7/20/2024 6:05:43 AM
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As a mining project moves ahead, Southeast Alaska tribes say Canada denies their human rights

As a mining project moves ahead, Southeast Alaska tribes say Canada denies their human rights

Louie Wagner empties a net of hooligan into his boat on the Unuk River. (Jack Darrell/KRBD) When hooligan start running in Southeast Alaska at the end of winter, the Wagner family heads to the mouth of the Unuk River. Tazia Wagner steers the skiff as her uncle throws a weighted cast net into the muddy water. He hauls up a net full of wriggling, oily little fish. They’re aiming to fill five five-gallon buckets. That’s their hooligan allotment under federal regulations for subsistence in the river. It used to be a lot higher, until the population collapsed around 2004. The Wagners blame that collapse on mining operations that started upriver in the 1990s. After the buckets are filled, they take them back to the Melodee Dawn, the family’s old commercial seiner. It’s docked near a rising sun petroglyph painted onto the rocks above the river. Tazia’s grandfather Louie Wagner says that sun is thousands of years old and is a family crest of their ancestors, the Tlingit brown bear clan, or Teikweidí. “It’s not just fish,” Tazia says of her family’s legacy on the Unuk, and what’s at stake. “It’s a loss of cultural identity and a loss of connection to the land and to our people.” To save what’s left of this hooligan run for future generations, the Wagner family helped form the Southeast Alaska Indigenous Transboundary Commission, or SEITC. It’s currently a coalition of 17 tribes with the goal of securing a seat at the table in how proposed mining projects are managed on Canadian soil if they directly impact watersheds in Alaska. Louie Wagner, Jr. in front of the rising sun petroglyph at the mouth of the Unuk River. (Jack Darrell/KRBD) In April, British Columbia’s ministry of the environment sent the SEITC a letter in response to their request for consultation on the Eskay Creek mine, a large gold mine at the headwaters of the Unuk. It was in production in the ‘90s but was eventually shuttered. The SEITC say the lower Unuk River is still recovering from the downstream impacts. Now, a Canadian mining company is in the permitting stage for reopening the mine. Skeena Resources, Ltd, the company in charge of the project, said the mine is “extremely high-grade” and could produce up to 2.8 million ounces of gold and 80 million ounces of silver in a little over a decade. Guy Archibald, SEITC’s director, said there is a lot of administrative language about statutes and process in the letter, but the way he read it was simple. “Different groups of Indigenous people, apparently, are only eligible for different levels of human rights,” Archibald said. Essentially, the letter said that British Columbia is developing a process for consulting with US tribes that would be “distinct” and “differentiated” from Canada tribes. Esther Reese, SEITC’s president, said it felt like a continuation of a “colonial divide-and-conquer” tactic. She said the tribes across the border were their neighbors and equals before their ancestral homelands were split by an international boundary, which now feels like a wound. David Karn represents the Environmental Assessment Office of British Columbia’s Ministry of the Environment. He didn’t agree to a recorded interview but sent a long email response. Karn said in the email that the province’s goal is to honor the Canadian Crown and “act with good faith to provide meaningful consultation appropriate to the circumstances.” Karn also said that the tribes across the Canadian border are interested in being part of deciding what that consultation for SEITC will look like. Those tribes include the Tahltan, whose territory encompasses the headwaters of the Unuk and Eskay Creek, the site of the proposed gold mine the SEITC are pushing back against. The Tahltan tribal government has publicly supported the mine. Archibald said that time is not on SEITC’s side here. While British Columbia’s tribal consultation policy is being developed, Archibald expects Eskay Creek to go into the environmental application stage. That’s one step before a lease is granted. “And so they kind of skipped over the whole idea that the Southeast Alaska tribes do have rights that need to be recognized,” said Archibald. The coalition’s greatest leverage comes from the Desautel case, a 2021 Canadian Supreme Court decision that set the precedent that Indigenous people who live outside of Canada can be granted the same rights as those in the country if their traditional territory lay within what is now Canada. “I think if we interpret Desautel, it’s very clear from the evidence we’ve submitted that we meet the threshold legal


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Sofia Martinez

Sofia Martinez

Sofia Martinez is a bilingual news reporter with a talent for bringing stories to life on both national and international platforms. Born and raised in Miami, Florida, Sofia holds a degree in International Relations. She started her career with a local news station before moving on to report for a major international news network. Sofia’s expertise lies in covering Latin American affairs, and she has reported from various countries including Mexico, Brazil, & Argentina.

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