A First Nations chief opposed to the proposed New Prosperity copper and gold mine said the project would continue the colonial tradition of threatening his people's land, language and culture.
During a presentation to a Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency review panel earlier this week in his home community of Yunesit'in First Nation, Chief Russel Myers Ross said the plan by Taseko Mines amounts to a continuation of the theft of First Nations land which he said has been going on for generations.
"Every time someone comes onto our land it's not to build partnerships or relationships, it's to essentially take our land first," Myers told the three-member panel. "And, so, I guess the time hasn't really been taken to build those partnerships, and I think you have to have a shared value system."
Taseko is seeking to build the mine, located about 125 km south of Williams Lake. An initial proposal was rejected by the federal government in 2010, primarily over concerns about fish habitat, and the company has submitted a revised plan.
Rather than focus on socio-economic or environmental concerns as some of First Nations leaders have done so far in the process, Ross used most of his time in front of the panel to paint a picture of a people persecuted for years - first by the spread of smallpox in the 19th century and then by the creation of the residential schools system. He said the mine would be the next step in that colonial process.
"I hope that I've demonstrated our poverty is not inherent but a result of genocidal intent and strategic oppression, by colonizing governments compounded by disease and poor structural policies and the means of disconnecting First Nations from the land," he said. "And I hope I demonstrated the importance and relevance of our stories contextually and personally as a way of understanding and consciously regenerating our culture."
Although unemployment is high in his community - Ross estimated that up to 80 per cent of residents are without a job - he doesn't think the mine would be a solution to the economic problems his reserve faces. Instead he pitched the idea of a hybrid economy which focuses on traditional activities like hunting and fishing along with a cash economy.
Taseko senior vice-president of operations John McManus responded by telling the panel the company understands the community has a proud tradition, but is rebuilding from history.
"This company can't heal all of the hurts or right all the past wrongs. We can't do that. We can only be responsible what we're doing now and into the future," he said. "I believe that given a chance, we can do that."
The issue of who first found the gold at the New Prosperity site near Fish Lake was also debated during the hearings. Two speakers said First Nations should get a large share of the revenue from the mine - upwards of 50 per cent to 60 per cent - due to historic mining in the region by Aboriginals.
Former chief Ivor Myers told the panel his grandparents George Myers and Pauline Quilt knew about gold in the region many years ago.
"George was out there panning gold and he knew that there was large gold in the area, and Pauline had a dream one time," Myers told the panel. "Pauline said that in our lifetime we will never see the gold, but in the future they will find gold there."
Taseko lawyer Karl Gustafson told the panel that there are opportunities for First Nations to receive a share of the mineral tax through programs like Economic and Community Development Agreements. He pointed to other mines in the province where First Nations are in line to collect anywhere from $24 million to $30 million through agreements with companies and governments.
Ross also spoke at length about consultations his First Nation has had with the federal government, which he deems insufficient.
"I would say the Crown hasn't approached the Tsilhqot'in Nation at all in respect to resolving this, even on [Taseko's] behalf," he said. "I feel like they haven't come to the table and talked to us about what our history is, what the legal ramifications of what they're doing is... It's a narrative of essentially white colonial settler governments trying to steal indigenous lands, and I don't know how to say it differently, because that's the narrative that we see."
Although outside the scope of the hearings, the adequacy of consultations could play a role if the fate of the mine ends up before the courts.
The community hearings at local First Nations continue on Friday. Closing arguments are set for Williams Lake on Aug. 23.