British Columbia has created a nostalgic narrative around mining. We promote a rosy picture of B.C.’s mining past through tourism opportunities—from driving the Gold Rush Trail to panning for gold at Barkerville and even hosting weddings at Britannia Mine site.
What is not included in the brochure is information about smallpox devastations to Indigenous communities introduced through mining activity, environmental impacts from mining to the rivers and land, opposition to various mine projects, or hundreds of legacy mine sites littered throughout the province.
But what is as true today as it was in 1859, if you want to stake a mineral claim, you will be granted a “free entry” certificate to start exploring. This was part of one of the first pieces of legislation enacted after the establishment of British Columbia.
‘Free-entry’ rights include the right for a free miner to enter and access land that may contain minerals without permission. This grants prospectors a right of “free entry” to most lands, ignoring Indigenous territories and rights, private property rights, and other land use values. Mining is put ahead of virtually all other land uses in B.C.
The free-entry regime has led to resistance and conflicts since the Gold Rush. In the last decade, we have seen blockades by the Tahltan against Fortune Minerals wanting to open a coal mine in the Klappan.
The Tŝilhqot’in Nation fought for years against Taseko’s New Prosperity Mine proposing to dump tailings waste into Fish Lake.
Residents in Kamloops fought against the Ajax Mine proposed within municipal limits where a housing development was already planned. Also near Kamloops, a couple were having a drink on their deck when someone came onto their farm with claims to the mineral rights of their property.
Closer to home, the Morrison Mine was proposed at key sockeye salmon habitat and resisted by Lake Babine First Nation. The Gitanyow have declared an Indigenous Protected and Conserved Area where mineral claims remain despite interests for the conservation of wild salmon. The Nuxalk Nation ordered an immediate halt to Juggernaut’s exploratory work on the Nation’s territory, and issued an eviction notice in 2021.
The Mineral Tenure Act is the legislation under which all of this is allowed to happen. Until it is modernized, we’ll continue to see conflicts with First Nations and communities. There is hope for reform. The Gitxaała Nation has taken leadership and mounted a groundbreaking legal challenge against mining claims that were issued on its territory without its permission.
The BC Mining Law Reform network and some of our member organizations have applied to intervene in the case to highlight the importance of reforming the Mineral Tenure Act to protect Indigenous rights, the environment and private property. This application to intervene was heard in the courts last week.
Reforming the Mineral Tenure Act will also give industry more certainty, including hopefully more guidance on engaging early with First Nations to develop more collaborative approaches to land and resource management where applicable.
We’re hopeful that there will be some concrete steps on this soon. Last week, a new cabinet was announced with a clear mandate for the new Minister of Energy, Mines and Low Carbon Innovation, to modernize the Act. The Gitxaała’s legal case is further proof of how imperative it is.
It’s time we reconcile with the misplaced romantic views of our past and bring our mining laws into a future that is built on consent and reconciliation.
Nikki Skuce lives in Smithers, B.C. on Wet’suwet’en territory and is the co-chair of the BC Mining Law Reform Network and Director of the Northern Confluence Initiative, a project of MakeWay.