In the small community of Iskut in northwestern B.C., Tahltan Elders share stories of living nomadic lives, travelling by dogsled, and living off the land in the Tl’abane, a subalpine basin, now commonly known as the Sacred Headwaters. Iskut is a small reserve on unceded Tahltan territory near the entrance to the Tl’abane, which is the source of the Stikine, Nass, and Skeena rivers – three of the largest salmon-bear‑ing rivers on the West Coast – and home to one of the largest intact predator-prey systems in all of North America. Many Tahltan people use and occupy this territory and survive off the food and medicine they gather from this land.
The Tl’abane is facing an onslaught of extractive industrial projects, many of which lack the collective consent of the hereditary matrilineal leadership that has governed the Tahltan people for millennia. The Klabona Keepers are a small group of around 20 people, including Tahltan Elders and families, who are fighting to uphold their ancestral traditions through hereditary governance. Through the guidance of the Elders, the group was formed in 2006 in response to two industrial projects: Fortune Minerals’ plan to decimate their sacred Mount Klappan with a 40,000-hectare open-pit coal mine; and Royal Dutch Shell’s plan to drill more than 1,000 coal-bed methane gas wells in the Tl’abane. In 2005, the first blockade went up against Fortune Minerals. The Tahltan families and Elders who formed the blockade would later become known as the Klabona Keepers when they blockaded Shell in 2006. Nine Elders and six supporters were arrested for blockading Fortune Minerals, and nine elders were arrested for blockading Shell.
A broader movement formed to keep Shell out of the Sacred Headwaters and in 2012 they scored a major victory when a permanent moratorium banned all drilling for coal-bed methane in the Tl’abane. However, conflict with Fortune Minerals continued and in the summer of 2013 the Klabona Keepers launched a six-week blockade and occupation of Fortune Minerals’ work camp and drills, evicting the company before workers could complete the environmental assessment.
In May, 10 years after the first blockade of the Fortune Minerals mine, the B.C. government purchased the 61 disputed licences to mine coal in the Klappan area, stopping Fortune Minerals from proceeding with mining. The provincial government will hold the licences for the next 10 years while it creates a development plan with the Tahltan First Nation.
Last summer, the Klabona Keepers blockaded Imperial Metals’ Red Chris mine twice, following the Mount Polley disaster; they were also removed by RCMP after occupying a Black Hawk Drilling drill pad, contracted by Firesteel Resources and OZ Minerals, that was operating without their consent. They have also stopped non-Tahltan hunters from entering the Tl’abane in order to help preserve moose and caribou populations after many years of decline. The years the provincial government spent ignoring the traditional leadership forced the Klabona Keepers into a relentless cycle of blockading, lawsuits, and arrests.
Rhoda Quock, the spokesperson for the Klabona Keepers, says she was compelled to stand up against Fortune Minerals’ plans to drill for anthracite coal in Mount Klappan in memory of her father, who passed away in 2002. “In February 2005 we heard of Fortune Minerals’ plans to put my dad’s camp under a tailings pond. We were wondering what [we were] going to do about it. I was very concerned because that camp is called beauty camp and it’s where we connect with him … We started to realize how important our land is to us and what a big fight we had ahead of us.”
As spokesperson, Quock shoulders many of the responsibilities, legal threats, and stresses with her immediate family, which includes her husband, Peter Jakesta, and their four children. Their family is like many other families: Quock home-schools their youngest son while the older children go off to school or work. The family advocates for youth in the community and fundraises to support the Iskut Wolverines, the local youth hockey team that Jakesta coaches. The couple works to instill traditional values in their children, prioritizing love for their community, respect for the land, and responsibility to protect their territory. “We use and occupy the land, like our ancestors, like my dad, and we’re teaching our kids to do that also,” Quock says. “To us, it’s more than environmental. It’s our livelihood, our life; it is our future generations’ lives and livelihood.”
Within such a small and isolated community, it is not uncommon for a member of the Klabona Keepers to be opposing a company that employs someone in their family. Earlier this year, Klabona Keeper Loretta Nole participated in a blockade of Imperial Metals’ Red Chris mine, which employs her son. “I am not against people working in the mine. Most of them are family and I love them dearly,” she says. “My concern is with the company, the industry, and the government who does not care about the First Nations people,” she continues. “In the end, when the water starts to be contaminated, our grandchildren, our great-grandchildren won’t be able to swim in the lake, drink from the water, won’t be able to fish and live the life we lived. This is my main concern: how the younger generation will be able to go through life without their health being endangered.”
The tension in the community between protecting the land and the need for employment can be pronounced. “There are always financial problems [in the community] and fighting for the land is actually fighting against future jobs so I can see why [there is backlash],” explains Quock. The disdain from the community was at its worst in 2005 when the Klabona Keepers first began blockading. “It was somewhat new to the territory that there were people actually standing up to fight for the land,” she says. Jakesta adds, “Because of the colonial mentality that people have, they have a mentality that you can’t beat the government.”
The Klabona Keepers’ main grievance is with the federal and provincial governments for continuing to give out industry permits without the collective consent of hereditary leadership. “I always feel that the government takes the coward’s way out,” Quock says. “Yes, we have problems with the company, but in the end the government is the main problem.” The Canadian government consistently excludes the voices of the Elders and protectors of the land, forcing them to resort to “illegal” avenues such as blockades to have their voices heard. “To us it feels like the structures we have in place right now are set up to accommodate the government, not our people,” says Quock. If things were different, she says, “we wouldn’t have to be on blockades every year fighting to protect what is rightfully ours.”
The conflict between Indigenous land defenders and government-backed extractive industries lays bare Canada’s ongoing colonialism. After the RCMP attempted to evict the Klabona Keepers from the Fortune Minerals drill pad they were occupying in 2013, Quock said, “When there were residential schools they used to come and take our children away from the land, and now they’re trying to take the land away from the children.”
The Klabona Keepers are fighting to have their voices heard. They are up against colonial laws and governments that do not recognize their rights as hereditary keepers of the land. Faced with an entrenched colonial system that extends from the highest courts to the armed police on the ground, the Klabona Keepers continue to stand strong, undeterred and united in their determination to uphold their ancestral responsibilities to protect their territory for future generations.