Local Nuxalk/Secwepemc woman Jacinda Mack is at the forefront of a campaign designed to protect our freshwater while improving mining practices and ensuring better regulation of the industry in British Columbia.
“In terms of environmental regulation, the mining industry is the elephant in the room,” said Mack. “Mining uses a ton of water and pollutes it in the process. It’s a self-regulated industry and it’s currently the biggest unknown threat to our freshwater.”
Mack is a spokesperson for First Nations Women Advocating Responsible Mining (FNWARM) and the co-founder of its current Stand for Water campaign, which kicked off in Williams Lake on May 17 and will take her across the country and into the United States.
“We understand that mining is a reality. B.C. is the world hub of mining and part of the reason is because our mining laws are so weak; many of the laws date back to the 1850s. This needs to change,” Mack explained. “The industry will always say it is about jobs; if you don’t support mining you are against jobs. Absolutely not. This is not what we are saying at all. We are for clean water, we are for healthy communities, we are for sustainable living.”
First Nations Women Advocating Responsible Mining is focused on the social and cultural impacts that mining brings into communities, and this ensures a different conversation.
“Women bring a new perspective,” Mack explained. “All of these environmental assessments don’t take into account the social impacts of mining, the effects on families and communities that are dealing with these large-scale camps, the increase in drug and alcohol use. FNWARM ensures that Indigenous women’s voices are heard in this largely male-dominated industry.”
One of the biggest challenges Mack faces is the “invisibility” of the mining industry. Often located in remote locations – many of which are home to First Nations communities – the public requires special access to mining operations and therefore the scale of its destruction is rarely seen.
However, much of that changed with the Mount Polley Mine disaster in 2014 when the tailings (mine waste) impoundment at the Imperial Metals-owned mine collapsed, pouring waste into nearby waterways, including the spectacular Quesnel Lake and local streams.
“What many people still don’t realize is that Imperial Metals now discharges waste from Mt. Polley into Quesnel Lake 365 days a year,” said Mack. “The disaster brought the issue to the forefront, but the fact is that despite that massive breach, mines are still being built to the same template as Mt. Polley.”
Mack said a big part of the focus of Stand for Water is to gather stories from across affected communities and bring them back to Victoria with the intention of changing mining practices.
The events also include the showing of the film Uprivers, a documentary about two watersheds and their respective communities, Williams Lake, B.C., and Ketchikan, Alaska, that depend on them in the face of the mining boom presently underway in British Columbia.
“My focus is to change the conversation and talk about what we as communities need to be doing for ourselves in providing solutions and helping our leaders make good choices and provide alternate ways of dealing with mining in British Columbia,” she said. “We aren’t going to be reactionary anymore; we’re going to focus on the standards we want to see enforced in our communities.”
Although many people may have an antiquated perception of mining and its products, Mack says the shift towards “green” energy actually has increased mining activity. Many of the products that produce sustainable energy, such as solar panels, wind turbines, LED lighting and electric cars, are derived from mining metals and minerals, many of them found in Canada.
According to Dan Woynillowicz, the policy director at Clean Energy Canada and the co-author of a 2017 SFU report entitled Mining for Clean Energy, Canada is home to 14 of 19 metals and minerals that go into making a solar panel.
He says that as B.C.’s mining industry grows to meet this new demand, it needs to limit its fuel emissions, chemical use and damage to nearby water sources while harvesting the sought after materials.
All of these recommendations fall in line with the work FNWARM has being doing for the last decade.
“The mining industry is shifting towards the search for these new materials and this makes our initiative all the more important,” Mack explained. “Mining is increasing in B.C. and we have to make sure both government and the industry are being held responsible.”
Mack says she consistently draws strength from her matriarchal background on both sides. Her Secwepemc mother, Bev Sellars, is a former councillor and chief of the Xat’sull (Soda Creek) First Nation in Williams Lake and a respected author.
Her father’s mother, Nuxalkmc Lucy Mack, was an activist in her own right; one of several matriarchs who took a stand at Ista in 1995.
“I really feel that Indigenous women are reclaiming their power right now,” she said. “As mothers and the traditional caretakers of family and the land, women have a unique impact on our communities. It’s powerful and we shouldn’t underestimate it.”
Mack heads to Northern B.C. next week and then onto the west coast and is hoping to bring the project back home to Bella Coola later this summer.