Golden Tahltan mining in Northern BC
Tahltan Nation and its business development arm expand mining-related partnerships in BC's booming Golden Triangle North of 60 Mining News – April 1, 2022
Last updated 5/5/2022 at 3:06pm
While Golden Triangle is an apt and easily marketable moniker for northwest British Columbia's incredible mineral endowment, Tahltan Territory more accurately and thoroughly encapsulates the rich deposits of copper, gold, silver, nickel, platinum group elements, and other metals for which this region has gained international renown.
Extending east from the Alaska border to the Cassiar Mountain range and north from the Nass and Skeena Rivers into the Yukon, the roughly 96,000-square-kilometer (37,000 square miles) Tahltan Territory covers approximately 70% of the Golden Triangle, an area of northwestern BC that has become a popular destination for mineral exploration and mining companies attracted to one of the richest mineral districts on Earth.
"Tahltan Territory is home to British Columbia's resource rich 'Golden Triangle' and a booming mineral exploration industry," said Chad Norman Day, president of the Tahltan Central Government, the administrative governing body of the Tahltan Nation.
It is estimated that nearly half of the roughly C$659.8 million (US$520.2 million) of exploration in BC during 2021 was carried out in Tahltan Territory, which means roughly 2% of the world's nonferrous mineral exploration investments last year were made in this northern BC region.
This flourishing mineral exploration sector has outlined world-class deposits with the potential to be developed into Golden Triangle mining operations that could join the current Red Chris copper-gold and Brucejack gold-silver mines – both operated by Newcrest Mining Ltd.
Skeena Resources Ltd.'s Eskay Creek gold-silver project and Seabridge Gold Inc.'s KSM copper-gold-silver are high on this list of advanced exploration projects positioned to host the next generation of mines within the Tahltan Territory.
The Tahltan Nation is taking an increasingly active role in ensuring that exploring for, building, and operating mines in its homeland offers more benefits to the Tahltan people than potential risks to the cultural and environmental resources found there.
"It is imperative that exploration and mining companies wishing to operate within Tahltan Territory do so in a respectful manner, as they are guests in Tahltan Territory with provincial permits, most of which were not granted with Tahltan support or consent," Tahltan Central Government penned in a statement.
Respectful guests will find that their First Nation hosts are a well-organized, politically savvy, and business astute people that also happen to be sophisticated miners with generations of experience.
Millenia of mining expertise
The Tahltan people's mining and business acumen can be traced back nearly to their arrival in what is known today as the Golden Triangle around 10,000 years ago. In addition to being enriched with gold, copper, and other metals, this region of Northern BC hosts deposits of obsidian, a volcanic glass that could be considered a critical mineral of the time due to its ability to be fashioned into knives that are sharper than modern razor blades.
Artifacts made from obsidian mined from Mount Edziza in the Tahltan Territory have been found at archeological sites hundreds of miles away from Northern BC, hinting at the immense trade value of this volcanic glass to the Tahltan.
"Mining has always been part of our culture, both in the past and in present-day times," said Day. "For thousands of years, our people prospected, mined, and utilized obsidian for tools, weaponry, and trade. More recently, Tahltans supported miners during the gold rush and have had operating mines in our homelands for multiple generations."
Over the 160 years since the first European prospectors and miners came seeking gold, the Tahltan have continued to develop into an increasingly sophisticated mining nation.
Today, the Tahltan support responsible mining and mineral exploration through the nation's business arm, Tahltan Nation Development Corp.
From drilling the discovery hole on an intriguing Golden Triangle mineral prospect to selling cutting-edge equipment that will haul ore from a future mine there, TNDC has built a portfolio of businesses and partnerships that provide services to every stage of mining.
This portfolio begins with TNDC's two primary business units, which provide earthmoving and camp services to mineral exploration, mining, and other companies doing business in the Tahltan Territory.
In addition, the Tahltan business has forged partnerships with companies that provide drilling, engineering, environmental, transportation, and other services to the mining sector.
One of the best known of these collaborations is Tahltech Drilling Services Ltd., a partnership forged in 2016 between TNDC and Geotech Drilling Services Ltd. to provide opportunities for Tahltan communities to realize the opportunities provided by the drilling industry in their region.
For some sense of the scale of the opportunities such a venture offers, North of 60 Mining News calculates that more than 600,000 meters, or 600 kilometers (375 miles), of drilling was completed last year across Northern BC.
In the midst of the Golden Triangle mineral exploration boom, TNDC has forged a second drilling alliance. In February, the Tahltan business announced that it has partnered with Hy-Tech Drilling Ltd., a BC-based company with equipment optimized for the Tahltan Territory.
"Hy-Tech's reputation for safety, quality, performance and knowledge of the rugged, complex regional terrain, bolstered by their leadership in technology and innovation in diamond drilling, has made them a trusted partner for exploration and mining companies, and an exceptional partner for TNDC," said Paul Gruner, who joined the First Nations development corporation as CEO in December.
