Tribal voices growing in transboundary mine campaign

 A growing chorus of American Indian and Alaska Native organizations is raising red flags about threats to salmon, livelihoods and culture from large-scale mining in British Columbia.

The largest tribal organizations in the Lower 48 and Alaska announced this week that they are backing efforts to protect key salmon rivers in Alaska/British Columbia (B.C.) from several Canadian mines proposed for the border region.

The National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), the Alaska Federation of Natives (AFN), and the Alaska Native Brotherhood & Alaska Native Sisterhood issued a news release on Tuesday about recent resolutions they passed calling for the U.S. State Department to use its authority under the 1909 Boundary Waters Treaty. Together with a growing coalition of commercial and sport fishermen, municipalities and Alaska’s congressional delegation, the tribal organizations want U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to work with Canada to protect transboundary rivers.

Six Canadian mines in the headwaters of the Taku, Stikine and Unuk Rivers are in various stages of permitting and development. One of the mines -- Red Chris – has its permits and financing in place and is poised to open at any time over the objections of a group of Tahltan First Nation citizens.

Each of the threatened transboundary rivers, which begin in B.C. and drain into Southeast Alaska, produce millions of wild salmon and support some of the most prime salmon habitat left in North America. Unless steps are taken to protect Alaska’s downstream waters, these transboundary salmon face potential contamination from acid mine drainage, heavy metals and other pollutants. These toxins could leach from the mines or be released in a catastrophic accident similar to what happened at Mount Polley mine in central B.C. on Aug. 4, 2014.

“The health of our rivers and streams is paramount for Alaska Natives and American Indians, especially those who rely on our traditional and customary ways of life.  Since rivers do not recognize the arbitrary boundaries drawn on maps, it is the responsibility of the United States and Canada to work together on maintaining a healthy ecosystem and clean water for the protection of all of our subsistence resources,” said Jacqueline Johnson Pata, executive director of NCAI.

The Boundary Waters Treaty of 1909 established the International Joint Commission to ensure that “waters flowing across the boundary shall not be polluted on either side to the injury of health or property on the other.”

 “NCAI strongly urges the United States to uphold its trust responsibility to American Indians and Alaska Natives and engage the Canadian government, through the International Joint Commission, to promote the health and well-being of the transboundary watersheds.  Our water and salmon are at great risk and the time to act is now,” said Pata.

Founded in 1944, NCAI is the oldest and largest American Indian and Alaska Native organization serving the broad interests of tribal governments and communities in the United States. NCAI passed a resolution calling for the International Joint Commission (IJC) to get involved during its October 2014 conference in Atlanta, Georgia. The IJC is a bilateral body charged with resolving transboundary waters disputes between the U.S. and Canada. Typically, the IJC becomes involved in matters at the request of both the U.S. and Canadian governments.

The Alaska Federation of Natives also recently endorsed an IJC review of transboundary mine developments, repeating NCAI’s position that the U.S. government needs to do so in order to uphold its trust responsibilities to Alaska tribes.

Alaska’s oldest indigenous civil rights organizations – Alaska Native Brotherhood (ANB) & Alaska Native Sisterhood (ANS) – also adopted resolutions in October at an annual Grand Camp convention in Petersburg, Alaska. The groups called on the State Department to work with the Canadian government to refer the issue to the IJC to use any and all power under the Boundary Waters Treaty to ensure that Alaska’s downstream interests are protected. “Nothing is more important than the salmon, hooligan, deer, moose and other food we harvest,” said Eric Morrison, Grand President of Alaska Native Brotherhood.

“The Canadian and B.C. mine permitting processes have not addressed our concerns. The State Department and all federal agencies must consult with tribes on this issue. The law requires it,” Morrison said.

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