An international human rights commission has found that mining practices in British Columbia may violate the fundamental human rights of communities and tribes in Southeast Alaska. It’s a significant step in a years-long effort by Southeast Tribal leaders to have a say in the permitting of Canadian mine projects.
Wrangell Island sits tucked at the mouth of the Stikine River Delta. The silty water has sustained migratory birds, salmon, and people for thousands of years.
“If I don’t have enough salmon on a weekly basis, I feel like I’m sure going to shrivel up and die,” said Aaltséen Esther Reese with a laugh. Reese is the tribal administrator for Wrangell’s tribal government. “But in all seriousness, my ancestors have managed the waterways and the lands in this area since time immemorial. [Researchers] found the oldest domesticated dog bone on the back channel [near Wrangell], and it is 10,000 years old. It just shows how long our people have been on these lands, and have relied on the waterways for our very survival.”
Reese is also president of the Southeast Alaska Indigenous Transboundary Commission (SEITC), a nonprofit consortium of 15 tribes that advocates for watershed protections and tribal representation in environmental decision-making processes.
“The relationship [between tribes and the environment] is one of reciprocity and respect and walking gently on the land,” Reese says, “And the fact that there are these mines above the colonial border that do not have the best interest at heart for the environment and for living gently on the land is basically what we’re fighting against.”
The largest tributary of the Stikine River – the Iskut, across the border in Canada – is almost entirely staked with mineral exploration claims.
Southeast communities and tribal governments, and Alaska’s congressional delegation, have long expressed concerns with mining practices in the Canadian province of British Columbia. Many operational and proposed mines in the province straddle what are called “transboundary” watersheds that flow from B.C. to Southeast Alaska.
Of particular concern to Reese is the Red Chris Mine, an open-pit copper and gold mine on another tributary of the Stikine, the Klappan River.
“If that tailings dam were to go – and in our minds, it’s just a matter of time. It’s not a matter of if but if it’s a matter of when – the tailings pond is two and a half times the height of the Seattle Space Needle,” Reese said. “So […] when that fails, it will not only be impactful for the community of Wrangell, but for the surrounding communities as well. And it would absolutely decimate the Stikine River that has been, you know, the people in this area have depended on for thousands of years.”
Recent scientific studies have found that even if a mine doesn’t have a catastrophic failure, mines can have watershed impacts hundreds of miles downstream and years into the future.
In 2020, the transboundary commission, with legal help from national environmental law organization Earthjustice, filed an international human rights complaint against the federal government of Canada and the provincial government of British Columbia.
The complaint cites what’s called the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man – an international agreement formed in 1948 as one of the first actions of the United Nations. It’s a non-binding declaration on the fundamental economic, social and cultural rights of humans.
Guy Archibald, the executive director of SEITC, explained the commission’s argument.
“We filed a complaint alleging that Canada has violated that declaration, because they have not consulted with anybody, and specifically the tribes here in Southeast Alaska, on any of these mining projects,” he said.
The complaint alleges three main violations of human rights. First, that the mines violate the life and personal security of people downstream, and could produce harm to Southeast communities. Second, that the mines threaten the preservation of health and well-being by having the potential to affect food security, clean water, and the environment. And third, that the mines could deny Southeast tribes the benefits of culture – that it would harm people’s ability to practice their culture if the rivers were polluted by mines.
Canadian officials took almost a year to respond to the complaint – well outside the designated time for response, which led to some back and forth over the ensuing years.
In late August, the international commission – called the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights – agreed that Canadian mining practices could be violating the fundamental rights of Southeast tribes and communities – a finding of admissibility.
That kicked off another round of review, and opportunities to comment.
Archibald said he hopes the Inter-American Commission will decide in favor of Southeast tribes. In his view, it would fundamentally change the way the Canadian federal and B.C. provincial governments approach mining.
“They would have to assure that these mines are not going to pollute our waters, they’re going to have to consult with us, they’re going to have to respect our traditional cultural opportunities, some of which now reside within Canada and within B.C.,” Archibald said.
Canada wouldn’t be forced to comply with recommendations from an international human rights commission – it doesn’t have any enforcement power. But Archibald said it could help.
“Canada has spent its last decade trying to do reconciliation with Indigenous people,” Archibald said. “They created an entire Ministry of Indigenous Affairs and Reconciliation. Canada likes its reputation as being upholding human rights. So even if Canada refuses to implement these recommendations, it would be a big embarrassment to them on the world stage, that they do not uphold human rights.”
“And,” he added, “I would also hope that any potential investor in any of these mining companies would also have second thoughts about and investing their hard-earned money in the companies that violate human rights.”
Plus, Archibald said the push to be recognized on an international human rights stage shines a spotlight on Southeast tribes and their demands to have a seat at the table when it comes to mineral projects with the potential to impact generations.
“At the end of the day, we feel that the traditional ecological knowledge gained over thousands of years on these watersheds needs to help inform how these mines operate, how they’re monitored, how restoration goes,” Archibald said. “Without that knowledge, they pose a significant risk of harm to the entirety of Southeast Alaska.”
“We just want the opportunity to sit down at the table as equals, create government-to-government agreements, and be assured to the extent possible that our rights on this side of the border are protected,” he said.
The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights did not respond to a request for comment on the evaluation process.
In an emailed statement, a spokesperson for the Canadian Department of Justice said it is “proactively participating” and that “Canada recognizes the legitimacy of the petition process before the IACHR and will provide submissions on the merits of the petition as required.”
Reese, Wrangell’s tribal administrator, said a finding in favor of Southeast tribes would be a historic recognition of traditional territories and the rights of Indigenous people to be able to protect them.
“It’s a colonial border. It obviously did not exist in our ancestors’ time – all of us made sure that we took care of the land. And now that there’s this colonial border in place, we have no say, we can’t sit at the table and say, ‘We want to make sure that protections are put in place so that this land is left in a pristine state for those who come behind us.’ So it’s a very important fight. It’s an emotional fight,” Reese said. She paused, a little choked up, to say that she was thinking of stories she was told by her grandfather about the Stikine River. “We are not just fighting for us. We’re fighting for those who come after us, just like those who came before us.”
Southeast tribes and the Canadian government have four months to respond to the initial finding of admissability by the Inter-American Human Rights Commission. The commission could then issue a final finding early next year.
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