nations people stewards of the land. And right now industries are making it really hard to be a good steward, you know?”
b. Long-term vs. short-term
Time frame reflects environmental values. Because the environment plays such a central role in the overall health and identity of Takla Lake First Nation and Tsay Keh Dene people, there is a strong understanding in these communities of the importance of longterm sustainability. The phrase “long-term” for these two First Nations refers to thousands of years into the future. This is an example of how different values lead to different meanings for the same words, and thus, if the meaning applied by Takla Lake First Nation and Tsay Keh Dene are not acknowledged, the outcome of the environmental impact assessment lacks relevance for these two Nations.
c. Homeland vs. uninhabited/unused land
The area around Kemess South and the proposed Kemess North operation are not uninhabited. Company and government representatives have attempted to characterize the area as remote and not regularly used. Frequently, non-First Nations people identify locations of importance only through their direct and continued use, but residing in a precise location and using it every day (i.e., a house inside a picket fence) is only one way that a place can be perceived as valuable. It does not, however, reflect the First Nations’ view. The Amazay Lake area is regularly used and occupied, and has been for thousands of years. It is considered the heartland of the Tse Keh Nay territory and reflects a different way of using and valuing the land; it is considered a homeland and vitally important to the people who have frequented the area their entire lives.
The land is used by both the Takla Lake First Nation and the Tsay Keh Dene. Up until recently, these Nations lived entirely on the land, returning seasonally to regularly used hunting, fishing and gathering sites. Land use has changed in the last century as the two First Nations were sedentarized by the reserve system, however, many people continue to spend a great deal of time on the land participating in traditional ways of life.
The notion that the land is uninhabited and unused is false. The people of these two communities hunt and fish regularly, each year at various times staying in family camps.
Amazay Lake and the surrounding areas are covered in trails, burial sites and camp sites, as well as fishing, hunting and plant gathering areas. During an interview that took place on the shore of Thutade Lake (near Amazay Lake), the participant noted that he had found many arrowheads and other artifacts in the span of two days. Another well-known story tells of two young hunters killing a mammoth by running past each other under its belly with their spears sticking up. Thus, there is both physical evidence and oral histories that confirm the long term use and occupancy of this land by Tse Keh Nay people.
Other interviewees mentioned places and trails that they regularly visited and used, and that their ancestors regularly visited and used. The trails were how the Tse Keh Nay people stayed connected to each other. According to one participant, the family system was maintained by “the pathways and highways of our elders.” It is an important area to gather “mountain medicine,” which is herbal plants that are found in the mountains and used for healing. There are sacred places where people will not go and stories about the lakes and rivers in the Amazay Lake area. For example, many people spoke of the area as being an important location for the region’s First Nations to gather, feast, share information and arrange marriages.
This project with Takla Lake First Nation and Tsay Keh Dene explored the perceptions of risk in the context of the proposed Kemess North mine. Through interviews with participants from both communities it is determined that perceptions of risk are influenced by environmental values. This research revealed how the values and perceptions of risk of the dominant culture are privileged by the environmental assessment process, while the values, perceptions of risk and knowledge of the two First Nations have generally been excluded. Moreover, it is argued that environmental values and perceptions of risk are inextricably linked to the overall health and well-being of the two First Nations.
The findings of this research indicate that current models of risk are limited by the popular notion that risk is a measurable property because it fails to account for important cultural factors that contribute to the construction of risk. Cultural characteristics, such as food preferences, play a significant role in how risk is perceived, and yet these realities continue to be left out of risk assessments. Such omissions result in risk management strategies that are culturally discriminating, prescribing lifestyle changes to the less dominant culture such as risk avoidance (i.e., avoiding contaminated country foods).
Environmental impact assessment is the primary political process through which issues of competing environmental values and perceptions of risk are assessed. These risk assessments tend to represent the values of the proponents of resource extraction and development, and, as a result, First Nations are systematically ignored in official processes of project approval.
In the case of Kemess North, the risk assessment undertaken by Northgate Minerals failed to effectively represent risk to First Nations on several key issues. For example, the value assigned to Amazay Lake did not reflect Takla Lake First Nation or Tsay Keh Dene values, which resulted in strong opposition to the project. Determining the risk of transforming a lake into a tailings disposal facility is a subjective process and Northgate’s environmental impact assessment weighs the costs and benefits of the plan according to its own values and understandings.
Northgate also failed to include groundhog in its wildlife studies, and thus, completely omitted this species from the risk assessment because it was not deemed important.
Groundhog, however, is a staple food that continues to be hunted and eaten regularly by Takla Lake First Nation and Tsay Keh Dene. It is part of Tse Keh Nay cultural heritage, and its flesh and fat are considered to have medicinal properties. People from both Takla Landing and Tsay Keh Dene have noticed a decline in groundhog population and signs of poor health are evident. Northgate’s exclusion of the groundhog clearly reveals the subjectivity of risk assessments. The dominant culture does not eat groundhog and, therefore, it is not valued; the risks to it, and to the people who rely on it, are not weighed. The social and cultural aspects of risk need to be acknowledged in environmental impact assessments and other risk assessments to foster a more inclusive model and to protect the health and ways of life of non-dominant and marginalized groups.
The findings of this case study also support other research that conceptualizes First Nations’ health as inextricably linked to the land through physical, spiritual, cultural, social and economic processes. This research proposes that health is also greatly influenced by political processes. That is, the failure to include First Nations’ environmental values and concerns in the process of EIA results in inadequate risk assessments that undermine First Nations’ health and well-being.
While it could be argued that this study is limited by the exclusion of Northgate in the interviews, it was decided that Northgate’s viewpoints have been clearly expressed in various pubic forums (e.g., their own publications, studies, public presentations, letters to the editor and media accounts). The First Nations’ perspectives, on the other hand, were not as well represented in these different public forums. This research brings to the fore the subjectivity present in Northgate’s environmental impact assessment and suggests that Takla Lake First Nation and Tsay Keh Dene have valid claims of knowledge and values that should be included in the risk assessment.