The Supreme Court of Canada unanimously rejected the Taku River Tlingit First Nation's claim that British Columbia ignored its concerns about a proposed multi-metal mine near the Alaska border.
The court's 7-0 decision Thursday reversed two lower courts' findings that B.C. officials did not adequately consult with the Taku Tlingits about the Tulsequah Chief mine's potential impact on their ancestral homeland.
In contrast, the court ruled Thursday the province neglected its duty to consult with the Haida First Nation before approving logging by U.S.-owned Weyerhaeuser Co. in the Queen Charlotte Islands.
The two rulings were highly anticipated in Canada because of their far-reaching effects on First Nation land disputes. But Juneau environmentalists and legislators remain worried about the Tulsequah Chief mine's potential impacts on the Taku River, 10 miles southeast of Juneau.
They worry that the mine - which proposes to store its tailings in an active flood plain and use a mixing zone to dilute pollution discharges - could harm salmon in Taku River tributaries. The mine developer, Redfern Resources, claims the mine will reduce pollution by cleaning up old toxic mine waste that is now leaching into the river.
Juneau gillnetters' Taku Inlet sockeye salmon fishery is valued at $5.4 million.
Kat Hall, a grassroots organizer for the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council, said Canadian regulators need to listen to Alaskans. She noted the Canadian federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans' recent refusal to attend a public forum on the mine in Juneau.
"This is all the more reason for Alaskans to continue to pressure B.C. and Canada to guarantee protection of (our) interests in salmon and water quality," Hall said.
Thursday's Supreme Court ruling delved into the Taku River Tlingits' unresolved land claim in the Taku River watershed - including a portion of the area where Redfern proposes a 99-mile mining access road.
The court agreed with the Taku Tlingits that the road could harm their claim; it spelled out a legal obligation for Canadian federal and provincial officials to try to address the Tlingits' concerns.
"The Court recognized some important standards ... that we will be holding British Columbia and Canada to," said John Ward, a spokesman for the Taku River Tlingit, in a prepared statement Thursday after the verdict was read.
Terry Chandler, president of Redfern Resources, based in Vancouver, said that he hopes to hold a meeting with Taku Tlingits and Canadian officials soon to start resolving their differences.
The Tulsequah Chief approval process began in 1994 but the company hasn't obtained all of its permits. Chandler said the verdict doesn't change the permit process, "but maybe now is the time for the company and First Nation to set aside our differences of the last few years."
Chandler said he was "a little disappointed" that Canadian regulators declined the Juneau invitation and said he hoped that would change and that the meeting could go forward.
Juneau special projects officer Maria Gladziszewski said the city is awaiting a final environmental report on the mine's proposed road and hasn't yet given up on holding a public forum with Canadian officials.
A Canadian federal attorney said that the ruling spells out better how his government should deal with First Nations' land claims in the future.
"I think we are further ahead in understanding the government's duty toward aboriginal groups," said Brian McLaughlin, a general counsel for the Canadian Department of Justice.
He noted two relevant findings:
The court rejected British Columbia's assertion that only federal authorities have to consult with First Nations.
It rejected the Haida First Nation's argument that First Nations should have veto power on development of projects on land where they are claiming aboriginal rights.
Elizabeth Bluemink can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.