Marilyn Baptiste
Marilyn Baptiste

Marilyn Baptiste

2015 Goldman Prize Recipient
North America

  • Canada
  • Oil & Mining

A former chief of the Xeni Gwet’in First Nation, Marilyn Baptiste led her community in defeating one of the largest proposed gold and copper mines in British Columbia that would have destroyed Fish Lake—a source of spiritual identity and livelihood for the Xeni Gwet’in.

The Xeni Gwet’in, also known as the Nemiah Valley Indian Band, is one of six Tsilhqot’in First Nations, of over 400 people. For generations, they have been steadfast protectors of their territory and the surrounding pristine environment of forests, lakes, streams and diverse wildlife such as bighorn sheep, grizzly bears, wild salmon and wild rainbow trout.

Their territory became ground zero in Vancouver-based Taseko Mines Limited (TML)’s long quest to build Prosperity Mine. One of the largest mines ever proposed in British Columbia, the massive open-pit gold and copper mine was regarded as a gateway project to the area and its bounty of natural resources.

TML’s proposal described plans to drain Fish Lake and use it for waste storage, which would destroy the adjacent Little Fish Lake—a source of spiritual identity for the Xeni Gwet’in—along with its surrounding biodiversity and the local people’s source of food, water, and medicine. The BC regional government rubberstamped the mine in January 2010, well before the federal government’s environmental review began.

Marilyn Baptiste spent most of her childhood in Nemiah Valley, where she grew up with her parents and sisters. Baptiste often joined her father, then chief of the Xeni Gwet’in community, on his trips to survey the territory. When he saw people he didn’t recognize, he stopped and spoke with them to make sure they understood they were on Xeni Gwet’in land and the importance of passing through with the smallest footprint possible.

Subsistence living—taking from nature’s resources in a respectful, sustainable way—is a way of life for the Xeni Gwet’in, and the Baptiste household was no exception. The girls learned to dip-net for salmon and hunt moose and deer. The family used every part of the animal, especially the liver, which was set aside for Baptiste to help treat her iron deficiency. When foraging for berries, Baptiste and her sisters learned not to break off entire branches for easier picking since it would mean fewer berries—and hungrier bears—in following years.

Enriched by these experiences, Baptiste followed in her father’s footsteps to fight for the community’s rights. She worked her way up at the First Nations legal center, and in January 2008, she was elected chief of the Xeni Gwet’in. She also co-founded First Nations Women Advocating Responsible Mining (FNWARM), in the thick of TML’s relentless pursuit of the Prosperity Mine project.

In January 2010, the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency (CEAA) began its review of the mine, and Baptiste led the First Nation’s involvement in the investigation. She convened a diverse group of tribal chiefs, elders, and scientific experts to prepare comprehensive data about the Xeni Gwet’in and Tsilhqot’in environmental, cultural, and economic relationship with their land. The data was presented at CEAA hearings and helped inform the panel’s report.

Heeding the CEAA’s findings, the federal government soundly rejected the mine in November 2010. Its stock prices tumbled, but determined to proceed, TML submitted a revised proposal in 2011 and began moving heavy machinery into the Fish Lake area.

Baptiste responded immediately, initiating a one-woman road blockade that prevented construction crews from accessing the proposed mine site. She bravely defended her people’s land, turning long lines of trucks and machinery around.

In December 2011, the BC Supreme Court denied TML’s request to force the Tsilhqot’in to stop blocking the company’s access to the mine site. The court went a step further, issuing an injunction prohibiting TML from starting any work at the site, including road-building and forest clearing.

Meanwhile, TML’s revised proposal was met with scathing reports from the CEAA panel, and in early 2014, the federal government once again rejected the mine.

Baptiste and her fellow leaders on the Xeni Gwet’in council, in collaboration with leadership from the Yunesit’in and the broader Tsilhqot’in Nation, are now working to permanently protect Fish Lake and the surrounding area as Dasiqox Tribal Park. This designation firmly establishes their rights to continue managing their land sustainably and say no to destructive industrial practices that do not reflect their cultural and environmental ethos.

While Fish Lake is not included in the 430,000 acres of traditional territory whose legal title was awarded to the Tsilhqot’in in a recent Canadian Supreme Court ruling, the historic decision sets a powerful precedent for First Nations’ title to their land and is expected to bolster the case for the Xeni Gwet’in’s rights in their territory.

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