Photo provided by Chief Sellars.
Chief Bev Sellars was first elected chief of Xat’sull (Soda Creek) First Nation in Williams Lake, British Columbia in 1987-1993 and then served again from 2009-2015. She also served as an advisor for the BC Treaty Commission and Chair of First Nations Women Advocating Responsible Mining. Ms. Sellars is also an award-winning author. As a Grandmother and cultural representative, she has spoken widely on racism and residential schools; and on the environmental and social threats of mineral resources exploitation in her region. She has a history degree from the University of Victoria and a law degree from the University of British Columbia.
This interview between activist jeweler, Marc Choyt (MC), and Chief Sellars (CS) took place in April, 2020.
MC: When I initially started seeking out a Grandmother who could speak to mining issues in context to First Nation People of Canada for my Jewellery Business feature article, the first place I looked to was FIrst Nation Women Advocating Responsible Mining (FNWARM) because of Amy Crook of Fairmining Collaborative, Canada. She has spoken so highly of FNWARM. Having some understanding of lagacy mining issues in California and where I live in New Mexico, I wasn't surprised to learn that BC has 2000 legacy mines, a third of which are spewing out pollution.
CS: Wherever the mines are, it affects every area. There are so many terrible things happening in the environment.
My sister, among many of my family, is a hunter. Because of the impact of mining on water and plants, some deer and moose liver are spotted from disease. Organ meat is where you first see the damage. My sister had to leave a whole moose in the bush because it was full of sores, something no one in our community had seen before. The moose population has gone down 50% percent over the last few years with a little explanation from Environment Canada. Recently they’ve even opened up a skidoo trail which make it easier for the wolves to kill the moose.
I get it—as someone who hunts elk every year. But people don’t even know about these kinds of impacts.
Our society is a throwaway society. People have to have everything. Things are thrown away so easily. But from the Indigenous perspective—you use everything. You didn’t waste anything. We have to get back to that.
When the Mt. Polley mining disaster happened, you were the Chief of your Xat'sull People. Was Mt. Polley on your radar?
We had issues with Mount Polley but we were worried about a bigger mine north of us, the Gibraltar mine. It sits above the Fraser River. We held our nose and signed a Participation Agreement with Mount Polley so that we could get the money to hire mining experts to help us look at Gibraltar mines. Not too long after that the disaster at Mount Polley happened and our attention was diverted from Gibraltar. We still have issues with both mines today.
In 1970s when I was fishing in the Fraser the salmon, even after their 500+ mile swim up the river, were still strong. They came like clockwork, July 15th the salmon season was in full swing. Now we have changes in the quality of salmon that we had not seen before. Many people don’t fish for salmon anymore. People are scared about eating it. Cancer rates have gone up in our communities and many are thinking it might be coming from the salmon. Maybe it is coming from a combination of the poisons in the environment.
Back then were collaborating with the Alexandria band, the community directly north of mine.
The mining company gets much of its wealth from Indigenous territories and then use it against us. Here we are, a little community, trying to fight this mine without any real money for experts, so we ended up signing a participation agreement to hire experts.
Did that lead you to your Chairing with FNWARM? What are some of the most important accomplishments of the organization?
When I was elected Chief of my community for the second time in 2009 Indigenous Nations had won some major court cases in Canada. During my first term we were struggling even to get a foot in the door of justice. In my second term, companies were knocking on our doors. It was still ‘token’ actions and they didn’t want to involve us in a meaningful way, but they were knocking to do the least they could to ‘accommodate'. I found myself struggling with the mining companies because I had absolutely no experience in mining. A good friend directed me to FNWARM and a group of kickass Indigenous women who taught me so much about the mining industry. A few years later I became Chair.
Our priority, as mothers, grandmothers and caretakers in our communities is to protect our homes, communities and traditional lands. We came together to share our stories and to work for change. Some of the women have worked for or had family members work for mining companies. They have learned first-hand how the promises of riches can quickly turn into destroyed lands and limited low-paying jobs for the people who, for millennia, have depended on those lands.
When the jewelry trade talks about the mines in Canada, they always put forth that there was strong community consent and also, Impact Benefit Agreements (IBAs). I did an interview with a member of the Attawapiskat Cree some years ago. They have been really struggling in their community with a lot of suicides. They have a lot of poverty, yet they are right next door to a De Beers diamond mine. I began to see how community consent processes end up breaking communities apart. The tradition versus those who want to focus on exclusively on economic development and jobs.
