Continued Colonial Exertion: John Meech’s Paternalistic Advocacy for Imposing the New Prosperity Mine

Posted: February 5, 2014 in Marc Pinkoski

By the end of the month,  Federal Minister of the Environment, Leona Aglukkaq, will declare her government’s intentions on a proposal for the development of a large, open-pit gold and copper mine in the Cariboo-Chilcotin Region of Central BC. This will be the Conservative Cabinet’s second decision on the proposed project after rejecting the first one in 2010. If completed, the mine is projected to be the second largest open-pit mine in Canada.

Just like the first decision, the second proposal is being considered after an Environmental Assessment and formal recommendations from an independent panel appointed by the Minister of the Environment. For both assessments, the panels were composed of known experts in their fields who were tasked with reviewing scientific evidence and hearing live testimony from the proponent (company), interested parties, and community members about the proposal. The first panel report is here.

Recently, UBC’s Dawn Hoogeveen and Tyler McCreary contributed an article in Canadian Dimensions arguing that the Minister should reject the current proposal. They write that “[p]oor design is only part of the story of the already once formally rejected mine,” noting that “Tsilhqot’in have never ceded their lands or their right to determine the course of development on their lands.” For these two reasons, this article is important.

First, the authors introduce historical, political, legal, and social (read: cultural) significance to the deliberations regarding large-scale development projects and the particularities of one such project, New Prosperity. In Canada, these deliberations are largely considered through ‘environmental assessments’ and recent changes to environmental acts and regulations are relevant because they affect how we are organising our communities and polities on decisions and projects regarding things like: water, air, and land (If that is too abstract think: salmon, cancer, and jobs).

Here, the article points to Natural Resources Canada’s analyses of the proposal on water quality due to seepage from the tailings pond. NRCan like Environment Canada are not the opponent of the mining company but rather the government’s agencies tasked to help the company meet environmental standards and government priorities. Contributors to the hearings, like NRCAN, present their findings and appear to answer questions posed to them in the hope that the information they provide will be useful in the decision making processes. In this case, independent studies have shown that the proposal raises serious questions about its feasibility and veracity, and they determine that it contains flaws or omissions in its formulation. Hoogeveen and McCreary conclude: “It wasn’t just NRCan that was critical of the company’s claims that it could ‘preserve’ Fish Lake. The BC Ministry of Energy and Mines, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, Environment Canada, the Tsilhqot’in National Government, and several independent scientists questioned the mine on technical grounds.”

Secondly, the article is framed as an Indigenous struggle, reminding us all again that Tsilhqot’in have not consented or conceded to us free-reign to dispossess them from their lands, freely extract their resources, or enforce them into projects and relations that are against their will. Hoogeveen and McCreary remind us about the connection of these same ‘environmental laws and regulations’ to development projects that are fueling a politics of dispossession that is putting Tsilhqot’in and many other Indigenous communities throughout Canada under continued colonial exertion.

*

I was at the second environmental assessment hearings for four days in Williams Lake. I also listened in real-time to the audio broadcasts or after-the-fact to the archived podcasts of the community and technical hearings that I was unable to attend. In the two-year lead up to the hearings, I did my best to keep abreast of the process and information. I presented at the opening and closing sessions of the panel hearings. My comments explaining my involvement and articulating my thoughts can be found here and here (audio @ 20 min mark).

Some of the things I remember from the hearings were of a man, a local politician, calling two Indigenous women who were standing in the foyer of the entrance to the hearing “parasites” as he sneered in gesture at them. I remember a Vice-President of the mining company, in his formal introduction to the project, explaining that his company was improving its relations with Indigenous peoples acknowledging that the hearings would take the panel to five local First Nations – of which they were excited to attend. John McManus introduced the communities he would soon be visiting awkwardly by PowerPoint slide and said of the people he’d been courting: “I’ve been with the company for eight years and I’ve worked quite hard with myself and the staff to consult, engage in First Nations. This is a list of the things we do, work to consult and engage with. I’m not going to even attempt the pronunciations.” I remember talking to Mr. McManus privately later, telling him that it might improve his claim that he and his company are trying hard to change their relationship with Indigenous people if he learned their names.

I remember the plea from a local businessman for all present to acknowledge his admiration for “aboriginal culture” by wanting to put it on display. I remember settlers explaining their love for the area of the proposed mine because they like to use it as their “playground.” I remember many settlers proclaiming their love for the area but petulantly threatening that they’d leave it if the mine were not built; while Tsilhqot’in said they would never leave their home and that they’d continue to defend it.