The collaboration with Hy-Tech is one of four partnerships TNDC has forged over the past two months with companies that provide services for mining and mineral exploration in the Tahltan Territory.
The sudden expansion of TNDC mining-related partnerships began with the Feb. 15 announcement that the Tahltan-owned business had secured the rights to sell Sandvik mining equipment, parts, tools, and digital solutions in northwestern BC and neighboring Yukon.
"The Tahltan have proven that they are highly capable and we have no doubt that this new partnership between TNDC and Sandvik will bring immense value to mines in the region," said Sandvik Canada Indigenous Engagement Manager Dany Gaudreault.
Sandvik's commitment to developing equipment and technologies that make mining safer and more sustainable fits ideally with TNDC's mission to be a "financially secure, self-sufficient and well-respected business corporation by establishing environmentally, economically and socially responsible development opportunities inside and outside Tahltan territory."
"What really gets us excited is Sandvik is cutting-edge, they are a world-class company in terms of equipment and technical supplies to the mining sector, but even more importantly they are leading the charge around electrification and that really aligns well with our spirit of reducing the carbon footprint in the region," Gruner told Mining News earlier this year.
Battery-electric underground haul trucks built by Sandvik are already finding their way into Northern BC mines.
Pretium Resources Ltd., which owned the Brucejack Mine before its recent buyout by Newcrest, ordered seven Sandvik battery-electric Z50 trucks for the high-grade underground operation. These 50-metric-ton underground mining trucks generate twice the peak horsepower, an eighth of the heat, and none of the exhaust of a similar capacity diesel-fueled truck.
Charged with hydroelectricity delivered to Brucejack via the Northwest Transmission Line, these Sandvik rock movers are expected to reduce the carbon footprint, increase productivity, and lessen the need for ventilation at Brucejack.
Being at the forefront of developing sustainable mining technologies is among the reasons Sandvik is an ideal partner for TNDC.
"Sandvik's global reputation for safety, quality, performance, customer service excellence, and commitment to economic, environmental and social sustainability through equitable Indigenous relationships, makes them an exceptional partner for TNDC," said Gruner.
And, with Newcrest's recently announced plans to expand production at Brucejack and transform the open pit mine and Red Chris to a large block cave underground operation, there will likely be immense demand for Sandvik equipment and services in the Tahltan Territory in the coming years.
Transporting Red Chris miners
Shortly following its partnership with Sandvik, TNDC and Central Mountain Air Ltd. announced the finalization of a contract with Newcrest for air transportation of crews to and from the Red Chris mine.
"This is another exciting opportunity for TNDC at Red Chris and ensures regional businesses benefit from this powerhouse project," said Gruner.
The Red Chris contract cements a recently established partnership between TNDC and Central Mountain Air, which provides charter flights to Skeena's Eskay Creek mine revitalization project and is the preferred chartered air service provider in the Tahltan territory.
Central Mountain Air first provided charter flights for Red Chris in 2012 and has been transporting crews to the mine under a contract with Imperial Metals Corp., the previous operator and current 30% owner of Red Chris, since 2018.
The new two-year agreement with Newcrest, which acquired 70% ownership of Red Chris in 2019, confirms Central Mountain Air will remain the provider of air charter services.
This includes weekly charters from several marshaling points in BC and Alberta into Smithers and then onto Dease Lake.
This charter contract complements other transportation-related services offered by TNDC, such as being the contract operator of the Dease Lake Airport and highway coach transport of Red Chris workers from the airport to the mine.
In addition to crew transport, TNDC provides tailings impoundment area construction, underground mining portal exploration, underground explosives, geotechnical and explorational drilling, and concentrate hauling to the Red Chris Mine.
Hoisting the TNDC vision
The growing variety of goods and services TNDC has to offer Red Chris and other commercial projects got even larger after a March 14 partnership with Whitehorse, Yukon-based R.C. Crane & Construction to provide hoisting and rigging services to industry working in Tahltan Territory.
"Hoisting and rigging services are essential to resource development and construction projects, and requires precision, knowledge and an unwavering commitment to safety," said Gruner. "We are pleased to add R.C. Crane's hoisting and rigging expertise, along with their positive record of safety and performance, to expand the scope of services TNDC delivers to resource, commercial, and industrial projects in Tahltan Territory."
A family-run enterprise with more than two decades of experience providing hoisting and rigging services to a wide range of projects, from industrial-scale mining to delivering propane tanks, R.C. Crane has a comprehensive inventory of equipment for jobs of all sizes and across all terrains.
Specializing in safely and effectively working in the harsh climates and rugged terrain of the Yukon and Northern BC, R.C. Crane has worked on several resource projects in Tahltan Territory over the past decade, including the Red Chris, Eskay Creek, Coeur Mining Inc.'s Silvertip mine, and the Forrest Kerr hydroelectric project.