The promises for well-paying jobs are usually short term. But these same companies are always featuring indigenous people on their websites, even if only two or three of them work doing low paying jobs. Many Indigenous communities in Canada are close to mining or drilling sites and their communities have contaminated water because the waste from the mines gets into their water. Of course the animals and land drink the water and become sick as well. Not only do the Indigenous people lack real profits from the mines, their environment is polluted as well.
That tactic is used exactly by large mining and jewelry consortiums. I’m always amazing by how small the royalties for the IBAs actually are considering the resource.
Right now, regardless of the IBAs, in Canada, the majority of governments in context to mining are breaking their own laws. The Royal Proclamation of 1763 recognized our control over traditional territories and that has been upheld in the Supreme Court of Canada. We have won over 150 cases and yet we are still fighting for our human rights. The government-imposed laws without our consent. There is still a battle going on because of the clash of cultures. The Indigenous people knew that the land and waters supplied you with everything you need to survive as long as you take care of it. The newcomers to this land felt they needed to ‘conquer’ the land and waters.
The proposition, mining, economy, jobs versus poverty…That’s the argument all over the world that mining companies always use. It just seems like a false framework because the wealth of the land gets exported to the shareholders.
They, the mining and other resource extraction companies, often use our poverty against us. All the wealth in the Americas comes from unceded Indigenous lands and territories. When people came from Europe, they had already overfished, over harvested their trees and poisoned their waters.
When they came here they could not believe the ‘wealth’ that existed here. But the Indigenous peoples used the land and waters like a garden. They knew everything was connected and if you took care of the land and waters, it would take care of you. And so if you are doing well in the Americas, the simple fact is that the wealth you enjoy can be traced back to the environment that the Indigenous people cultivated for thousands of years.
Our economy swam in the waters and walked and grew on the lands. We did not have a monetary economy and now our territories are being destroyed by the greedy monetary economy. Our waters and lands are looking like Europe when Columbus came here. We are in big trouble if things do not change drastically.
Just about every large-scale mining company pitches itself as sustainable. They have these sustainability officers and sustainability programs. Do you think mining can ever be sustainable?
Mining can never be considered a sustainable activity. Once there is a mine there is always a mine. It has to be monitored and maintained forever. Plus, it is based on the stock market, not whether there is a real need.
Mining companies should have to prove there is a need for the products they mine and then they should be forced to mine in garbage dumps before going to pristine areas. Plus they should not be able to take short cuts over the environment. Maybe they only make millions instead of billions. Maybe they are forced to invest some of their profits to protect the environment. The environment has to be top priority. Governments should not also be able to push mining and act as the ‘watchdog’ as well. There has to be an independent organization to monitor and enforce rigid environmental standards for these companies.
Several years ago I had this conversation with a First Nation person from California when I was meeting with the Sierra Fund—they focus on restoring resiliency in the Sierras, and much of that involves on legacy gold mining. We wanted to use gold from old tailings for reclamation projects. It involved removing mercury and restored the riparian along the Yuba River—and a social premium for the sale of this gold to Native groups to support salmon restoration.
There was a representative from local tribes. He told stories of how the miners, the 49ers, used to bash baby’s heads on rocks. “Gold is coyote piss,” he told me. That trauma, that history, listening to him—it might have happened last week—gave me a new understanding of how present that past is.
In British Columbia there is a whole history of newcomers looking for gold taking great joy and pride in shooting ‘Indians’ who were protesting their entry into their territories.
Canadians has always prided themselves that they were not as brutal to Indigenous people as the USA. That is false. Canada has many secrets they have tried to hide from the world. There were scalp bounties and many other atrocities committed against Indigenous peoples. And for what? They worship Gold but it is just a soft rock. People just put extra value on to it—it’s a dysfunctional way of thinking.
What about instances where there’s no other choice to make a living—can gold mining be justified? I mean, globally there are about 20 million small-scale gold miners and they are the largest contributor of global mercury contamination. Their lives are characterized by extreme poverty and exploitation and most of them have no other way to make a living.
