Protect tribal lands, waterways for future generations

By Rob Sanderson Jr.

For The Cordova Times

Indigenous peoples of British Columbia and Alaska, Washington, Idaho and Montana are disproportionately affected by past, present and proposed mines in Transboundary watersheds.

We have long voiced concern. All too often, actions such as mining benefit the up-stream country but create irreparable harm to the downstream country. International problems require international solutions. Some mechanisms are in place to resolve these disputes, such as the Boundary Waters Treaty of 1909 between Canada and the US. These mechanisms are being ignored.

British Columbia has allowed widespread pollution from mines to cross the border into Montana and are now proposing even larger mines in the headwaters above Alaska, threatening the last remaining wild salmon rivers in North America. Across the entire US border with BC, vital rivers and waters are being polluted or threatened by irresponsible mining practices in Canada. As the indigenous peoples who rely on these waters for our cultural identity and food security, we are both the experts and the first impacted.

Indigenous Nations are sovereign Nations predating and presaging many of the institutions of the US government. We have thousands of years of knowledge managing these watersheds as an intact whole.


To solve international problems requires Indigenous perspective and solutions. US Tribes/Clans and Canadian First Nations/Bands/Inuit/Metis must have seats at the decision table when it comes to huge industrial projects in the headwaters of vital watersheds that have the potential to devastate our communities.  

Southeast Alaska and Northwest BC has the world’s last and largest intact temporal rainforest. Major pristine rivers feed the salmon forest and sustain local communities. BC has embarked on a massive initiative to develop several large open pit mines in the Canadian headwaters of our endangered rivers.

BC borrowed $38 billion in public money to build power infrastructure for these mines and expects to recoup the cost by rubber-stamping dangerous mining projects. BC’s weak environmental safeguards and lack of enforcement will likely cost taxpayers on both sides when disaster strikes. The lack of engagement from Canadian or US federal governments has created a significant risk to downstream fisheries and the continued existence of the Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian peoples.

Even given the blatant indifference Canada has shown to its international responsibility, for its part, the US has failed to demand enforcement of the Boundary Waters Treaty. The treaty provides a mechanism called the International Joint Commission (IJC). The IJC has 100 years of experience solving issues that arise in shared watersheds between the US and Canada

without involvement in Alaska. Because of this indifference, mining companies have been acting like it is still the wild, wild west. The US government is not living up to its trust responsibility to the First people and is acting weak. We are not mere stakeholders here. We are the Indigenous people of the land.

BC and Canada must consider the impacts to communities across international borders. The fish and water do not recognize these lines.

Because of Canada’s failure to prevent private operations that endanger Alaskans’ rights to culture, property and the means of sustaining our Way of Life, in December 2018, we submitted a petition to the Inter‐American Commission on Human Rights (Inter‐American Commission), an international law body created by the Organization of America States. The petition asserts that the development and operation of six mines in British Columbia are likely to release pollution that would seriously harm the health and viability of the salmon and eulachon that spawn and rear in the waters of the Taku, Stikine and Unuk river watersheds. We have not given our free, prior, and informed consent to these projects.

Some places you just leave alone. The region encompassing Southeast Alaska and Northwest British Columbia is the world’s last and largest intact temporal rainforest. Four major pristine rivers, the Alsek, Taku, Stikine and Unuk feed the salmon forest and sustain local communities. Other Transboundary rivers like the Yukon River and Skagit River originate in BC, too. We know our places well. Let us help decide how our places live on.

The Southeast Alaska Indigenous Transboundary Commission is comprised of fifteen federally recognized Tribes of Southeast Alaska whose mission is to create a unified voice for Indigenous peoples across the international border who are facing impacts from development and industrialization rapidly occurring in our region. Member Tribes include Metlakatla, Saxman, Ketchikan, Wrangell, Petersburg, Klawock, Kasaan, Hydaburg, Craig, Kake, Douglas, Sitka, Yakutat, Klukwan and Central Council Tlingit & Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska.

Rob Sanderson Jr. is the chairman of the Southeast Alaska Indigenous Transboundary Commission.