Volume 39, Number 6: November/December 2005

Struggles of the Tahltan Nation

On September 16, 2005, the RCMP arrested a dozen members of the Tahltan First Nation, nine of them Elders, for blockading a road into their traditional territory to bar Fortune Minerals from coming in to drill. Members of the Tahltan Nation have been blocking the road to the Mount Klappan coalfields since July 16.

The protesters are standing against the intensive course of resource development being negotiated by the Tahltan Central Council, the elected body that governs the Tahltan First Nation. The blockaders question the sustainability of development and assert the community and Elders must participate in decision-making. The community is deeply divided on the issue.

For its part, Fortune Minerals has refused to negotiate with anyone but the duly elected leadership. Robin Goad, president of Fortune Minerals, says the project had already been endorsed by the Tahltan Central Council (TCC), so the blockade is therefore illegal. But Tahltan community members pledge continued resistance. “People are very, very emotional about this,” says Terri Brown, a spokesperson for the blockaders. “It’s not common that we take such a strong stand. It’s not going to end until the last person is arrested.”

The traditional territory of the Tahltan is located in the extreme northwest of present-day BC, along the drainage basin of the Stikine River. It has never been ceded, and is governed by chiefs in Telegraph Creek and Iskut. The Eskay Creek mine has operated in their territory since 1995. Potential new developments include the Fortune Minerals coal mine, the Nova Gold Galore Creek and Red Chris copper and gold mines, and coal-bed methane gas developments by Shell Canada and West Hawk.

A Nation Divided

The Tahltan are a small nation of approximately 6,000, with all but 800 of their members living outside their territory. Oscar Dennis, a blockade spokesperson, explains, “We are not anti-development. We just want responsible sustainability, where we could stretch these projects over the next seven generations, so we could ensure the security of our grandchildren 100 years from now.”

The pro-development chief, Jerry Asp, founder and long-time president of the Tahltan Nation Development Corporation (TNDC), advocates resource development as the route to economic independence for the Tahltan Nation. Eskay Creek has been an undeniable economic boon to the community, as the band’s unemployment rate has dropped from 85 to only six per cent. The TNDC is currently involved in mining, road construction, hydroelectric power generation and forestry. Chief Asp works together with industry to ensure training, employment and investment opportunities for the Tahltan in developments in the region.

In November, 2004, the Tahltan Central Council made a deal with the province under which the Council would receive $250,000 per year to smooth the way for future mining, forestry and hydro projects. The provincial and federal governments have lauded the efforts of the Tahltan leadership as an example for other First Nations, and the Tahltan membership has rewarded Chief Asp with electoral support.

As things currently stand, however, all these new mines are set to close by 2030, devastating the environment for short-term jobs. Hunting, fishing and gathering plants have been the ways of life for thousands of years, and have provided nutritionally and culturally for the Tahltan people. Industrial resource extraction provides employment for perhaps only a generation, leaving a degraded environment and a denuded traditional economy for the next.

Behind the development debate lurks an animosity from community members who believe they have been left out of the dialogue. On January 17, 2005, a group of Elders expressed their discontent through the occupation of the Telegraph Creek band office. The occupation followed community meetings on January 8 and 9 about Nova Gold’s proposed development.

Nova Gold made two statements that upset the Elders. The first was that they were not there for Tahltan authorization. The second was that the Tahltans had no say in the decision-making process for development on their land. According to Oscar Dennis, “Tahltan control over decisions was unfeasible from a business perspective, and the investors would simply not allow that.”

Reclaiming Power

The following week the Elders decided to reclaim their power. The Elders are emphatic that they do not oppose development per se – only the kind of development that respects neither the voice of the community nor its responsibility to pass on a healthy environment and sustainable economy to future generations. Elder and band councillor Lillian Moyer says, “We stand strong to protect the land for future generations.”

In February, after occupying the Telegraph Creek band office for 33 days, the Tahltan Elders issued Dena nenn Sogga neh ‘ine (Keepers of the Land): a moratorium on development until their concerns were addressed. In it, the Tahltan Elders “reclaim our legitimate place within Tahltan law and custom.” The Elders declare, “All agreements negotiated with industry and government to date are hereby declared void.”

The Elders assert their moratorium shall remain in place until: a) the leadership dispute has been resolved; b) a fair, just and legitimate process is developed, which honours Tahltan custom and law; and c) all Tahltan members are consulted, informed and give final approval of development.

In March, the Iskut Band backed the Elders’ occupation of the Telegraph Creek band office. TheIskut Band quit the Tahltan Central Council on March 3, the day after Iskut confronted Shell Canada. “There will be no business on Tahltan lands in respect to resource development due to the moratorium that was imposed by our hereditary Elders Council,” Chief Louie told the Shell representatives.

From April 23 to 25, a Special Elders Gathering was convened in Dease Lake, organized by supporters of Chief Asp seeking a settlement to the dispute. The Elders from the occupation attended the gathering, but refused to compromise their position. On April 25, the sit-in Elders walked out. The remaining Elders then passed resolutions supporting Jerry Asp as the duly elected chief of the Tahltan Band, confirming the mandate of the Council to address Tahltan title, rights and interests in all of their traditional territory, and recommending more regular contact between the Council and Elders as well as the establishment of a committee to address complaints.

Still Waiting on a Remedy

But a remedy to the divisions in the community did not arise. The Elders’ occupation continued, and in July the Tl’abânôt’în clan and other Tahltan community members set up the blockade. In August, the Tahltan Central Council cancelled its annual general meeting, only to conduct it absent proper notice at a backyard barbeque, passing resolutions without the dissidents in their midst.

Through the protests, major questions of community engagement have arisen. Following the Iskut Band’s declaration, Shell Canada spokesperson Jeff Mann said, “We are aware there is an internal process taking place in the Tahltan community. The most respectful thing we can do is to allow the Tahltan to work through these issues on their own.” Shell has stated that it will do no further exploration this year, respecting the community’s need to resolve its conflicts. West Hawk, similarly, appears to have stopped exploration activities, although it has made no public statement.

But other developments continue. Nova Gold has altered its access route. BC Hydro is planning to extend high-voltage transmission lines into the area to power the new mines. And Red Chris is moving forward, despite Iskut Band opposition, through the Environmental Impact Assessment process.

There is a serious and immediate need to examine how both First Nations and provincial governments make development decisions. In the words of Oscar Dennis, “we need responsible resource management – the land is the life of our people, and of all people.”

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