Federal and tribal coalitions challenge Canadian mining

‘It’s about British Columbia being a really bad actor as an upstream neighbor that pollutes our water.’


The headwaters of the Stikine River begin in northern British Columbia and flow southwest in a long arching comma. The river carves through the landscape, unconcerned with international or tribal boundaries before crossing into the United States where it empties into the Eastern Passage near Wrangell, Alaska.

Yet the Stikine River is among America’s most endangered rivers, threatened by British Columbia’s upstream mining practices, according to American Rivers, a river basin advocacy group. The river’s problems represent the decades-long struggle to put international regulations on the contaminants flowing downstream from B.C.’s open-pit hard rock and coal mines. Now, two separate coalitions of U.S. senators and tribal leaders are joining forces to once again demand action.

The North Fork of the Flathead River in Montana was once threatened by B.C. mining upstream before international pressure forced the mining company to move elsewhere.

Eight senators from four northern border states – Alaska, Washington, Idaho and Montana – signed a letter in June, urging B.C. Premier John Horgan to recognize that mining contamination in U.S.-Canada rivers threatens American resources and livelihoods, and asking the provincial government to allocate attention and resources to the issue. “It’s important that we get the right folks to the table and have an honest conversation about how we solve this problem,” said Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont.

While each state has individually advocated against B.C.’s mining practices, this represents one of the first times multiple states have come together to elevate the concerns to the federal level, according to Michael Jamison, a senior program manager with the National Parks Conservation Association, a group focused on preserving U.S. national parks. “It’s not just about the Stikine, Takou, Skagit or Elk rivers. It’s about British Columbia being a really bad actor as an upstream neighbor that pollutes our water,” Jamison said.

Jamison characterized the B.C. mining companies’ tactics as “divide and conquer,” isolating individual regions or states to sign a memorandum of understanding allowing mining upstream. “Our success comes when we’re able to federalize these problems,” Jamison said. 

While the eight senators are advocating at the federal level, a group of 15 Southeast Alaska tribal nations have taken it a step further. Recently, the Southeast Alaska Indigenous Transboundary Commission (SEITC) filed a human rights petition to the Inter-American Commission, an international body overseeing the protection of human rights in the Americas. “International problems require international solutions, so our group, besides going the federal route, is trying to get international light shone on the area,” said Frederick Olson Jr., SEITC’s outreach consultant.

The petition alleges the operation of two mines and four proposed mining sites in B.C. will release harmful pollution affecting the health and viability of the biodiversity in the watersheds of the Taku, Stikine and Unuk rivers. It argues this violates the human rights of tribal members living nearby because of threats to the fish and other species that “have been historical commodities for Native communities, and remain centerpieces of their cultural practices and spiritual beliefs.” 

In addition to the human rights petition, the commission is trying to organize an international and intertribal network to challenge B.C.’s mining practices. One of its key missions is to organize U.S. tribal nations and B.C. First Nations in a coalition to protect the river’s headwaters, according to Tis Peterman, coordinator of SEITC since its founding in 2014. 

Representatives of 21 U.S. and Canadian Indigenous groups signed a unity statement in March 2018, pledging to work across borders to protect their headwaters.
Tis Peterman / Southeast Alaska Indigenous Transboundary Commission

In March 2018, SEITC held a meeting in Washington state for U.S. tribal and First Nations leaders. The representatives of 21 Indigenous tribes and organizations signed a unity statement, affirming “ancestral relationships among indigenous governments in the USA and Canada” and agreeing to work together to protect “rivers/watersheds in Alaska, Canada and transboundary ecosystems.” They plan to hold a second meeting this fall and will invite tribal nations from Washington, Montana and Idaho to join, Peterman said. 

Olson Jr. stressed the importance of building an Indigenous coalition crossing state and national borders, just as the waters cut through the lines drawn on a map.“It’s about our way of life and the future of the planet,” Olson Jr. said. “Even if everyone on our side of the border is screaming about this, we don’t vote over there.”

Liz Weber is an editorial intern working in Washington, D.C., for High Country News and a student at American University. Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.

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