"We have always strived to provide the safest and best quality service," said R.C. Crane President Joey Chretien. "Combining the expertise and resources TNDC has within Tahltan Territory and R.C. Crane's 20 years of industry experience will enhance what both parties have to offer."
The partnership also helps fulfill the primary vision for TNDC when it was established in 1985 – "enable the Tahltan Nation to fully participate in the economic activities and development occurring within Tahltan Territory and to provide employment, training, and contracting opportunities to Tahltan members."
Above all, respect
While expanding the scope of its ventures to ensure the Tahltan fully participate in the Golden Triangle mining boom, TNDC is committed to the traditional Tahltan values of caring, sharing, cooperation, truth, honor, fairness, and above all, respect.
TNDC operations are also guided by the 1910 Declaration of the Tahltan Tribe, which asserts Tahltan sovereignty and ownership of its territory, and the 1987 Tahltan Resource Development Policy, which lays out guiding principles that resource developers must adhere to when operating there.
Signed by then Tahltan Nation Chief Nanok and 80 other members of the tribe, the 1910 declaration claims sovereignty over Tahltan land and declares any land interests concerning the traditional territory of the Tahltan Nation to be settled directly with the Tahltan people.
Tahltan Central Government says this historic document represents a legal declaration of rights of Tahltan individuals to the Canadian government and British monarch and its people have yet to extinguish their aboriginal title by any other legal process.
The Tahltan Resource Development Policy makes it clear that the Tahltan "are not inherently opposed to any specific type of business or resource development" in their territory as long as they have assurances the potential benefits outweigh any impacts.
To ensure that resource developers know what is expected, the Tahltan Tribal Council, predecessor to the Tahltan Central Government, provided eight basic principles that must be included in a project participation agreement:
• Assurance that the development will not pose a threat of irreparable environmental damage.
• Assurance that the development will not jeopardize, prejudice, or otherwise compromise the outstanding Tahltan aboriginal rights claim.
• Assurance that the project will provide more positive than negative social impacts on Tahltan people.
• Provision for the widest possible opportunity for education and direct employment-related training for Tahltan people in connection with the project.
• Provision for the widest possible opportunity for employment opportunities for Tahltan people with respect to all phases of the development.
• Provision for substantial equity participation by Tahltans in the total project.
• Provision for the widest possible development of Tahltan business opportunities over which the developer may have control or influence.
• Provision of the developer to assist the Tahltans to accomplish the objectives stated above by providing financial and managerial assistance and advice where deemed necessary.
"If resource developers and the Tahltan Tribal Council can reach agreement embracing the points noted above, then we believe that Tahltans, the developers and all other Canadians will enjoy equitable benefits from each resource development undertaken and there will be business harmony within Tahltan traditional tribal territory," the 1987 Tahltan Resource Development Policy document concludes.
Invested in mining
In recent years, the Tahltan Nation has reached comprehensive impact and benefit agreements with several companies with advanced staged mineral exploration projects within its territory – including Seabridge, Coeur, and Kutcho Copper Corp.
The Tahltan Central Government, however, took its involvement with Skeena to a higher level – investing in a direct ownership of the exploration company advancing the Eskay Creek and Snip gold mine projects in Tahltan Territory.
"In partnering with Skeena, the Tahltan Nation is evolving and taking significant steps forward by becoming meaningful equity partners in these projects," said TCG President Day. "Ownership provides the Tahltan Nation with a strong seat at the table as we continue our pursuit towards capacity building and economic independence for the Tahltan people."
Under the 2021 agreement, the Tahltan Central Government invested C$5 million to acquire 1.6 million investment rights at C$3.13 per right. These rights will automatically vest and convert into Skeena shares over a three-year period
"Over the years we have often discussed our mutual desire to have the Tahltan Nation become owners of natural resource projects being developed in their territory," said Skeena Resources President and CEO Walter Coles. "This investment into Skeena represents a further step in an evolving relationship with the Tahltan Nation."
The evolving Tahltan-Skeena relationship also includes working together to create a new conservancy that protects the very site that harkens back to the roots of Tahltan mining heritage.
To create this 3,500-hectare (8,650 acres) Ice Mountain conservancy, Skeena relinquished the mineral tenures for its Spectrum copper-gold project that lies alongside the 230,000-hectare (568,300 acres) Mount Edziza Provincial Park.
"Mount Edziza and the surrounding area has always been sacred to the Tahltan Nation. The obsidian from this portion of our territory provided us with weaponry, tools and trading goods that ensured our Tahltan people could thrive for thousands of years," said Day. "Working alongside Skeena Resources, the Province, BC Parks Foundation, and the Nature Conservancy of Canada to provide further protection to this area is an initiative we can all take pride in. I am so relieved and thrilled that Mount Edziza is better protected for our future generations."
At the same time, the Tahltan Central Government and TNDC are ensuring that future Tahltans can carry forward the 10,000-year legacy of sustainable mining that is represented by the deposits of obsidian that are better protected by the conservancy alongside Mount Edziza.