Chief Marilyn Baptiste blocking mining project to protect future, she says
By GORDON HAMILTON, Vancouver Sun
During a break in the week long B.C. Supreme Court hearing over the fate of the $3 billion Prosperity Mine, Xeni Gwet’in chief Marilyn Baptiste, walks out of the Hornby Street courthouse and joins a group of eight supporters singing a traditional song.
The drumming and singing lasts no more than five minutes but Baptiste comes away feeling renewed after sitting in courtroom 54 all morning, where Taseko Mines is presenting its case for an injunction to end a blockade on the access road leading to the proposed mine site.
Taseko alleges Baptiste, and other leaders of the Xeni Gwet’in, one of the six bands that make up the Tsilhqot’in First Nation, is interfering with their lawful right to conduct business. In a separate action also being heard, the Xeni Gwet’in are seeking an injunction to stop the miners, alleging that the provincial permits they have are invalid as the Xeni Gwet’in were not consulted and accommodated, which is a legal requirement.
Both sides agree on one thing: the court case that began Monday is pivotal: To the mining company, the future of rights over resource extraction in Canada hangs in the balance. To first nations, it’s a watershed that will define the relations between indigenous people and the provincial and federal governments.
Baptiste stands right at the centre, a medium-height woman with clear eyes who looks younger than her forty-plus years.
She is recognized within British Columbia and national first nations organizations as belonging to a wave of younger leaders, the next generation, who are picking up the battle over land and rights and carrying it to the courts. Assembly of First Nations chief Shawn Atleo calls her and the Tsilhqot’in leaders “true champions.”
“Her dedication and passion is clear as she continues to build and enhance networks to support sustainable, long-term approaches to development that respect first nation rights and the interests of every Tsilhqot’in now and in the future,” Atleo said of Baptiste in an email to The Sun.
Leadership rests easily on Baptiste’s shoulders. She speaks gently but clearly. She is the third daughter of Marjorie Chuk and Marvin Baptiste, a former longtime chief of the band. She is married, has one son and one granddaughter. Previous to being elected chief in 2008, she had worked in the legal support office for the region’s first nations, dealing largely with rights issues.
“I’ve always followed politics. My dad was a chief since before I was born. That’s where I received my interest and my passion in this field,” she said in an interview Monday.
She believes what she is doing — blocking a road-building crew from gaining access to the proposed Prosperity Mine site — is for future generations, a battle for the land that was never ceded to the Crown, land that five Tsilhqot’in warrior leaders were hanged for fighting to defend in 1864.
“Back then our war leaders had stopped a road crew from coming in on the southwest side of the Tsilhqot’in territory. If they had not, we would not be who we are today. They protected our future generations,” she said.
Baptiste sees herself and other Tsilhqot’in leaders as part of that warrior tradition.
“It’s just in a different aspect now. We have been fighting since contact to maintain our people.”
In court with her Monday was Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, president of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs. Phillip was there to support his longtime friend Baptiste, who is on the executive of the UBCIC.
He said she brings a woman’s perspective to the title and rights issue, noting that during a videotape played in court of the confrontation on the dirt road deep in the Chilcotin, she did not raise her voice once.
“I don’t know if I could have done that,” he said.
“I have known her for years. She is a hard-working individual who has committed her life to the justice and well-being of the Tsilhqot’in people and indigenous peoples in general.”
Baptiste’s passion for the land came from her upbringing. She was born and still lives in the Nemiah Valley, home to about 300 Xeni Gwet’in. She learned to dip-net for salmon in the cold waters of the Taseko and Chilcotin rivers from her father; she taught her son, Rickey, how to do it. She can’t remember not knowing how to ride a horse. It was something she always did in the flat Nemiah Valley, where the nearest neighbour was a quarter of a mile away, across Nemiah Creek.
And, perhaps most significant in the Prosperity Mine battle, her father took her to Fish Lake, which will be destroyed if the mine goes ahead, and showed her where the old-timers used to trap rainbow trout, keeping them alive in the traps as a source of fresh food.
The Prosperity Mine fight has been framed as an all-or-nothing battle as the ore body is immediately adjacent to Fish Lake, but Baptiste said it does not mean the Xeni Gwet’in people are opposed to economic development.
She said the first nation leans closer to the model the Haida have adopted on Haida Gwaii of eco system-based management. Just last week she and other Xeni Gwet’in leaders met with the Haida to share their common interests.
Guujaaw, president of the Council of the Haida Nation, was at that meeting. He praised Baptiste as a powerful leader who has the same three priorities as the Haida: first, protect the culture, second, protect the land, third, consider economic development.
“She is seeking solutions to these issues, she is not just in there for the scrap,” he said of Baptiste. “Her approach is a lot like ours. It is quite principled in the respect that the culture and the land come before the money.”
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Posted by: Wolfgang Zilker Monday Nov 28, 2011 10:08
Categories: First Nations, Prosperity Mine, Teztan Biny, Xeni Gwet'in | Tags: aboriginal rights & title, court case, Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs