Almost five years after the original petition was filed, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights has ruled that the complaints against mining activity in British Columbia warrant fact-finding and further analysis, which could result in a determination that pollution puts the health and rights of Alaska Natives downriver of the mining at risk.

The ruling found the petition “admissible” and within the commission’s jurisdiction to determine whether the mining and Canadian government and British Columbia approvals violated the Alaska tribes’ life and personal security, preservation of health and well-being, property and “benefits of culture.”

The commission’s recent ruling makes clear, however, that the criterion for evaluating a petition for admissibility is different than the standards applied to ruling on the merits of the case.

Even though the ruling of acceptance is not a final verdict, “it’s a big deal,” said Guy Archibald, executive director of the Southeast Alaska Indigenous Transboundary Commission. The human rights commission does not accept many petitions, he said. The office is an arm of the Organization of American States, which dates its history back to 1899.

The transboundary rivers group, a coalition of 15 Southeast Alaska tribal organizations including the Wrangell Cooperative Association, has been fighting for years to protect the waters of the Stikine, Taku and Unuk rivers from the risk of mining pollution coming out of British Columbia.

The goal for the group is full consultation with Canadian and provincial agencies that review, approve and regulate mining activities, Archibald said, and “acknowledgement and use of traditional knowledge” in managing the watersheds.

The international tribunal’s authority is limited to issuing a report and making recommendations, Archibald said, adding that Canada and British Columbia could ignore any recommendations.

He expects it will take at least a year for the human rights commission to complete its investigation and issue a report.

The commission determined that the allegations in the petition “require a substantive study of the alleged facts. … The risk of pollution from the B.C. mines, if proven, could threaten the petitioners’ means of subsistence, health, culture and well-being.”

In its ruling, the commission specifically addressed the issue that the mining and its potential harm straddle two countries. “The commission believes that any mining activities … must be accompanied by appropriate and effective measures to ensure that they do not proceed at the expense of the fundamental rights of persons who may be negatively affected, including Indigenous communities located outside of the state where such activities are being conducted.”

The petition states that there are six hard-rock mines in British Columbia upstream of the Canada–U.S. border; that two of the mines are operating; one mine has received operating permits but is in receivership; and three mines are in the permitting stage.

“These B.C. mines pose an imminent and foreseeable threat of polluting downstream waters with highly toxic heavy metals that could cause sustained and significant declines in the populations of the fish that Southeast Alaska Native communities rely on for their subsistence and that are central to the maintenance of their culture,” the international tribunal quoted from the petition.

The decision “is an important step toward holding Canada accountable for its actions,” said Rob Sanderson Jr., vice president of the Alaska group, in a prepared statement on Sept. 21.

“Our member tribes have an inherent right to deep consultation on any development decisions affecting our territories. Canada’s actions imply disregard to the inherent rights of Indigenous peoples,” he added.

“Tribes have drawn their food and traditions from these waters for thousands of years, and now Canada seeks to destroy that identity for the profit of large-scale industrial mines,” said Ramin Pejan, senior attorney at Earthjustice, an environmental law organization that assisted the Alaska group in preparing the petition, in a prepared statement.

“This ruling is a significant step forward and means that our human rights allegations are strong and have merit. The decision also rightfully dismisses all of Canada’s counterclaims,” Pejan said.

The 15 members of the Southeast Alaska Indigenous Transboundary Commission are the Chilkat Indian Village of Klukwan, Douglas Indian Association, Organized Village of Saxman, Craig Tribal Association, Ketchikan Indian Community, Organized Village of Kake, Metlakatla Indian Community, Wrangell Cooperative Association, Sitka Tribe of Alaska, Klawock Cooperative Association, Petersburg Indian Association, Organized Village of Kasaan, Hydaburg Cooperative Association, Yakutat Tlingit Tribe, and Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska.