The lake my mother swam in
As a child, my mother learned to swim in Kamiskotia Lake. If that name sounds familiar to you, it’s because it lends its name to a Hollinger mine, Kam Kotia Porcupine, 35 kilometres northwest of Timmins, Ontario and is the site of one of Canada’s worst mining disasters.
When the mine closed in 1972, no one was legally responsible for the massive tailings – piles of waste rock – that eventually seeped arsenic, lead, selenium, and other metals into local waterways. While residents became more and more alarmed about the health of their kids and safety of their water, the mine changed hands half a dozen times until it eventually became the responsibility of the crown. In 2000, after 30 years of contamination, the Ontario government launched a five- phased $47 million dollar clean-up and rehabilitation effort.
My family’s mining legacy
I come from a mining family. My grandfather Cyrille, his 12 brothers and sisters, their kids, and and their grandkids have all in some way benefitted from the mining industry. My late great uncle Clifford worked his whole life in the Hollinger mine shafts. His granddaughter carries on the family tradition for a company here in the northwest out of Smithers.
I also come from a family of outdoor men and women. My great aunt Edna, at 86, still runs her own trap line. Seeing grandpa Cyrille fly fishing is like watching a martial arts master, albeit a French catholic one, cursing and sneaking whiskey in time with his practiced steps. His lines dance on the water.
For the most part I feel proud of how hard my family has worked to lift us out of poverty and open doors for my generation. My cousins and I have access to hard fought opportunities – post-secondary education, while not easy, was possible. I am mobile enough to choose to live here in the Pacific Northwest, a place that makes me feel alive and connected.
Two disasters every ten years
In the early morning of August 4th 2014, the communities in the Quesnel Lake watershed experienced the unthinkable. A wet tailings dam for the nearby Mount Polley Mine burst, dumping over 10 million cubic meters of toxic slurry and mud containing selenium, lead, and arsenic into the river systems. The spill lasted four days but the financial and ecological impacts to those communities are still being felt. Locals described the spill as a death in their community. Their relationship to salmon severed, making their lives more precarious and uncertain.
There are 123 tailings dams at 60 mine sites throughout BC. Despite advice from experts, many of these dams are using or propose using the same wet tailings approach. If they go forward, we can expect an average of two dam failures every ten years.
Forty-eight watersheds in the northwest contain or are downstream of a tailings facility, the vast majority of which could be affected by multiple tailings dams. Among them are B.C.’s most iconic wild salmon rivers, including the Taku, Stikine, Unuk, Nass, Skeena, Fraser, Buckley and Babine to name a few.
Two hundred and forty-one communities are within a 22 kilometre contaminant flow path of a mine tailings dam, including Fort St. John, Prince George, Quesnel, Smithers, Terrace, and Williams Lake and Prince Rupert.
What are we inheriting in B.C.?
Every time one of these dams fails (and they will), someone has to clean it up. In the case of Mount Polley, taxpayers are picking up almost $40 million of the clean up tab. British Columbia does not require full financial assurances (bonding) from mining companies. Disasters like Kam Kotia and Mount Polley are a hefty price for us all to bear.
Our mining laws in B.C. haven’t changed in 150 years. That’s right, since the gold rush. The way mining is being done here in B.C. will plunge my generation into ecological and financial debt. We are spending our shrinking inheritance on cleaning up the mining industry’s messes.
When my dog and I walk down to the Skeena River in the spring or fall I bring my fishing rod, tackle, a knife, a bear bell, binoculars, a snack, and a camera. I know we’ll see bears, eagles, neighbours. Our rivers are the veins this region, what brings life to my community. And economic opportunity brings life to our community too – doing good work, especially that keeps people in the community, has been a struggle in our region. I wonder about how these two values - economic and ecological - live in me, in my family and in my community. What would it look like to make decisions for our watershed that put our long term health and prosperity first? What if they are not at odds, what if they are linked? What if my work, our work, is to reconcile these two values.
Making choices in times of uncertainty
Grandpa Cyrille was a ballistics guy before the Second World War. When it became clear to him (after a very stern talk from my grandmother Louise) that the mining lifestyle of long absences and dangerous work was detrimental to his wife and kids, he famously tossed his blasting gear over the side of a boat carrying him up the St. Lawrence on his way home to Timmins, as a symbol of his commitment to our future. He had no idea at the time what his life or our life would look like, but he knew he couldn’t continue doing what he had been doing. He to took the risk to make something completely new of his life and livelihood.
British Columbians have a choice to make. Do we want to build an economy centered on resilience, restoration, and sustainable growth? Do we want to maintain our wild salmon rivers and way of life, or do we want to cash in on the new gold rush and let our kids deal with the fall out?
While I can’t say exactly what responsible mining looks like for our region, I know it’s time we figured it out. More than ever I want to have these conversations in the northwest, to come together and learn together. Forging a new economic path together might feel risky in our uncertain times but northerners have always bet on the underdog. We’ve always beat the odds. We need to step up and defend our watersheds and way of life. I hope that the next generation can feel proud of our choices.
There is so much to do this summer to kick start this conversation.
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SALMON BEYOND BORDERS is a campaign driven by sport and commercial fishermen, community leaders, tourism and recreation business owners and concerned citizens, in collaboration with Tribes and First Nations, united across the Alaska/British Columbia border to defend and sustain our transboundary rivers, jobs and way of life.
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