A Gentle Revolution

By Monte Paulsen

The jagged Sawtooth Mountains loomed in the distance as the elders sauntered into the faux-stone band office in Telegraph Creek. Taking off their shoes, they asked to see Chief P. Jerry Asp. A receptionist led them upstairs to the crescent-shaped conference room, where band manager Bob Edzerza told them that the chief was meeting with Shell Canada in Calgary. He asked if he could help.

“We’re here to meet the chief,” elder Terri Brown replied. “And we’re going to stay here until he returns.”

Edzerza sat quietly for a moment, as if struggling to comprehend. It was mid-January, and the pink glimmer of a winter sunrise crept slowly across the room. He excused himself. The elders exchanged nervous glances across the oversized conference table. Most were grandparents, some had great-grandchildren in the village; few had ever done anything like this. When he returned, Edzerza said the chief would be back on Wednesday, and offered to set up a meeting.

“We’ll wait,” Brown replied.

They waited for eight-and-a-half months.

By the time the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs Canada took over operation of the northern British Columbia band office in late September, this quiet gang of elders—most in their sixties and seventies—had inspired a blockade, an industrial strike, and the arrests of fifteen Tahltan. And as 2006 dawns, they may pose an obstacle to Premier Gordon Campbell’s plans to reopen British Columbia to large-scale mining, as well as his hopes for a “new relationship” with First Nations.

The Tahltan are a loosely knit band of matrilineal families who share Athapaskan roots and a claim to roughly 150,000 square kilometres of the most resource-rich terrain in Canada. Their vast inland territory stretches from the northern Canadian Rockies to the Alaskan border and contains the headwaters of some of Canada’s wildest rivers, including the Nass, Skeena, Dease, Iskut, and Stikine. It’s a place so large that, in the words of explorer and ethnobotanist Wade Davis, “Canada could hide England [there], and the English would never find it.”

The Tahltan are relentless hunters, and though a few families practised their traditional nomadic lifestyle as late as the 1950s, most now live in three small communities. Telegraph Creek, the only town on the 600-kilometre Stikine River, is home to the largest reserve. Iskut, nestled in a mountain pass near the fabled Spatsizi Plateau, is home to the descendants of several inland families. And Dease Lake, a muddy strip hunkered along Highway 37, hosts the newest reserve and the only concentration of businesses in the territory.

It was in Dease Lake that NovaGold Resources decided to host a community assembly in January 2005. NovaGold controls one of the largest undeveloped mineral deposits in North America, at Galore Creek, where an estimated 13 million ounces of gold, 156 million ounces of silver, and 12 billion pounds of copper lie buried. But Galore Creek flows through territory claimed by both the Tahltan and the Crown. Before the Vancouver-based NovaGold can mine its claim, the province is required by law to “consult” and “accommodate” the Tahltan. This meant negotiating with the Tahltan Central Council (TCC), a nonprofit society that regards itself as the government-in-waiting for a Tahltan Nation.

As a prelude to provincial consultation, NovaGold worked with the TCC to organize a meeting on January 8 and 9. The company invested a reported $100,000 in the assembly, much of which went toward airfare and chartered buses to bring Tahltan home from as far away as Ottawa. One of the presentations at the meeting described a “memorandum of understanding,” signed two months earlier, under which the province was to pay the TCC $250,000 to negotiate agreements for future mining, forestry, and hydro projects. In addition to the NovaGold mine, four other megaprojects were in the works: bcMetals’ Red Chris gold and silver mine, Fortune Minerals’ Mount Klappan open-pit coal mine, Shell Canada’s Klappan Valley coal-bed methane project, and Coast Mountain Power’s Forest Kerr hydroelectric dam.

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