By Tyler McCreary
On January 17, 2005, the Tahltan Band office in Telegraph Creek, in Northern British Columbia was occupied by 35 elders who, as we go to press, maintain a presence there. The elders are concerned about extensive resource development plans for their territory, which their Chief, the BC government, and corporations have developed without significantly involving the Tahltan elders or community.
The Tahltan have been very adamant in asserting their rights and title to their unceded territory. In 1910, the Tahltan Nation forwarded to the government a declaration claiming their sovereign right to their land. And they have chosen to not participate in the current treaty negotiations, which operate according to the government agenda. The treaty negotiation framework requires that First Nations prove their rights and then it negotiates the extinguishment of these rights to ensure sole authority and jurisdiction of the government. Spokesperson Oscar Dennis plainly states the Tahltan position that, “we don’t have to prove our existence here and our rights to our land. Rather it is the Canadian government’s responsibility to negotiate their place in our territory.”
Nevertheless, the Canadian and BC governments have not negotiated but assumed their authority in the region. The Tahltan territory was included in the colony of British Columbia and brought into the Dominion of Canada without Tahltan consent. Further, through the Indian Act the Canadian government imposed a foreign governance system upon the Tahltan. Under this system the traditional respect for the community, elders and the land has been abrogated.
Without respecting the community or elders and involving them in decision making, agreements have been forged to pursue an intensive course of resource development. The new developments include the Nova Gold Galore Creek mine, a Fortune Minerals open-pit coal mine, the Red Chris copper-gold mine, a hydroelectric dam on the Iskut River, and coal bed methane gas exploration already underway by Shell Canada.
The elders, reasserting their authority, question the social and environmental impacts of such intensive immediate development. They “stand strong to protect the land for future generations,” a position they hold as “non-negotiable.”
Eskay Creek, which opened in 1995, is the only active mine currently in the Tahltan territory. An economic boon for the community, the band’s unemployment rate dropped from 85 percent to six percent when the gold and silver mine was opened. However, the Tahltan are a small nation with only 1,500 registered members, all but 400 of whom live outside the territory. The promise of new jobs rings somewhat hollow to a community with an unemployment rate well below the national average.
Dennis explains that they want, “controlled 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.” As it currently stands, all these new mines are set to close by 2030, leaving not jobs but environmental degradation to the following generations.
The elders demand the resignation of their Chief, Jerry Asp. The elders assert that Jerry Asp has a conflict of interest, occupying the positions of vice president of Canada Aboriginal Mineral Association (CAMA) and the chief operations officer for Tahltan Nation Development Corporation (TNDC), while negotiating mining agreements on behalf of the Tahltan.
The elders have no legal grounds to depose the Chief, but they carry a traditional moral authority and have many relations in, and are connected to, their small community. Further most of these elders are women, giving their voice a particular gravity as the Tahltan are a matriarchal people.
On February 25, still waiting for information on mining proposals in the Tahltan territory and the resignation of Jerry Asp after 39 days of occupation, the elders declared a moratorium on resource development. The elders are demanding a change in leadership and a return to traditional values that respect the voice of the community and elders, and no new mines will be allowed until these issues are addressed.
Jerry Asp has refused to step down or even talk with the elders. The provincial government is continuing to recognize his authority as Indian Act Chief, and business continues working through agreements with Chief Asp.
This is but the latest clash in BC involving First Nations over resource development. These conflicts, including a logging blockade in Kingcome Inlet, and a mining moratorium declared by another band near Fort St. James, are undermining the government’s effort to promote resource development in a provincial landbase that remains largely unceded.
Yet these troubles must come as something of a surprise, as both the province and corporate investors have extended major efforts to develop good relationships with First Nations. On the same day the Tahltan protest began, the BC mining plan was released, touting a cornerstone of building “strong, enduring relationships between the mining industry, communities and First Nations,” and using the example of the Tahltan as a nation fully in support of development.
However, underneath all the pretty rhetoric, one wonders how (or if) the development strategies have really changed. The Aboriginal—Mining Industry Round Table in 2004 reported, “The foundation for building successful community relations is based on mutual respect and open and ongoing dialogue. Elders must be engaged from the start and made aware of the opportunities available.” Yet it was the tokenism and pandering of the consultation process that triggered the elders’ decision to act.
On January 8 and 9, the Tahltan Central Council held a special general assembly to discuss Nova Gold’s proposed Galore Creek development. Sponsored by the mining company, the Tahltan Band office spent $100,000 to bring in young Aboriginal professionals to sell corporate development to the assembled elders and community.
However, 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 of their development. According to Oscar Dennis, “Tahltan control over decisions was unfeasible from a business perspective, and the investors would simply not allow that.”
The following week at an elders gathering, a decision was made to reclaim their power. The elders are emphatic that they do not oppose development per se, only this form of development that respects neither the voice of the community nor their responsibility to pass on a healthy environment and sustainable economy to the generations of the future. Oscar Dennis hopes that ultimately “our Indian Act puppet government could be removed and that we could instill a more traditional government that would work with the people.”
Tyler McCreary, originally from Northern BC, now lives in Saskatoon, where he works in the geography department at the University of Saskatchewan.