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B.C. First Nation behind landmark land title case releases mining policy

VANCOUVER - A British Columbia First Nation behind a recent Supreme Court of Canada case that significantly expanded aboriginal land title rights laid out ground rules Thursday for mining projects on its traditional territory, requiring resource companies to minimize the negative impacts of projects while sharing revenue.

The Tsilhqot'in National Government's mining policy also follows the group's successful fight against the New Prosperity mine, proposed by Taseko Mines Ltd. (TSX:TKO), which was rejected by the federal government earlier this year due to the potential impact on a lake considered sacred by area First Nations.

The Tsilhqot'in Nation, located near Williams Lake, B.C., said it isn't opposed to mining on its territory, but resource companies need to respect the rights of aboriginals if they want their projects to proceed.

"The goal is to have proponents actually come through the door of the Tsilhqot'in Nation," Chief Russell Myers-Ross of Yunesit'in, one of the six bands that make up the Tsilhqot'in, said in an interview.

"We had the example of Taseko Mines, who showed us what not to do. We need proponents and industry to begin showing a lot more respect for our people and our nation if they want to build partnerships in our territory."

The 19-page document, published both in English and the Tsilhqot'in language, said mining companies must sign formal exploration and benefit agreements before getting Tsilhqot'in support, and those agreements must include resource revenue from mining projects.

The document also states the Tsilhqot'in people must be given priority when it comes to training and jobs, and it promises a "clear, certain process" for mining companies to engage with the nation.

The policy applies to a large area of land in northern and central B.C. that the Tsilhqot'in Nation considers its traditional territory. The policy is in addition to an existing stewardship agreement between the Tsilhqot'in and the provincial government, which sets out consultation processes for resource projects in that area.

"The intent is to put the expectation out there and show people what our needs are, that we need benefits in our area, that we have high standards for our environment and respect for our culture," he said.

The Tsilhqot'in has a long history of asserting its rights when it comes to resource development.

The nation won a decades-long legal battle in June when the Supreme Court of Canada issued a landmark rule that rewrote aboriginal title rights. The decision recognized the Tsilhqot'in's right to aboriginal title over 1,750 square kilometres of territory in a case that began as a dispute over logging. The area is only a small portion of what the Tsilhqot'in consider its territory.

The Supreme Court victory came several months after the federal government rejected the New Prosperity mine, which the Tsilhqot'in had spent years opposing.

The Tsilhqot'in warned the proposed mine would harm water quality and fish habitat in a body of water known as Fish Lake, or Teztan Biny to First Nations. A review panel report agreed, which convinced the federal government to block the project, though the company has launched a legal challenge of that decision.

Chief Joe Alphonse of Tl'etinqox, who is the Tsilhqot'in tribal chair, said the policy will ensure future projects are handled differently.

"There are dozens of mineral exploration projects in our territory and this policy will clarify for those proponents, government officials and anyone else thinking of staking claims that Tsilhqot’in laws remain in force in our territory, as they have since time immemorial," Alphonse said in a news release.

"With our recent victory at the Supreme Court for title, we will continue to enforce Tsilhqot’in law throughout our territory."

The Tsilhqot'in plans to hold consultations with governments, the mining industry and the public for the next two months before finalizing the policy.

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