CSKT: ‘It is Time for Canada to End the Poisoning of Our Natural Resources’

Coalition of Indigenous leaders demands action on transboundary coal mining pollution in Montana, Idaho and British Columbia as bilateral Canada-U.S. talks are set to begin

By Tristan Scott
Teck Resource’s coal processing infrastructure in British Columbia on August 30, 2022. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

The chairman of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes (CSKT) is among a coalition of Indigenous leaders condemning top Canadian officials for allowing the country’s mining industry “to lay waste to Indigenous territory” by stalling efforts to address the inrush of mining chemicals contaminating a transboundary watershed spanning British Columbia, Montana and Idaho. 

In an April 19 letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and B.C. Premier David Eby, the coalition of more than 10 First Nations and Tribes — including the CSKT — upbraided the Canadian and provincial governments for ignoring their “legal and ethical obligation to protect transboundary waters and the communities they sustain.” 

“It is time for Canada to fulfill their promise and end the poisoning of our natural resources,” CSKT Chairman Tom McDonald said in an April 24 statement about the letter. “Canada has kicked the can for far too long. There is absolutely no excuse for further delay.”   

The letter comes during a period of intensifying pressure on Canada to stand up to the influential B.C. mining industry and control pollution stemming from its operations on the Elk-Kootenai watershed bordering Montana, where for decades coal mines have leached toxic contaminants, including the mining byproduct selenium. In late March, following negotiations between Trudeau and President Joe Biden, Canada jointly committed to “protect fragile ecosystems” in transboundary waters, and stated its intent to “reach an agreement in principle by this summer to reduce and mitigate the impacts of water pollution in the Elk-Kootenai watershed.”

Further bilateral talks between Canada and the U.S. are scheduled for this week, which prompted the unified call for action from tribal officials, according to McDonald.

For Indigenous leaders from B.C.’s Ktunaxa Nation, as well as those from the CSKT in Montana and the Kootenai Tribes of Idaho (KTOI), the ongoing contamination imperils aboriginal territory that holds cultural and ecological value. The recent advancement in U.S.-Canada negotiations signaled an opportunity to ramp up pressure in hopes that an official intervention may be on the horizon.

The Indigenous leaders urged Trudeau and Eby to back up Canada’s commitment with “real action” at the April bilateral talks, including by supporting a joint reference to the International Joint Commission (IJC) that addresses mining pollution in transboundary waterways. Despite broad support for an IJC reference, which has been requested by leaders from the U.S., First Nations and Tribes — as well as IJC commissioners from both sides of the border — Canada has repeatedly delayed any material progress.   

“It is encouraging that the recent joint statement from Prime Minister Trudeau and President Biden recognized the need for action, but a vague commitment to ‘work together’ is not enough,” McDonald said. “Canada and the United States must announce a Joint Reference to the International Joint Commission during the bilateral talks this week.” 

According to tribal leaders, the B.C. and Canadian governments have stood by for decades as the mining industry wreaks havoc on transboundary waters, even as B.C.’s own Auditor General draws attention to the widespread, systemic non-compliance with the province’s own mining regulations. In the Elk-Kootenai watershed, which includes Lake Koocanusa reservoir in northwest Montana, decades of selenium contamination from metallurgic coal mines owned and operated by Teck Resources has damaged rivers and critical fish populations in Canada and the U.S.  

Rising levels of selenium were first identified in the Elk River in the early 1990s and in 1998 the Elk Valley Selenium Task Force was formed to investigate selenium pollution. MA quarter-century later, selenium levels continue to rise and have increased more than 500% in the past 30 years.

Rather than address the pollution problem, Canada and B.C. continue to approve large-scale mining expansions, which the tribal leaders say reveals a “dangerously close relationship” between industry and government — an arrangement the letter describes as being on full display earlier this month when former B.C. Premier John Horgan announced plans to join Elk Valley Resources, which is in the process of being spun off from Teck Resources Ltd.

“The ethics and conflicts of interest surrounding this news is stomach turning,” Rob Sisson, a Trump-appointed IJC member who lives in Bozeman, stated in an email to the Beacon earlier this month after Horgan’s new position was first reported.

As Premier from 2017 to 2022, Horgan “repeatedly undermined attempts to address Teck’s pollution in the Elk Valley and Kootenai watershed,” according to a statement from Indigenous leaders, including McDonald.

“Now, only a few months after stepping down as Premier of British Columbia, and the day after resigning his seat in the B.C. Legislature, Horgan has announced that he plans to join the Board of Directors of Elk Valley Resources, a proposed spinoff of Teck Resources,” according to the statement. “The Horgan announcement is only the latest in decades of similar scandals.”

In 2013, for instance, Imperial Metals donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to the B.C. Liberal Party, and its controlling shareholder hosted a $1 million fundraiser for then-Premier Christy Clark, according to the tribal leaders. A year later, when the company’s tailings dam failed and caused the worst mining spill in Canadian history, the company faced no fines or criminal charges.

“While Canada and British Columbia stonewall efforts by First Nations, Tribes and the United States to address pollution, B.C. mining continues to leach toxic pollutants into our transboundary waters,” said Vice Chairman Gary Aitken Jr.  from the Kootenai Tribe of Idaho.  “We are monitoring the death of our river systems, while those in power have corrupt relationships with the mining industry and refuse to stand up to pollution. It’s like watching a loved one die, knowing that they could be saved.”

In Montana, a contingent of lawmakers from northwest Montana have been working in concert with Teck to repeal a water quality standard implemented specifically to protect against the hazardous upstream mining contaminants, a development that has confounded stakeholders who say Teck and the B.C. government appear to be commanding an outsized degree of influence over the state’s rulemaking process.

The development is even more perplexing given the bipartisan support for upholding the water-quality standard, which was initiated by former Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, a Democrat, and is currently being defended by Gov. Greg Gianforte, a Republican.

“I have been confused for a long time why a small handful of conservative lawmakers in Montana would throw the state under the bus for a foreign mining company when we have nothing to gain from it,” said Michael Jamison, a campaign director for the National Parks Conservation Association who has long been on the frontlines of efforts to establish an IJC reference and address the transboundary selenium contamination. “I have been bewildered by that for a long time. John Horgan’s soft landing out of politics and into the executive offices of Teck Coal answers that question. That makes it clear. Politicians who are friendly to Teck, and to the coal industry in general, are rewarded on the other side with cushy posts. That is, unfortunately for Montana, how the system works.”