This World Water Day Demand Justice for Quesnel Lake

Quesnel Lake/Yuct Ne Senxiymetkwe: a Love Story

Christine McLean is ready to retire. After running a successful electrical business in Calgary for the last 20 years, the Kamloops, BC born and raised McLean planned to move back to BC with her husband, Eric. In 2014 they began laying plans to spend their retirement years living in what Christine describes as, “paradise” – a gorgeous log cabin on a large, treed lot perched above the stunningly beautiful Mitchell Bay on Quesnel Lake. For Christine, it is a place for the spirit to rest and the heart to soar.

For Secwepemc and Nuxalk activist Nuskmata (Jacinda Mack), Quesnel Lake is part of her cultural heritage. Raised in the northern Secwepemc community of Xat’sull, Nuskamata spent her youth out on the land and eventually came to work for her Secwepemc community as the Natural Resources manager. Her mother taught her that for Indigenous peoples, “our economy walks on the land and swims in the waters.” She calls the relationship between her community and the land a ‘love story’.

Quesnel Lake isn’t just any lake: it’s a deep, fjord lake nestled inside a rare interior rainforest in central British Columbia. The area is spiritually and culturally important to the Secwepemc people, one of the original peoples who have lived in the area for thousands of years. The Secwepemc name for the lake is Yuct Ne Senxiymetkwe, or “Greatest of Lakes” and the area is regarded as the birthing waters of the rivers and tributaries where wild salmon return to spawn every year.

These waters are an important ‘incubator’ for wild salmon. The delicate ecosystem is also home to rainbow and cutthroat trout, some of the cleanest water in the world, and a host of wild game, medicines and berries.

It is also an important area for tourism:  guided eco-tours, fishing and hunting are extremely popular.  Residents fondly recall amazing their visitors by dipping a cup into the middle of the lake and drinking deep of its cool, clean water.

Most importantly, Quesnel Lake and surrounding waters provide food security and cultural identity for Secwepemc people and neighboring Nations.

For Nuskmata, Quesnel Lake is part of her children’s bloodline. For Christine, retiring to Quesnel Lake was a dream come true.

For both women, waking up to the news on a hot, summer day in 2014 that the tailings dam at the Mount Polley copper mine, just a few kilometers up-stream from Quesnel Lake, had broken, was the beginning of a long nightmare.

Just after 1am on August 4, 2014, the Mount Polley copper mine’s tailings pond embankment crumbled, sending 25 million cubic metres of mine waste rushing downstream and into Quesnel Lake. Along the way, it scoured a 9-kilometer path down what had once been a tiny, meandering creek, cutting a deep channel through the forest and devastating a massive area of land where Hazeltine Creek empties into Quesnel Lake. Five years on, despite reclamation efforts, the area has not fully recovered.

As terrible as the tailings dam collapse has been, residents were shocked to learn in the following months and years, that not only would the province fail to levy any fines on the company, it would not press charges, nor allow private prosecutions, nor hold the company to account. Residents say they thought the government had ‘polluter pays’ rules in place to take care of them and clean up the environment. In fact, taxpayers have carried the cost of much of the disaster clean-up. The Mount Polley disaster, says Christine, has shown the weakness of BC’s mining laws and has sent a message to mining companies that they can cause environmental and human rights harms and get away with it.  Residents say they are deeply disappointed in the BC government.

After the disaster, the Province of British Columbia established an expert group to study the causes of the tailings dam collapse, but the group was not tasked with assigning blame to any of the parties. However, it did make important recommendations for improving tailing dam safety at the more than 100 tailings dams in existence throughout the province. It ominously warned that BC could expect more tailings dam failures if the government did not act to step up monitoring, repairs and upgrades, and reporting of these sites.

BC’s Auditor General documented the BC government’s poor track record of making sure mining companies comply with BC’s regulations. She recommended that the province create a compliance enforcement unit separate from the Ministry of Energy and Mines, arguing that the Ministry’s mandate of enforcing the rules while also promoting mining investment is inherently incompatible.

For residents and Indigenous communities affected by the disaster, the scale of the reforms required to bring BC’s mining laws and regulations in line with international best practices means that their road to justice will be long.

Both the UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights and the UN Committee for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination called separately on Canada to hold those responsible for the disaster to account and to provide remedy to those harmed.  Yet, more than five years on, Canada has failed to act.

To make matters worse, in 2017, the outgoing BC Liberal Party (and recipient of significant political donations from the mine operator’s parent company, Imperial Metals) granted Mount Polley Mining Corporation (MPMC) a 5-year permit to discharge filtered mine waste from the mine site into Quesnel Lake. Indigenous peoples and settler groups, like the Concerned Citizens of Quesnel Lake, strongly opposed the company’s permit application, citing concerns about impacts on the environment, health and human rights.  Their concerns have been supported by experts.

In fact, a preliminary study carried out for the First Nations Health Authority documented the terrible impacts of the disaster on the mental and physical health, cultural practices and finances of Indigenous peoples in the region. It made a number of important recommendations to various levels of government to study the impacts and uphold the human rights of the 47 affected communities. Despite public opposition to the company’s discharge permit application, the permit was approved and MPMC installed two water discharge pipes from the mine site into Quesnel Lake.

The affected communities say that granting the company permission to discharge mine waste into Quesnel Lake, after refusing to hold the company accountable, is adding insult to injury and they are calling on the province to:

  • rescind the company’s discharge permit
  • require the company to invest in best available water treatment technology to treat the water on-site
  • regulate the release of fully-treated mine waste to a more appropriate location on the mine site
  • monitor and publicly report on the health of Quesnel Lake
  • compel the company, Mount Polley Mining Corporation, to post a full financial surety for eventual clean-up and remediation

The magnificent Quesnel Lake is more than a body of water: it is a relative, a living entity, a source of nourishment, joy and a home to many species. It must be protected and cherished in its own right.

For Christine McLean, the right to a healthy environment for her family, friends, neighbors and the Indigenous Nations that have relied on Quesnel Lake and its tributaries for generations, is paramount. That is why she is personally mounting an appeal of the company’s water discharge permit at the BC Environmental Appeal Board in 2020. We encourage Amnesty members and supporters to support her appeal.

For Nuskmata and her family, they will never stop speaking out for justice for Quesnel Lake and for the rights of Indigenous peoples to be upheld and respected by government and companies. As she told the UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights experts panel, “We call on Canada to respect our Indigenous Laws and our rights. This is a crisis situation for our people and our lands. We are in crisis, as are the salmon, the moose, and the water for our children. I want to be able to look my children and grandchildren in the eye and to say that I did all I could to protect the land and the water.”

This World Water Day, spare a thought for the magnificent Quesnel Lake and those who rely on its health and well-being. Please support area residents, Indigenous communities and the Concerned Citizens of Quesnel Lake by urging the Province of British Columbia to listen to their voices and pull the pipes from Quesnel Lake!

To learn more about how you can get involved in the campaign to protect Quesnel Lake from further industrial pollution and support the United Nations recommendations to Canada to provide justice for the Mount Polley disaster, please visit our webpage.

Nuskmata (Jacinda Mack) is an Indigenous advocate for communities facing mining projects and a consultant on Indigenous Rights and Title, as well as an advisor on emerging international mining standards.  

Christine McLean is a settler on Secwepemc lands, founder of Concerned Citizens of Quesnel Lake, and since the disaster, a member of the Public Liaison Committee established by the Mount Polley Mining Corporation to share information with area residents.