Of the strongest memories I have from the hearings are the presentations from mining professor and consultant John Meech. In many ways he presented a master narrative of Canada, industry, and development that could encapsulate the sentiment and conditions of many of the other presenters that lobbied for the mine. In his opening presentation he attempted to legitimate his personal authority in Canada, explaining that his name is a direct line to the Reverend Asa Meech, the namesake of the famous Meech Lake near Ottawa that has served in prominent Constitutional discussions. He asserted that Canada is built on industry, and that this proposal is just one necessary project in the assurance of Canada’s integrity, strength, and continuity.

Meech assured the panel that mining practices in BC are strong; and he claimed that stringent demands will ensure that the mining of the much desired metals will take place with proper environmental standards, oversights, and commitment to local and social obligations from the company. Thus, resting on recently changed standards, Meech declares the necessity for such a project in the Cariboo-Chilcotin is economically necessary, safe, and Canadian.

In his story, he recognises a problem; and his description is telling. “Aboriginals” are poor, unhealthy, undeveloped, uneducated, and generally lacking. There is a poverty of essence: character, form, and action. But, the problem has an answer. It is the opportunity afforded everyone in the adoption of modern, proper industry. For Meech, “the Aboriginals” like the greater communities of Williams Lake and 100 Mile House stand to gain from the industry of the mine. The settlers will have the chance of employment at the mine or spin-off businesses, an opportunity that will address losses to their standards due to a massive reduction in local forestry. But “the Aboriginals” will have a qualitatively different offering: the opportunity to develop. If they give up their ineffective ways, accept the mine as the future, their lack/want/poverty/appetites will be satisfied. They have the opportunity to catch-up, to fill the holes of what he asserts is their impoverished culture.

Admitting that he doesn’t like what he sees when he looks toward “aboriginal” communities (high poverty, suicides, uneducated, etc.), he is offering a project for change and development that he declares is natural, evolutionary, and progressive. This story of the development of the growth of rational societies is the story of the enlightenment and Meech shares its Canadian iteration. This is the same rationale that banned the potlatch because of its ‘uneconomic’ behaviour in the 1880s, created segregated townships, implemented the Indian Act, protected residential schools, and reinforced missionaries. It serves to reinforce a state-story of Terra Nullius, that there were no people here before sovereignty assertion by the Crown; or, if there were people, they were not of a level of human social development that recognised them as being of society. This story is patently untrue and serves to create the conditions of genocide.

In this telling, the local Indigenous folks are impeding development, much to their own loss. For Meech, mining is an historic industry in Canada and provides a backbone for the economy. This is a serious clash of positions but a rational decision must prevail. This path requires that Indigenous peoples change their ways, stop the so-called intransigence of their corrupt leaders, and adopt industrial development. Problem identified. Resolution defined. Here the problem identified is the poor Indian and the resolution defined is the industrial development of Canada.

So, Meech’s conceptualization of the proposal is completely out of time. Because BC has a different colonial history than the rest of Canada, there are different legal requirements and political obligations that must be considered and satisfied when pursuing interests in such a development project. In fact, right now Tsilhqot’in have a case before the Supreme Court of Canada regarding rights and title to this area, a legal process that began over disputes of resource extractions almost 30 years ago. To suggest that the solution to the situation is the extraction of resources against their will, demanding that they capitulate in the changing of their ways, and that he knows what is best is a programmatic for colonialism.

In Meech’s concluding presentation, he remarked:

The Meech Lake Accord, now linked notoriously to my family name was an attempt to create a “distinct society” in Canada, a concept that was undefined and divisive. We are all Canadians: First Nations, English, French, and new immigrants who gain citizenship. Our cultural backgrounds may be diverse, but we are all Canadians first.

Necessary questions posed from this claim, then, are how did Canada acquire its “first” status? By war? By treaty? By purchase? By settling it? When and how did Tsilhqot’in lose the ability to enact sovereign jurisdiction over their territory? How Canada? Why Canada?

To some people these are shocking even nonsensical questions. However, at their root are the reasons for the inclusion of Aboriginal Rights in the Canadian Constitution and recent jurisprudence on reconciliation and decolonisation, the rationale for the creation of the BC Treaty Process, and underpins the BC government’s statement on The New Relationship. In fact, these questions are based in an historical reality in that answering them allows us to consider our social and economic decisions in political and legal context. It allows us to examine how we make decisions with respect to water, air, our health, and with each other. It allows us to consider what is possible and to reconsider how we construct our political relationships with ourselves and others by asking how we come to be here.

