Southeast Alaska Indigenous Transboundary Commission
The United Nations Secretariat has released the report of the Special Rapporteur Baskut Tuncak on “the implications for human rights of the environmentally sound management and disposal of hazardous substances and wastes (toxics)”. In the report, submitted pursuant to the Human Rights Council resolution 36/15, Mr. Tuncak, a chemist and lawyer, shares his findings and recommendations from his official country visit to Canada from May 24 to June 6, 2019.
The Southeast Alaska Indigenous Transboundary Commission (SEITC) applauds Mr. Tuncak for his visit to Canada and his report. “We wrote a letter in January of 2019 asking that a Special Rapporteur make an onsite visit to investigate and confirm threats to us in Alaska,” said Rob Sanderson, Jr., Southeast Alaska Indigenous Transboundary Commission Chair and Vice President of Central Council Tlingit & Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska. “Though we don’t learn a lot of new information in this report, it’s always good to know that non-biased observers see what we see.”
Special Rapporteur Baskut Tuncak hailed the November 2019 legislation to implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples passed by British Columbia as “a tremendous achievement” to be “emulated in other provinces and federally”. “The Special Rapporteur mentions how British Columbia ’s “landmark” legislation was developed with Indigenous peoples’ participation,” said Southeast Alaska Indigenous Transboundary Commission Vice Chair Jennifer Hanlon from Yakutat Tlingit Tribe. Noting how Indigenous peoples in Alaska have not yet been involved in British Columbia ’s implementation process, Vice Chair Hanlon said “Gunalchéesh, Thank You, Mr Tuncak for acknowledging the “jurisdictional quagmire” faced by us across the border, a “toxic divide”, as he put it.”
In his report, Mr. Tuncak mentioned the 2014 Mount Polley tailing dam disaster. He pointed out that Canada has the second highest number of tailing dams in the world and has the 5 highest number of upstream dams categorizes as high-risk. “We have great concern here in Wrangell for our Stikine River,” said Lovey Brock, Southeast Alaska Indigenous Transboundary Commission Treasurer and Tribal Council member of Wrangell Cooperative Association. “The Red Chris mine currently operating upstream is many times bigger than Mount Polley with a much larger Lake of Poison (tailings storage facility).” Mr. Tuncak said Canada recently has had a significant increase in accidents, in fact “the second highest number of known mining accidents from 2007-2017."
Federal and provincial and territorial law need review in order to “prevent upstream mine waste dams which place communities downstream at risk of exposure, require independent review panels of extractive industry projects, and apply best practices on mine tailing safety,” said Tuncak.
Special Rapporteur Tuncak acknowledged the deep connection of Indigenous peoples to their lands and waters. “As Mr. Tuncak says, we rely on our natural resources for traditional foods and medicines, culture and identity,” said Southeast Alaska Indigenous Transboundary Commission Secretary Sylvia Banie, Vice President of the Organized Village of Saxman. “Our people must be considered before permitting so many massive industrial projects in our most sacred, sensitive places.”
“He (Tuncak) seems to get it,” said Frederick Olsen, Jr, Southeast Alaska Indigenous Transboundary Commission Executive Director from Sitka Tribe of Alaska, “ Our people get treated like a nuisance for continuing our way of life rather than the government putting the onus on companies to prevent pollution. We rely on wild foods and we need protections.”
Special Rapporteur Tuncak raised concern regarding mine remediation, specifically the “adequacy of financial guarantees on polluting enterprises for site clean-up and remediation, leaving so-called orphan contaminated sites”. For example, as you read this, the Tulsequah Chief mine continues to pollute the Taku River watershed, in spite of years of positive talk and the recent creation of a clean up plan involving collaboration between the British Columbia government and the Taku River Tlingit First Nation.
Indeed, Tuncak recommends that Canada enforce “robust planning for mine closure before development and assessment of projects, and enforce strict financial securities, ensuring industry accountability for the long-term care of mines.”
Canada should “take proactive measures to prevent environmental harm and respect concerns of risk of harm including where host countries have put in place no-go-zones for resource extraction,” recommends Tuncak. Said Olsen, “Exactly! On their side of the border, they want the KSM mine which would be one of the world’s largest mines but a few miles away, on our side, we have Misty Fjords National Monument and plenty of sacred sites.”
The Special Rapporteur further said that Canada “should strengthen compliance and enforcement mechanisms, to prevent repetition of cases” like the selenium pollution from coal mines in the Elk Valley that “raised concerns about lack of compliance with water quality guidelines at provincial and federal levels, resulting in transboundary pollution from British Columbia into the United States of America.”
“As noted in this report, Canada has a duty to ensure that Canadian businesses do not abuse our rights,” said Sanderson. “British Columbia has a long way to go regarding the protection of clean water and our people.”