Southeast tribes seek formal recognition in Canadian mine review process

A group of Southeast Alaska tribes has petitioned Canada to recognize their right to have a voice in how transboundary lands and waters are treated — they’re asking to be recognized as participating Indigenous nations in Canada’s review process for resource development.

The latest issue is the proposed reopening of the Eskay Creek open-pit gold and silver mine near the headwaters of the Unuk River, which empties into open water about 55 miles northeast of Ketchikan. The mine site is about 80 air miles east of Wrangell.

Vancouver-based Skeena Resources has proposed reopening the mine. The company completed an economic feasibility study of the project in November.

Eskay Creek, which operated from 1994 to 2008, is one of several proposed and operating mines located on or near major rivers that cross the Canadian-U.S. border in Southeast Alaska. Canadian recognition as a participant in the review process would give the Alaska tribes the rights to be consulted on Eskay Creek and other mining projects.

The seven tribes behind the petition are the Ketchikan Indian Community, the Organized Village of Saxman, Petersburg Indian Association, Craig Tribal Cooperative Association, the Organized Village of Kasaan, Klawock Cooperative Association and the Hydaburg Indian Association. They sent their petition for recognition to the head of British Columbia’s Environmental Assessment Office on Jan. 30.

The seven tribes are members of the Southeast Alaska Indigenous Transboundary Commission (SEITC). The Wrangell Cooperative Association is also a member of the commission, which is challenging mining operations in the Stikine River watershed too.

Canada’s constitution requires its government to consult with Indigenous peoples on projects impacting their ancestral lands.

Guy Archibald, the Southeast tribal commission’s executive director, said the Canadian Supreme Court in 2021 considered whether Aboriginal people located outside Canada can assert Aboriginal rights under the Canadian Constitution. “The court found that those rights extend to people that are no longer residents in Canada who have traditional ties to territory that’s within Canada,” Archibald said.

“So Canada has to respect the territories as they were at the time of European contact. And at the time of European contact (in 1741), the entire Unuk watershed was a recognized territory of the Tèiḵwèidi clan. And seven of our tribes are the successors of the Tèiḵwèidi. There’s a direct line between the clan and the federally recognized tribes,” he said.

“If SEITC succeeds, it would be the first time in history that a U.S.-based tribe is granted participating Indigenous nation status in Canada,” Timna Axel, Earthjustice’s public affairs and communications strategist, said in an email.

Earthjustice, a nonprofit environmental law organization, is representing the tribes in their effort.

Also in the tribes’ favor, she said the United Nations Inter-American Commission on Human Rights “recently recognized that Canada’s persistent refusal to consult with Alaska Native tribes on large-scale mining development along the transboundary watersheds could violate international human rights.”

Louie Wagner Jr., who is Tsimshian and Tlingit, told the commission on Sept. 26, 2018, that his family has been the hereditary steward of the river for thousands of years.

“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,” Wagner said.

Mining in transboundary river watersheds has the “possibility of erasing salmon runs, eulachon (fish) runs, erasing the wildlife that is usually flocked and thriving on that river and our culture and our traditions of harvesting, sharing and celebrating,” said Lee Wagner, who is Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian, and the assistant executive director of the Southeast tribal commission.

ICT is an independent, nonprofit, multimedia news enterprise that covers Indigenous peoples. The Sentinel contributed reporting for this story.


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