Opponents of open-pit coal mine in northern B.C. take a stand in downtown Vancouver

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Holding homemade signs carrying simple messages, a small group of First Nations and environmental advocates gathered Wednesday in front of the Vancouver Art Gallery in solidarity of the Tahltan Nation’s escalating conflict with Fortune Minerals Ltd.

Tension between the groups remains high despite a weekend meeting with representatives from both camps where it was concluded that Fortune would alter but ultimately continue exploratory work for its proposed Arctos Anthracite coal project in the Klappan area, also known as the Sacred Headwaters.

The Tahltan leadership says the proposed open-pit mine, located in an area about 600 km northeast of Terrace, would impact an estimated 4,000 hectares of pristine wilderness and threaten the salmon-bearing Stikine, Nass and Skeena rivers.

Last week, Tahltan Elders served Fortune surveyors with an eviction notice and threatened future blockades. A protest camp of about 40 people remained active Wednesday with a group of elders and youth drumming and singing outside the Fortune camp.

In Vancouver, the message broadcast by the small crowd of about 40 protest supporters was a straightforward one: the Sacred Headwaters need to be protected.

“This is just not acceptable,” said Laurin Sutherland, a Tahltan community liaison worker, over the din of passing lunchtime foot traffic. “The Elders have given their eviction notice and Future Minerals needs to leave … We will do whatever it takes to make sure this open mine does not happen.”

Fortune has responded to the week’s worth of escalating tension by noting that the survey work is part of the ongoing environmental assessment process for the proposed project, which is a joint venture with POSCO Canada. Ltd.

Fortune has also provided clarity on the project, noting that the proposed mine site falls only in the Stikine River watershed — but far from the river itself — and would have “zero impact” on the Nass River. Meantime, only a proposed railway extension along an existing railbed falls within the Skeena River’s watershed, Fortune said in a statement.

“The process is in place to assess the merits and impacts of our project from a balanced perspective that addresses environmental, social and economic considerations,” said Julian Kemp, vice-president finance and CFO of Fortune Minerals Ltd. in a statement.

“We will continue to work with all Aboriginal groups and stakeholders throughout the environmental assessment process, and we are confident their concerns can be addressed through the regulatory process.”

Annita McPhee, president of the Tahltan Central Council, said she doesn’t feel that any kind of resolution was reached during the weekend meeting. And she noted that the Tahltan people are united in their effort to protect the Sacred Headwaters.

“We’ve been pretty reasonable when it comes to development — we have agreements with some of the biggest mining companies,” she said. “But there are some things that we want to protect and we draw the lines at the Sacred Headwaters.”