Already once rejected after exhaustive hearings for a federal environmental review Panel, Taseko Mines proposes to mine our minerals at Teztan Biny/Fish Lake and then to impoverish our children by removing them without consent or comparable compensation. The Crown now has privileged the company with a new chance to impress yet another Panel with yet another round of hearings on this failed project. With the greatest respect, I would bring some issues to the Panel’s attention.
Teztan Biny is a beautiful, pristine lake about 150 miles from Williams Lake. It reminds me of Chilcotin Lake, another beautiful, pristine lake northeast of Teztan Biny. These two lakes share a lot in common. Our people once used Chilcotin Lake, just like we do Teztan Biny. Even the first settlers noted a fishing station there and a village…what they called a rancherie.
The first land surveyed and claimed by settlers in our territory was at Chilcotin Lake. Yet no agent for the Crown had even visited the Chilcotin Nation by then. None. Not even just to say hello. Let alone seek our consent. Yet the Crown still gave settlers permission to make claims on our land. Then, after the settlers had surveyed and staked what they wanted, the Crown sold it to them. It did this even though the Crown had never troubled to seek our permission for settlers to survey, stake and occupy our land. Nor had the Crown purchased from us any right to the land that it was re-selling to settlers. Nor has the Crown even yet completed this necessary first step at Teztan Biny.
When you sell something that you do not own, this is a crime. It is theft. Now, the purchaser also paid the thief in good faith. But he did not acquire the legal right to enjoy his purchase as the thief had promised that he would. And so there is also fraud. Two crimes. If you sneak into a store at night, or onto someone else’s land, to claim some groceries and then sell them next day on the street, you will surely go to prison for either theft or fraud.
Not only is this behaviour a crime, it is also dishonourable. It is, therefore, shameful. It is unworthy of someone who has all the necessary power to act honourably to behave in a way suited to criminals and desperate people. No one admires someone who steals groceries, or land, when he or she does not have to…and could have negotiated for it instead.
Now, when the Crown gave settlers permission to stake land belonging to the Chilcotin Nation, its own laws said that settlers could only claim land “…not being the site of an Indian…settlement.” Yet the Crown had not by then acquired any right to determine or define which of our sites were vacant, occupied or might be put to different use. How could it have acquired any such right? Remember that, when those first settlers claimed land at Chilcotin Lake, no agent from the Crown had even visited the Chilcotin Nation yet. Not even to say hello.
This disrespect was dishonourable. The right to make these determinations was ours, the Chilcotin Nation. No one can show any treaty where we surrendered any part of it. And, therefore, it still is our right today. And it is disrespectful still today to dishonour the sovereign right and power of the Chilcotin Nation to deal with its own land.
The land that those settlers wanted at Chilcotin Lake was unquestionably the site of “an Indian settlement.” So was the land some other settlers wanted at nearby Puntzi Lake. And at Tatla Lake. Under no stretch of anyone’s imagination could any of these sites have been considered unoccupied or unused. Yet settlers claimed the land anyway. Our people were using this land then, just as we have always used our land and just as we use Teztan Biny today.
My grandfather’s people used Teztan Biny as our people once used Chilcotin, Puntzi or Tatla Lakes. My Grandfather, George Myers, had a house there. Early settlers would have recognized this as a rancherie. My grandfather would hunt and trap in this area as the main livelihood for his family. They used the creek for water…gathered plants for food and medicines.
Agents for the Crown, like Governor Douglas in a June 1862 letter to the Commissioner of Lands, sometimes said that natives could reserve land by marking the trees in the same way that settlers would mark land and mining claims. Our elders say that George Myers once marked trees just this way at Teztan Biny, undoubtedly for just this purpose: to create “an Indian reserve.” This would have been an act of faith. He would have done this only in the hope that the Crown would respect and honour these markings. It would have been the honourable thing for the Crown to do…since we did not have access to surveyors, lawyers and the resources necessary to register survey plans for all the usual haunts of our extended families or, for that matter, sometimes we did not even have the same rights as Canadians to own land. As you no doubt know, Canada even legally prohibited us in my Grandfather’s time from hiring lawyers to help with land claims.
Is it honourable to disadvantage us now for not having had the advantage of every legal technique for securing forms of ownership under the Canadian system?
Chilcotin Lake, Puntzi Lake, Tatla Lake, Alexis Lake and Anahim Lake, all those unquestionably occupied sites in 1862 became suddenly vacant. Settlers sent people infected with smallpox into these villages. At Tatla, a settler also acknowledged the use of smallpox-infected blankets. In other words, the settler community created conditions of life calculated to kill us. In most of these locations settlers disseminated the disease so thoroughly that almost no one escaped.
