Like David and Goliath, First Nations Woman Fights Company in Canada
It’s a modern tale of David and Goliath.
On a cold morning in 2011, one woman stood in a road alone. Behind her, the clean, glacial waters of Little Fish Lake lapped quietly on the pebble beaches her ancestors have called home for generations. In front her, a long train of trucks approached on their way to destroy it.
“I would recommend that you turn around and exit the territory,” she calmly told a driver. He responded by threatening to run her over.
But that didn’t deter Marilyn Baptiste, former chief of the Xeni Gwet’in in British Columbia, Canada. Although she stood on the road alone that morning, she inspired her community to come together to defeat a huge gold and copper mine that would have destroyed a source of spiritual identity and livelihood for the Xeni Gwet’in.
For her strength and perseverance, Baptiste was recently awarded the 2015 Goldman Environmental Prize, the world’s largest international prize for grassroots environmental activists.
A Love for the Land
The Nemiah Valley, the region the Xeni Gwet’in call home, is wild and untouched. Snow-capped mountains rise from thick forests and threatened South Chilcotin grizzly bears catch salmon in the headwaters of the last major viable salmon run that comes up the Fraser River. The lakes, including Yanha Biny or Little Fish Lake, are home to a genetically unique type of rainbow trout.
For generations the tribe has hunted, trapped, fished, collected medicinal plants, and lived sustainably in this beautiful wilderness.
Baptiste grew up in the Nemiah Valley with her parents and sisters. Like other native children, environmentalism was something she understood at an early age. She and her sisters learned to dip-net for salmon and hunt moose and deer. When foraging for berries, the girls learned not to break off entire branches because it would mean that there would be fewer berries and hungrier bears in the future.
When Baptiste’s father, then chief of the Xeni Gwet’in, surveyed the territory, she would join him. She watched him stop people he didn’t recognize and explain to them that they were on Xeni Gwet’in land. He stressed the importance of passing through with the smallest footprint possible.
Prosperity Mine Threatens a Big Footprint
In 1993, Taseko, a mining company headquartered in Vancouver that operates the Gibraltar Mine, the second largest open-pit coppery-molybdenum mine in Canada, proposed a huge copper and gold mine on Xeni Gwet’in land. They called it the “Prosperity Mine” and requested federal government approval to drain Little Fish Lake and use it as a toxic tailings dump.
Baptiste sprang to action. She convened a group of tribal chiefs, elders, and scientific experts to prepare comprehensive data about the Xeni Gwet’in and other First Nations groups environmental, cultural, and economic relationship with their land. The data was presented to the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency, which issued a report causing the federal government to reject the mine in November 2010.
Jim Prentice, Canadian Environment Minister called the report, “Scathing … the most condemning I have ever read.”
Not ready for defeat, Taseko submitted a revised proposal in 2011 and began moving heavy machinery into the Fish Lake area. Bulldozers, trucks, and workers ready to break ground rumbled down the road toward Xeni Gwet’in land and Baptiste.
One Woman on the Road
Standing alone in the road, she successfully imitated a one-woman roadblock and forced construction crews to turn around. Like her father, Baptiste stopped the strangers from hurting her land.
Taseko tried to get the provincial government to remove Baptiste and others who joined her blockade, but the British Columbia Supreme Court rejected its request in December 2011 and issued an injunction banning Taseko from doing any mine development at the site.
In 2014, Taseko’s revised proposal was rejected by the federal government.
Icing on the Cake
Because of Baptiste’s brave work, Little Fish Lake is still pure and protected. The snow-capped mountains are still reflected in its waters. Future generations of grizzly bears can still hunt future generations of salmon. And Xeni Gwet’in children drink from the Lake’s waters.
This should be reward enough for Baptiste. But as icing on the cake, Baptiste was awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize for Outstanding Environmental Achievement in North America.
Awarded annually to environmental heroes from each of the world’s six inhabited continental regions, the Goldman Prize recognizes fearless grassroots activists working against all odds to protect the environment and their communities. They often work in countries where violence and death threats against environmental defenders are on the rise.
The winners were awarded the $175,000 prize at an invitation-only ceremony last April at the San Francisco Opera House. The hope is that the award will inspire other ordinary people to take extraordinary actions to protect the natural world.
The Fight Isn’t Over
On June 26, 2014, the Supreme Court of Canada issued a landmark decision for the country’s aboriginal people. It ruled that the Xeni Gwet’in had proven outright title to over 1,750 square kilometers of land in the Nemiah Valley. The tribe was also given aboriginal rights to hunt, gather, tap, and catch wild horses over an area twice that size.
The land, called Dasiqox Tribal Park, gives the Xeni Gwet’in rights to the area around Fish Lake, but not title to it. Unfortunately, this creates a grey legal area for the tribe and Taseko, which has filed an appeal for its Prosperity Mine. It is unclear whether the Xeni Gwet’in’s rights to the land will be enough to protect it from a revised gold and copper mine.
But Baptiste has proven that she will not turn her back on the land she loves. Like the story of David and Goliath — Baptiste has already faced the giant company, and won.
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