Klappan blockade a PR disaster waiting to happen
VANCOUVER — The Handbook of American Indians, published in 1906, describes the Tahltan, who live in a magnificent landscape of towering mountains, charred volcanic cones and rushing salmon rivers, in this manner: “On the whole they are an honest, agreeable, kindly people, hospitably inclined and dignified in bearing.”
A lot has changed in the past 100 years, but the nature of the Tahltan, who live in northwestern British Columbia around Dease Lake and Telegraph Creek, has not. They remain among the most friendly, hospitable and proud people one can encounter in this country.
All of which makes the hostile response the Tahltan have given Shell Canada Ltd. somewhat startling.
For the past two years the Tahltan have been blockading an access road that runs through their territory in an area known as the Klappan, stopping Shell from undertaking exploration work. There, in the headwaters of three of the greatest salmon rivers in the world – where the Stikine, Skeena and Nass are born – the Tahltan’s friendly hospitality has run out. Whenever Shell officials approach the rough road that leads into the Klappan, they are met by elders who block the way and refuse to stand aside.
They won’t let Shell go to work. And they don’t want any other resource industry going to work in that area either.
“We’d like to see the sacred headwaters protected. No resource development of any kind,” said Rhoda Quock, one of the protesters.
Shell, which has applied to the Supreme Court of B.C. for an injunction to force Ms. Quock and a group of elders from the roadway, wants to get into the Klappan to search for coal-bed methane gas.
There is no coal-bed methane under commercial production in B.C. yet, but Shell and the provincial government, which granted exploration rights knowing the Tahltan were opposed, wants to change all that.
They think the Klappan – one of the most beautiful and biologically rich wilderness areas left in Canada – is a good place to start pumping methane out of the ground, and for discharging whatever polluted water they create in the process.
They may be forced to rethink things, however, because what that 1906 textbook definition of the Tahltan neglected to say was that these hospitable, kindly people are also fiercely determined. “We’re confident we’re going to win,” Ms. Quock said firmly, when it was pointed out to her that in Shell the Tahltan have taken on one of the richest, most powerful corporations in the world.
Both the government and Shell apparently thought it would be easy to blow the coal-bed methane project past the mild-mannered Tahltan. To be fair, they did get encouraging signals in 2004, when the chief of the small Iskut band, which is part of the Tahltan Nation, indicated support.
But that chief is gone and the new leader, Chief Marie Quock, says the Iskut people are dead set against the proposal.
“Just thought you should know, that the majority of Iskut is now behind the Klabona Keepers [as the protesters are known],” Chief Quock stated in a recent e-mail to Shell representative Kathy Penney.
Chief Quock went on to say that “the people who supported the Shell project have now changed their minds, there are more people going down to the turnoff [where the blockade is] in the last few days, people who have not gone down there before are now going down and there are other people in Iskut who are really angry about the injunction.”
Replied Ms. Penney for Shell: “I appreciate the heads up. The overall situation is very regrettable.”
Regrettable, but hardly surprising. Since 2005 the Tahltan have been expressing opposition to the project. In May, elders wrote to Shell to make it clear they were still opposed.
“Please be advised that the Tahltan Elders born, raised, occupying and utilizing our traditional territories do not support any initiatives that you propose for the Sacred Headwaters of the Klappan. We continue to stand with all Tahltans in our position to have no coal-bed methane gas projects in our traditional territories,” states a letter signed by more than 30 elders, including representatives of the important Wolf and Crow clans.
Still, Shell has continued to try and push into the Klappan, even going as far as to file the injunction that, if granted, could lead to the arrest of elders.
One has to wonder if Shell has thought this through. Does it really believe it can win a fight in which native elders are getting hauled off to jail for trying to protect sacred lands?
And what does the B.C. government think will happen when images of those arrests start to zip around the Internet?
If Shell and the B.C. government keep pushing, the Klappan blockade is going to blow up into an international incident. Already more than a dozen big environmental groups, including the Sierra Club, Greenpeace, ForestEthics, Friends of the Earth and the David Suzuki Foundation have written to Royal Dutch Shell to oppose drilling activity in the Klappan.
The whole world isn’t watching yet, but it will be soon enough.