So, in context to Fairtrade Gold, that kind of program may be the only way for some people to get out of poverty and remove the mercury. The people of that land control and benefit fully from their own resources.
If it were a strong regulatory body that would make sure the environment was protected…There’s no way we can completely protect it. If they can do it in a way that the environment damage is minimized.
But it’s too bad that poverty always used as a tool to corrupt. And most of the gold mined is used for jewelry. So the environment is destroyed for the vanity of some. In the end, once the environment is destroyed so too will the real economy in the waters and land.
It’s a systemic issue. I mean, the same policies that created the Mount Polly disaster and the 2000 legacy mines in BC are implemented all over the world.
I’d love to get rid of big companies. That way, the smaller ones could to be left to work in a way, if they were supported, to be low impact. And only those who live in the areas should be allowed to mine. We have people coming in from all parts of the world, doing their damage and then moving on to ‘greener’ pastures to destroy. They think they are leaving the pollution behind but it will catch up to everyone one day no matter if you have the swankiest penthouse in the world. You can’t eat money.
What’s your main focus now?
As a grandmother, I am fighting for everyone’s grandchildren—even Greta, and all the people around the world. These kids are fighting for their lives and their future and we need to help them. Somehow we have to bring awareness to the tipping point so we can change our ways.
But what is comes down to is you don’t put crap in the water to effect the fish or what you drink. Water is living giving— In my culture, when a Secwepemc girl has her puberty ceremony, she is given a name but also a second name that refers to water because water is life giving and so will she be soon. In Indigenous cultures we end what some would call a prayer with “All My Relations.” That does not mean just human, it means all the ones that fly, swim and walk on the land. One Elder said it even includes the rocks. Everything is connected and water is the key to keeping everything healthy
So the key to sustainability…
Sustainability—to me, means that we can drink water from its natural source, not through a water treatment plant. If the water is clean, then everything else will follow. Whatever you do on the land affects the waters.
There are 94 recommendations in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and if you want to reconcile with Indigenous people then first reconcile with Mother Earth. For two reasons: first, Indigenous peoples need our waters and lands to be healthy to continue our traditional way of life; and second, it is common sense that everyone else around the world needs Mother Earth to be healthy for their own needs. Unfortunately, common sense goes out the window when money is involved.
We know our community’s economy comes from the land and the water. What everyone needs to realize is that their economy comes from the land and water as well and can only exist if we keep the environment healthy. Too many people do not realize what it takes. Many of the resource extraction companies operate out of sight but usually an Indigenous community is nearby.
We try to sound the alarm but too often it falls on deaf ears because it has not yet affected those who live in cities or parts of society that are well taken care of. Indigenous people see these dangers first because of our remoteness and because we still try to get some of our economy as we always have, from the natural environment. A lot of communities no longer have healthy drinking water. If we have healthy water, that will keep everything else healthy.
Just one more question: What has been the key to your remarkable resilience and your ability to continue to work for social and environmental justice?
There is a saying in the Indigenous world that if you are born Indigenous you are born into politics whether you want to be or not. I don’t consider myself a politician and would NEVER choose that as a career. In becoming a writer and a former Chief of my community, I was acting on the inherited commitment to fight for justice for my people. Today, I speak as a Grandmother, the most important role that I play at this point in my life.
I see others ‘retiring’ but for Indigenous peoples that is not a luxury we have. Our work continues because we have an obligation to seven generations ahead. And now it is not just for the Indigenous grandchildren that we fight, it is for all the grandchildren, even the ones who are destroying the environment. Their grandchildren have rights too. It is all connected and that is the one lesson that everyone needs to learn. The children around the world see it and are fighting for their future. We have to help them.
Marc Choyt is president of Reflective Jewelry, a designer jewelry company founded in 1995. He pioneered the ethical sourcing movement in North America and is also the only certified Fairtrade Gold jeweler in the United States. Choyt’s company was named Santa Fe New Mexico’s Green Business of the Year in 2019, and he has been honored with several awards for his efforts to support ethical jewelry. His ebook, Ethical Jewelry Exposé: Lies, Damn Lies and Conflict Free Diamonds, is available online. Choyt can be reached on Twitter at @Circlemanifesto or by email at marc(at)reflectivejewelry.com.