Alaska tribes accuse Canada of human rights violations, request international hearing on mining

a riverbank
“As caretakers, our family’s crest can be seen marked on painted pictoglyphs at the mouth of the Unuk River, as well as at points upstream. The crest has been tested and is thousands of years old. It depicts a sun with rays. The bottom edge was rubbed off by ice.” – Louie Wagner Jr., Metlakatla, AK (Photo by Lee Wagner/SEITC)

At the mouth of the Unuk River near Ketchikan, there is a very old petroglyph. According to Lee Wagner of Metlakatla, the rising sun painted onto a rock above the river is thousands of years old and it’s a family crest.

“And you will also see remnants of more of them along the river as you go up into Canada,” Wagner said.

Further up the river, over the Canadian border, there is a site proposed for an open pit gold mine. It’s one of multiple large-scale mining projects proposed on Canadian soil that Alaska tribes say would directly impact watersheds that run across the border into Alaska. And the tribes have long demanded a seat at the table in how Canada manages those projects. 

The tribal coalition is known as the Southeast Alaska Indigenous Transboundary Commission, or SEITC. The tribes submitted a brief on Feb. 19 to the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights accusing Canada of violating their human rights, including their right to a healthy environment.

Guy Archibald is the SEITC executive director. He says the Unuk River case is interesting because the line he has heard from mining companies – that if they build a mine, they can minimize its impact on the watershed – doesn’t work here. There already was a mine at Eskay Creek along the Unuk River in the 1990’s. And Archibald says the watershed is still feeling the effects, over a decade after the mine shuttered.

“Mining is known to impact water quality and salmon. They always do. Modern mines actually fail at a higher frequency and with more catastrophic consequences than mines did 40, 50 years ago – and some of these are the largest mines that will ever be built in the world so far,” Archibald said. “The people using that river, such as Lee’s family, noticed a very distinctive drop off in the hooligan coming in. Hooligan are not like salmon, they will go somewhere else if there’s adverse conditions.”

When the mine closed in 2007, Archibald saw the populations of hooligan, a beloved subsistence fish also known as oligan and eulachon, begin to rebound. But the once productive hooligan fishery in the Unuk River has remained closed to non-subsistence users by the state Department of Fish and Game since the population collapse in 2005. 

For Archibald, gold mines mean only two things.

“Jewelry, and its investment,” he said. “Ninety-three percent of all gold is vanity or it is a backup to your investments in the dollar in the stock market in case something goes wrong. It’s vanity and fear. It needs to just stay in the ground.” 

“Sacrificing salmon and cultures – and all the language and art that go with them – the economics never pencil out. If ecology is the price that you pay, the economics will never pencil out,” said Archibald.

The SEITC, in partnership with legal advocacy organization Earthjustice, have taken their concerns to the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights, which presides over the defense of human rights across North and South America. 

In 2020, the SEITC submitted a petition to the Inter-American Commision regarding Canada’s alleged human rights violations and in September of 2023, the commission accepted it. That started the clock for the tribal group and Canada to both make their cases. This brief is the first official filing of SEITC outlining their argument to the commission since the original petition.

According to Mae Manupipatpong, an Earthjustice attorney, their argument is twofold: that Canada is violating the tribes’ federally recognized right to a healthy environment, as well as violating their own obligation to meaningfully consult with tribal stakeholders.

“They also have an obligation to obtain the free prior and informed consent of SEITC tribal members and make sure that they are participating in the decision making processes and have a voice in whether these mines are authorized or not,” Manupipatpong said. “Toxic water pollution doesn’t stop at the Canadian border. And human rights obligations don’t either.”

Archibald stated that SEITC has attempted to contact the Canada and British Columbia governments multiple times, which is evidenced in the brief. Archibald said the only reply has been from the mining companies. He recalled receiving a letter from one of the mining companies in which they offered to “guide them through” the process. 

“Not once in the letter did they say they’d listen to us, or anything along that line,” he remembered.

The mining companies listed in the brief have not responded to KRBD’s multiple requests for comment.

The Canadian and British Columbia governments are required to submit a similar brief in the coming weeks. Afterwards, the Inter-American Commission will decide if there will be a hearing.  

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