For details on the spreading of smallpox in B.C. during 1862/63 see The True Story of Canada’s ‘War’ of Extermination on the Pacific or The Great Darkening.
At Victoria, the same Crown agents who disrespected us…by giving away our land before even saying hello…also created conditions of life calculated to kill the indigenous population by withholding knowledge, medicine and medical care while using the police to force smallpox-infected natives into contact with healthy natives. No one doubted the consequences. It would bring certain death to natives by the tens of thousands as the disease radiated out from Victoria. A habit of treating certain “others” with disrespect had become manifest in intentional acts of what now are described as ethnic cleansing. This is how we came to lose control of our land in the first instance.
Is it honourable to take advantage of the victims or to repeatedly press their descendants to the wall to protect their interests?
When outsiders look at our use of Teztan Biny today…and we have always welcomed outsiders who treat us with respect…they might be forgiven for thinking that we are so few compared to those many who might benefit from Taseko’s mine. My Grandfather’s cabin, for example, no longer retains the sound of children playing or the smell of my Grandmother’s cooking. Yet, it is a principle of honour that one must come to an issue with clean hands. When it comes to our number and the intensity of our usage at any location, Canada does not have clean hands. Even by their estimate, at least two-thirds of the Chilcotin Nation died as the result of settlers purposefully spreading smallpox, then the Crown limited our access to resources by confining us to reserves and then, through residential schools, the Crown deprived successive generations of our culture and of the family or beneficial childhood experiences commonly enjoyed by other Canadian children.
Under these circumstances, is it honourable to continue depriving us of our resources without our consent?
The goal of each of these policies was to put an end to the Chilcotin Nation and its People. We are not gone. We are still here. We will still be here tomorrow. And the next day. It is dishonourable and disrespectful for the Crown and other interested parties to ignore this history. And to approach the issue of number and the intensity of our usage as if the Crown had clean hands on this issue. It does not. Without this consistent pattern of dishonourable policies, we would be having very different discussions today.
No one doubts that Canada has the brute power to approve a mine that destroys the integrity of Teztan Biny and the surrounding area. And then to tear bodies from the road blocks and barricades people surely will throw up in frustration that the law, the law of the land never repealed, our law, Chilcotin Law, was disrespected and dishonoured. No one doubts that Canada or Taseko Mines has the resources to pursue endless new hearings and legal proceedings for the “New Prosperity Mine,” the “Even Newer Prosperity Mine” or the “New, New, New Prosperity Mine.” All the while draining the resources and energy of all concerned over a proposal that never should have come this far. Is such a legacy in the interest of your children?
We defended our law and our Nation against those who spread smallpox wherever we could…gave chase to some, executed some and were forced into an act of war to prevent the introduction of smallpox at Bute Inlet. When we indicated a willingness to negotiate, the Crown’s agents dishonourably abused a sacred custom, ambushed our delegates expecting a conference with the Governor and then hung them for having done no more than defend the law. You are probably tired of hearing us describe how the Crown martyred the Chilcotin Chiefs, including my great uncle. Please understand that defending our national integrity demands that we keep telling the story until we have seen some indication that the Crown has heard us.
We will know this when we see it in action, deeds, and not just in expressions of good intentions, mere words. Under Canadian law and customs, it is said that agencies of the Crown must act honourably. We believe, at least I believe, that it is the sincere desire of Canadians that the Crown should act honourably…and not violate our laws, except perhaps in emergencies or extreme situations, and to treat its power to use force and violence against us as if it were a high sacred trust.
Surely it cannot be honourable to leave our children in perpetuity the legacy of an empty hole and a toxic lake weeping tears laced with chemicals for who knows how many years? What good is it to any family, business or community here to build for the future on the chance of a short term boom and the guarantee of a long term bust? When a non-renewable resource is depleted, it is gone…an expense enjoyed in the present but paid for by our children…and by your children; children who will no longer have its benefit.
Surely the Panel has no desire to further the Crown’s shame for its disrespectful and dishonourable treatment of the Chilcotin Nation until now. The minerals in our ground belong to the Chilcotin Nation as our store of capital. This store should be of benefit to future generations equally as much as it is of benefit to us. If we are going to touch such a resource…and, who knows, others may come after us with better techniques of extraction…the right thing to do is to replace it with an equal store. And, in the present, consume only the value we add by our current knowledge.
Anything less is theft from all our children. And that’s why the case of Taseko and Teztan Biny…and the Crown giving away rights to survey and prospect before seeking our consent or before purchasing any right to our land…reminds me of Chilcotin Lake. Our ancestors died horrible deaths there under just the same conditions as we face today. 151 years and so little has changed in the example of disrespect our people have had to endure at the Crown’s hands and still our children are not safe from the loss of their rightful legacy. Is this the legacy you want to leave your children?