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An increasingly tense standoff between a B.C. First Nation and a London, Ont.-based coal company in a remote mountain valley known as Sacred Headwaters is set to erupt as protesters flaunt their month-long presence on a drilling site and taunt the RCMP to arrest them.
For the Tahltan First Nation, which has worked both with and against industry, the stakes are high: It is determined to halt the development of an open-pit coal mine in a spot it views as the land of origin, the birthplace of all waters.
“We dare Fortune to get us arrested. We have cameras here. We will make sure the world knows what’s going on,” said Rhoda Quock, spokeswoman for the protest group Kablona Keepers, in a statement.
Fortune Minerals Ltd., which has invested $100-million to develop what it says may be the world’s biggest undeveloped deposit of high-quality, clean-burning coal, has no intention of giving up on the Arctos Anthracite project.
It sees the potential to create some 1,500 direct and secondary jobs – employment opportunities it says many Tahltan are interested in, despite their leaders’ opposition.
Tensions rose this week when B.C. Premier Christy Clark’s government appointed a mediator to resolve the dispute, but suggested in the statement – which it later said was prematurely released – that the mediation process would allow the Arctos project to proceed.
It was the second time the Tahltan felt betrayed by Ms. Clark: Prior to a hotly contested provincial election in May, Ms. Clark vowed to protect the Sacred Headwaters from oil and gas development. But while making that politically popular promise, Ms. Clark was seeking Ottawa’s permission for a “substitution,” a measure in federal omnibus legislation that lets the province forgo a federal environmental assessment in favour of a provincial assessment alone.
While B.C. had long sought to streamline the dual environmental assessment process, the Headwaters manoeuvre was seen as a blatant betrayal by the Tahltan, who had danced and drummed in the Legislative Rotunda celebrating Ms. Clark’s commitment to a two-year discussion about permanent protection of the Headwaters. It was a jubilant time for the Tahltan, who had just won an eight-year battle against Royal Dutch Shell PLC, which had planned to drill for coal-bed methane in the Sacred Headwaters.
As Shell withdrew, the province extended a four-year moratorium on oil and gas activity in the area (which has some of the richest mineral deposits in North America) and hinted at further restrictions on industry there, heading off a confrontation over environmental issues and native rights. The deal was followed by a signing ceremony in Victoria – a display of exuberance that has been replaced with cynicism.
“We wonder if they were trying to keep us quiet,” says Tahltan elder Millie Pauls. “There were a lot of politics heading into the provincial election. Now it seems they are trading off some of our land for their jobs agenda.”
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