Clearly, this proposal is troubled. First, there are technical questions that point to dangers in the safety of the mine. Secondly, when consulted and asked, the local indigenous leadership stood together and rejected this project . They reiterated that they are not against mining, but they oppose this proposal and the method of the company.

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Comments
  1. JM says:

    Canada is really good at what they do!

  2. Sage Birchwater. says:

    For your information, t.The individual Marc refers to who made the disparaging remarks to the two native women, is Walt Cobb, former Mayor of Williams Lake, former Cariboo Chilcotin MLA, and former chair of the Williams Lake District Chamber of Commerce. He is one of the delegates lobbying the Federal Government to disregard the findings of the Environmental Review Panel.

  3. John Meech says:

    I have never disputed that Canada and British Columbia must find a resolution to the First Nations conflicts that currently creates so much uncertainty in the future of our economy and our society. I acknowledge that their is a need to put forth reparation for the wrongs that have been inflicted in the past on First Nations peoples – the mission schools, the breaking of treaties, the attempts to assimilate, etc. It is the responsibility of the Crown to address these concerns and companies such as Taseko must struggle to find ways to work within this current environment of conflict without damaging the attempts to find common ground. As I see it the company has tried very hard to work with First Nations. Examples exist of their agreements with the Williams Lake Band in the vicinity of the Gibraltar mine and to the north in Mackenzie where they are considering opening a Niobium mine.

    First Nations have a right to question anyone who comes into their traditional territory and they must be involved in any decision regarding the commencement of development activities such as mining – that is part of our constitution. However, the legal responsibilities to approve a project and allow it to move forward into the permitting phase rests with the Crown.

    I am proud to a Canadian – we are generally a country of tolerant individuals who try to learn about and show respect for others with different cultural backgrounds and traditions. The land in question regarding the New Prosperity decision is Crown land that does have traditional and cultural heritage value derived and held by the local First Nations. If there are impacts of these values they must be weighed amidst similar benefits and impacts of a myriad of other interests on both a global and local basis. The changes in our approach to developing mine now accept that such a balancing act is absolutely necessary to move forward with a project within the context of “Sustainable Mining”. Our department at UBC has been dedicated to this “new” way since 1997. We are teaching such analytical methods to our students who will be the “miners of the 21st Century” and who will be implementing these practices into our industry. Has everything been rendered “good” because of these changes? Not yet, but there has been significant movement away from the old practices and away from an attitude of intolerance for the environment and local community issues in many, many parts of the world. Change of this kind does not take place over-night, but it will eventually become the norm and it will continue to evolve.

    Do I consider this approach “Paternalistic” and similar to the colonial practices of the past as you suggest? Not at all. I believe in dialogue and I believe in listening and discussing. But I also believe in a strong and vibrant industry that is doing good for the world by producing new materials so others in the world in need can reach our standard of living. I am open to hearing some of the values inherent in the First Nations culture and I have seen some of these first-hand. I think there are some of these values that can become a norm in our modern society and attempt to share my views on this subject with my students and graduates in the industry.

    I have tried virtually all my life as I was taught from a very young age, to treat everyone as an individual rather than as part of a group. Yes, I am an engineering professor who believes in the good of the industry that I serve. And I also have respect for “professors of sociology” – your group – with whom I share space and ideas in academia.

  4. thelonious shue says:

    Mr. Meech,

    We need not doubt your commitment to the goal of the Crown or Taseko finding a resolution to their conflicts with First Nations. You should thus no doubt be relieved that the primary thrust of Mr. Pinkoski’s article does not seem concerned with making that claim. As I read it, the article above is concerned with demonstrating that the assumptions underpinning your approach to and recommendations for cultivating the possibilities of such a resolution are at best legally and historically problematic, and at worst, politically dangerous – especially so for First Nations peoples and communities.

    I have not been party to the hearings described above. I have not been to Tsilhqot’in territory, nor have I any personal connections with Tsilhqot’in communities. I thus do not speak on behalf of them in any way. But if the thesis that Mr. Pinkoski’s article above proposes is that the development of the Taseko Mine is, in the first instance, an Indigenous struggle over the recognition of unceded Tsihlqot’in territory and its attendant autonomous rights of non-interference and non-coercion, then Mr. Meech, you have seemed to miss the point altogether, perhaps fatally so. The point that Mr. Pinkoski is stressing throughout his essay is that there are some very basic assumptions that settlers like you and I often begin from in our relationships with the First Nations whose territories we continue to occupy, and they are assumptions that continually work to support the structural, institutional, and intellectual colonization of, in this instance, Tsilhqot’in territory. These are assumptions evinced in episodes, for example, where indigenous peoples are so unimportant to the Vice President of a company that wants to extract resources from their land that he won’t be bothered to learn how to say their proper names; with settlers laying inherent claim to the right to their “playground” in one moment and in the next threatening to abandon it to what, they assume, will be the social, economic, and ecological ravages of open pit mining should the project go forward. To these are added, most tellingly, your repeated assertions of the primacy of a Canadian Settler Identity, Constitution, and Sovereignty under the Crown.

