After colonization and residential schools, the question we have to ask ourselves is where do we want to be in the future?

Mining has been prevalent in British Columbia since the discovery of gold along the Fraser River in the 1850s, which sparked a subsequent gold rush. Today the province annually produces and exports large amounts of copper, gold, silver, lead, and zinc.

But some of the province’s 200 First Nations communities live on the land that mining companies want to excavate. No treaties were ever signed, and no land or resources were ceded when settlers first came to British Columbia. Despite the fact that no new major mine has opened in the province in the last 15 years thanks to First Nations-led litigation, these communities feel that they must fight every mining company that encroaches on their traditional land.

“We still use the land’s resources,” says Chief Bev Sellars. “If it wasn’t for the moose, deer and fish a lot of people in our community wouldn’t survive because they don’t have the economic resources.”

Sellars is Chief of the Xat’sull First Nation. She has already taken on the Taseko Mines company by successfully having their discharge permit modified by the Ministry of Environment after claims that downstream effluents were a danger to the Fraser’s fish stock. Sellars also claims that the construction of the nearby Gibraltar mine has pushed moose further away, and destroyed traditional berry-picking areas.

“It has to be environmentally friendly – that’s the number one thing,” says Sellars. “It doesn’t matter if we get jobs – if the environment isn’t being looked after we’re not going to be able to sustain ourselves.”

Like Sellars, Anne Marie Sam is a member of FNWARM (First Nations Women Advocating Responsible Mining). As leading figures in their communities, and as mothers, these women feel that it’s their responsibility to protect their children, homes and communities from the type of mining practice that has left the province with almost 2,000 abandoned mines.

Sam’s community faced an economic downturn after the mountain pine beetle affected the logging industry, and the Thompson Creek-run Mt. Milligan mine seemed like a blessing to many in the community. But Sam faced a backlash from her own community when she raised questions about the mine’s impact on the community’s businesses, land and resources.

“After colonization and residential schools, the question we have to ask ourselves is where do we want to be in the future?” asks Sam. “This project was going to take our people away from the land and into more untraditional jobs.”

But NovaGold President Rick Van Nieuwenhuyse says that things have slowly improved in the last 20 years as some companies learn to interact with communities and the environment.

“Unfortunately the mining industry is living with the legacy of what was done 100 years ago, back when there was slavery.”

NovaGold signed a participation agreement with the Tahltan Nation in 2006 regarding the Galore Creek mine in the northwest of the province. Nieuwenhuyse recommends companies start the consultation process early during the exploration stage, meet often and, above all, listen. The 2006 agreement outlined how the company would train local workers and use local businesses.

“The local talent pool is really important over the long-term,” says Nieuwenhuyse. “It will take time and money, but then you’ll have a local workforce that you don’t have to transport from Vancouver.”

But despite signs that some of the province’s companies are eschewing old practices, members of FNWARM are still concerned. New B.C. Premier Christy Clark has openly supported the revised proposal that Taseko has tabled for the controversial Prosperity mine. The project was previously scuttled by the federal government on environmental grounds.

“Clark has said that she’s here for the families in B.C. – but what about the First Nations families that are going to be impacted?” asks Sam. “You have to look at the whole picture and not just one portion.”