February 08 2011 » SWCC in the News » Women & Environment
Skeena Sisters: Fighting to save a sacred river system
By Amanda Follett
Last summer, Ali Howard cannonballed into the Skeena River’s headwaters in northwestern British Columbia’s Spatsizi Plateau. She raised one arm, then the other, for the first strokes in her 610-kilometre swim to the Pacific Ocean. Inside, she felt immense anxiety — tumbling whitewater, whirlpools and tidal currents were only a few of the challenges ahead — and she silently said a prayer to “Mother Sister Skeena”.
Howard had no idea how apt the impromptu pseudonym, which stayed with her throughout her 28-day journey, would become. The river would beat her down — Howard compares it to feeling humbled by a sibling — while keeping her safe in its maternal grasp.
“We were so well protected and embraced by the river. It felt like we were being led down and mothered,” says the 34-year-old Smithers woman. “The Skeena absolutely brought out the best in me. I didn’t know my own potential. Discovering it was the greatest gift of the river.”
Howard is just one in a handful of women in northwestern B.C. that have fought to save a watershed currently threatened by resource development. The Spatsizi Plateau — dubbed the Sacred Headwaters for its conspicuous role as the birthplace for the Nass, Stikine, and Skeena rivers — is currently under the gaze of multi-national corporations like Royal Dutch Shell, which has fought to begin coalbed methane exploration in the area.
As the headwaters for three of the province’s top salmon-producing watersheds, the Spatsizi Plateau (known as Klappan to the local Tahltan First Nation) supports a partially-subsistence culture that has thrived in the area for countless millennia. In recent years, members of the Tahltan Nation built and occupied a roadblock shelter at the Klappan River Road turnoff. In 2006, the blockade resulted in several elders being arrested when Shell was granted a court injunction to proceed with its exploration.
Rhoda Quock lives in nearby Iskut, a mostly aboriginal community a few hours’ drive south of the Yukon border, tucked in the shadow of a mountain and home to only few hundred residents. A mother of four, Quock was an unlikely spokesperson in the battle against Shell’s interest in the Sacred Headwaters. Born and raised in Iskut, it was her passion for the land and her traditional culture that brought her to the frontlines of a fight with a multi-national corporation with billions to gain from the methane gas that lies below Klappan Mountain, where her family’s traditional hunting camp is located.
“Sure, we can say let’s go for the money now, but in 30 or 40 years, when it’s a boom and bust, what are the kids going to have?,” Quock said in an interview several years ago, just as the battle with the oil and gas magnate was igniting. Despite the argument that drilling and mining would bring much needed jobs to the area, Quock and her supporters, a local elders’ group known as the Klabona Keepers, desperately tried to communicate the importance of maintaining the area’s long-term sustainability. “It’s just not for sale,” she said about the Tahltan’s traditional hunting and fishing grounds in the Klappan.
Lillian Campbell, a Tahltan elder who lives 80 kilometres further north in Dease Lake, echoes Quock’s opposing voice. Her feisty demeanor earned her the nickname Tiger Lil and she was one of the elders arrested during the 2006 standoff with Shell. The charges against the grandmother, then in her late 60s, were later dismissed. The following year, she was honoured as a finalist in the Ecotrust Indigenous Leadership Awards.
A common passion brought together these strong Tahltan women with people like Shannon McPhail, who was born into a guide outfitting family on the Kispiox River, a tributary of the Skeena. McPhail, an outspoken force, has given birth to two young children during her years fighting development in the watershed. She created the non-governmental organization Skeena Watershed Conservation Coalition in response to proposed threats to her family’s fishing business and the lifestyle she has always known.
“I was the daughter of a big game outfitter and a rodeo contractor and my husband worked in the oilsands. So I wasn’t the most likely candidate to get started on this,” she says, describing her organization’s beginnings as “a bunch of local yokels” who set out to fight development in their valley. “Rhoda Quock has four children and she’s running the Klabona Keepers, she’s dealing with the second largest company on the planet. She gave birth to twins during this whole battle. She gave birth right when this whole thing got started and she’s raising twins plus her two other kids.”
Another friend joked to McPhail, “You bring your kids everywhere. You even brought them to the revolution!”
It was McPhail, whose family owns the Bear Claw Lodge where Howard works as a chef, who convinced the former water polo player to take the plunge in swimming one of North America’s mightiest rivers. When Howard offhandedly suggested getting another distance swimmer to take on the task, McPhail’s response was simple: “You swim. You do it.” Howard agreed.
On Aug. 15, 2009, Howard became the first person to swim the Skeena River in its entirety when she pulled herself onto a wharf at Port Edward on B.C.’s northwest coast. Her efforts were recognized soon after by outdoor retail giant Patagonia, which created its first-ever annual Activist Award for the swimmer. Howard has also been nominated for National Geographic Adventure magazine’s Adventurer of the Year award.
She attributes her safety, a strong team dynamic, and the warm reception she received in numerous communities for allowing her to have the profound experience of living as one with the Skeena River for a month. “It really felt like we were operating in a state of grace. It allowed me to take everything in stride and experience everything with an open mind and, especially, an open heart,” she says. “When we were in the communities people spoke about it — that we were swimming with the ancestors.”
Just as the river brings together its tributaries, similarly these women’s common bond with the watershed brought them together in a fight against what many would feel typifies the masculine: industry, economy, and capitalism. With limited budgets, they stood up to an industry that seeks to pillage the landscape of its ability to yield for future generations and gave Premier Gordon Campbell’s pro-industry government pause in its crusade to sell the Sacred Headwaters.
In 2008, the province declared a two-year moratorium on coalbed methane development. The gas, which has never successfully been developed in British Columbia due to strong public opposition, is relatively new and its extraction methods untested. The moratorium expires this year. It remains to be seen if the Klappan — a magical place where the tracks of grizzly, caribou, moose, and wolf can all be seen within a few square feet — will be safe from the precious gas that lies beneath its surface.
Dissent within the Tahltan Nation — between those who welcome the jobs that come with resource development and those that want to protect traditional lifestyle —resulted in a change of government. In 2007, an Iskut Band Council election saw the council replaced by an all-female chief and council. The Tahltan Central Council, which represents all three bands within the nation, replaced chair Jerry Asp — a central and much vilified figure in the nation’s initial dealings with mining companies like BCMetals and Fortune Minerals — with Annita McPhee.
Today, at the Klappan River Road turnoff, a spray painted plywood sign hands askew, reads “Save our Sacred Headwaters” reminding passersby that the battle for these traditional hunting and fishing grounds has not yet been won. Families still gather at the roadblock shelter to cook moose meat over the campfire, play cards around a circular table, and talk about ongoing threats to their traditional lifestyle.
More than 100 kilometres upriver, in the wild and vast Spatsizi Plateau, the Skeena River begins its tireless journey to the Pacific Ocean. As it has since time immemorial, Mother Sister Skeena provides sustenance for the delicate and diverse ecosystem it supports, which further supports a lifestyle held close by those that love and revere its waters. Through the efforts of women that identify with its nurturing spirit, the Skeena — at least for the time being — will continue to support the lives and cultures that thrive in northwestern B.C.
Amanda Follett lives and writes in Smithers, B.C., a small northern community that never fails to amaze her with its colourful characters and cultures. Last fall, Amanda completed a Master of Communication specializing in intercultural communication through Royal Roads University in Victoria. Her thesis explored media coverage of the Sacred Headwaters issue.