    What Mr. Pinkoski is drawing our attention to, in other words, is the necessarily contradictory understanding the Canadian Settler State and proponents of its legal and territorial primacy, such as yourself, have of the relationship with indigenous peoples – geopolitically and historically speaking. The understanding proceeds as such: On the one hand, First Nations are not important enough to be known by their proper names. Nor is it important that their land is theirs, either because it is not recognized as such or, by virtue of settler understandings of mobility in and across terrestrial space in search of dwelling, any particular home can be abandoned to the ravages of time in search of a better one. All of these assumptions, we must not forget, are consequences of the flagrant disregard for human, social, and ecological wellbeing that is coefficient with the practice of open pit mining in Tsilqhot’in territory in the first place. To generalize between these positions, we can say that First Nations Peoples and their Territories are outside of Settler Society’s Frame of political Intelligibility and Concern.

    On the other hand, however, as soon as a prior and primary indigenous presence is recognized by the Settler State and/or Society, there can be observed a definitive attempt to in-corporate them within the Canadian National imaginary, to demonstrate such a love for First Nations as to “put [their cultures] on display.” So, for example, you are quoted in Mr. Pinkoski’s essay as saying that “We are all Canadians: First Nations, English, French, and new immigrants who gain citizenship. Our cultural backgrounds may be diverse, but we are all Canadians first.” And in your response to the essay you assert that “First Nations have a right to question anyone who comes into their traditional territory and they must be involved in any decision regarding the commencement of development activities such as mining – that is part of our constitution.” Mr. Pinkoski’s assessment of the posture you are taking in both statements is that this is precisely the problem that indigenous peoples confront, often unsuccessfully, when they resist illegitimate incursions into their territory by corporations and/or the Crown. There is no social, legal, or historical basis on which you can empirically support the claim that First Nations are “Canadians first” (a contradiction if there ever was one), and this is evidenced in your failure to answer the questions that Mr. Pinkoski poses of it, which are worth reiterating here: “how did Canada acquire its “first” status? By war? By treaty? By purchase? By settling it? When and how did Tsilhqot’in lose the ability to enact sovereign jurisdiction over their territory? How Canada? Why Canada?” In the second comment, there is certainly no doubt that the Canadian Constitution has included indigenous concerns in its section on “Aboriginal Rights.” But the constitution does so as a means of trying to resolve a preexisting question of the presence of “aboriginal peoples” and their subsequent rights either recognized by virtue of their “aboriginal” status or of mutually recognized treaty agreements – the latter of which, as Mr. Pinkoski reminds us above, do not exist in the BC case. The constitution in this case would recognize the aboriginal rights of, say, the Tsilhqot’in, but by virtue of their “aboriginal-ity,” these rights precede the constitution itself and thus are not conferred by it, only included within the scope of its concerns.

    To assert then, that First Nations are Canadians first, that their inherent rights are activated only through the scope of Canadian law and institutions, is not only logically and empirically false, but it is to return to the first mode of understanding the Canadian Settler State and Society’s relationship with First Nations peoples wherein the latter are outside of the former’s framework of political intelligibility and concern, it is thus also to fundamentally work against your stated commitments, which I have noted in the opening of this response. That is, the assumptions you have articulated are fundamentally and necessarily insufficient to and at odds with the possibility of resolving the problem at hand, because you fail to understand the problem at hand in the first place. In not questioning the primary authority of settlers, their institutions, and ultimately, their economic “needs,” nor likewise, in further disregarding the potential damage that NRCan warns of in its assessment of the project more generally, there is no conceivable way in which the kind of resolution you might wish to see can be effected. This is a question of political understanding and education, it requires group-focused, and relationship-oriented thinking. It requires attempting to understand the political claims of First Nations peoples on their own terms, instead of pre-authorizing them (or not) through an identity and territorial occupation that they very well may not recognize as pertinent and legitimate to them, their communities, and their ways of being in the world. It requires, ultimately, a greater sensitivity to the terms and stakes of the issues involved in the dispossession of Tsilqhot’in territory at the whims and for the benefit of settler society altogether.

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