A group of Tahltan First Nations elders — some of whom are in their 80s — have remained holed up in their Telegraph Creek band office for more than a month to protest the pace of development in their traditional territory and oppose the chief who is championing it.
“Our land, resources and rights are being sold out from under us,” the group of 35 elders said in a joint statement, released shortly after they took over the two-storey administration building on January 17. “This day will go down in Tahltan history as the day the Elders took back their power.”
The elders represent numerous families among the estimated 1,500 Tahltan who live on or near 11 reserves in northern British Columbia. They have two demands: First, they want the resignation of Chief Jerry Asp, who they accuse of abusing elected office to promote his own business interests. Second, they are calling on their tribal council to reconsider a recent agreement with the provincial government, a deal they fear would empower Gordon Campbell’s Liberals to fast-track three massive mining projects, a gas field, a hydroelectric dam and possibly a controversial road to the Alaskan coast.
The protest comes during a time of relative prosperity for the Tahltan. Thanks to operating developments such as the Eskay Creek mine — where Tahltans hold one-third of the jobs — unemployment is running as low as six per cent. “The elders do not oppose development,” said Oscar Dennis, a spokesman. “The elders are saying, ‘We don’t need six projects at once.’ They want controlled sustainability. They’re saying, ‘If we open these projects in sequence, it would guarantee a place for our children in this capitalist society for generations to come.’”
The elders’ action came in response to a general assembly on Jan. 8 and 9, at which several current development plans were described. The Tahltan Tribal Council chartered buses and bought airline tickets to bring Tahltans from as far away as Ottawa to the weekend meeting at Dease Lake, which included presentations on technical, environmental and cultural aspects of the proposed mining projects.
The elders were particularly alarmed by news of a “memorandum of understanding” their tribal council had signed with the provincial government two months earlier. Under the terms of the November 2004 memo, the council would receive $250,000 a year to negotiate with the province to provide “accommodation” for future mining, forestry and hydro projects. The Supreme Court of Canada requires that provinces both “consult” and “accommodate” First Nations before permitting resource extraction on Crown land subject to pending land claims.
“The intent is to provide certainty for resource development decisions by B.C. during the term of the Agreement,” stated a presentation about the deal, which also listed several projects slated for “certainty.”
These included: NovaGold Resources’ Galore Creek gold and copper mine, bcMetals’ Red Chris gold and silver mine, Fortune Minerals’ Mount Klappan open-pit coal mine, Shell Canada’s Mount Klappan coalbed methane gas project, and Coast Mountain Power’s Forest Kerr hydroelectric dam.
The NovaGold mine was the subject of several presentations at the assembly. NovaGold is considering construction of an open pit mine on 104,735 acres west of the Stikine River. The Vancouver-based company reported promising results from its 2004 test drillings.
“It was a successful meeting. There was a lot of dialogue. A lot of issues were brought forth,” said Carl Gagnier, General Manager of the Galore Creek project. “One thing we learned in the special assembly was that while the Tahltan have had mines in their traditional territories, they were not well informed on all of the issues that are involved with a large-scale mining operation.”
The elders fear their tribal council will submit that dialogue as evidence of “consultation.” They said they were forced to sign in and have their photos taken in order to attend the assembly. Likewise, they fear that the expensive assembly itself — at which NovaGold paid a reported $100,000 for travel and other expenses — will be regarded as “accommodation.” The elders are aware that their neighbours to the north, the Taku River Tlingit First Nation, lost a federal court battle in which a similar meeting process was determined to be sufficient. “That meeting was the last straw,” said spokesman Dennis, who holds university degrees in anthropology and first nations studies. “They paid all these educated young people to fly in and present information. To an outsider it must have looked like they had this awesome meeting. But in fact it was a bunch of young people who did not grow up on the land.”
From Telegraph to Internet
A group of elders met the following weekend. All were concerned that they’d been co-opted at the Dease Lake assembly. Some, whose local family hunting and trapping territories were directly affected, were also outraged that the tribal council had presumed to act on their behalf. They agreed to take action, and took over the Telegraph Creek administration building on January 17 — the same day on which the U.S. celebrated martyred Civil Rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.
The elders’ first order of business was to call for the resignation of Chief Jerry Asp, who they accuse of overstepping authority when he signed agreements on behalf of the Iskut band and individual family territories. They also allege that Asp’s longtime involvement with a mining services company places him in an untenable conflict of interest. (More about that in Part Two of this story, to be posted tomorrow.) “He has done enough harm to our people,” the elders said of Asp in their joint statement, “and puts us in danger of losing everything.” They presented Asp with a letter demanding his resignation on Jan. 18 and told him: “Jerry Asp, You are no longer Chief of the Tahltan People.”
Asp has refused to resign. He also refused to be interviewed for these articles.
The elders have now spent more than a month occupying the band office. Lucy Brown, who is 64 years old, has reportedly slept every night on the office floor. They spend their days sewing and strategizing. Families from the Telegraph Creek reserve — the Tahltan Nation’s largest — bring them meals, and listen to them tell traditional stories.
The Tahltan have been travelling the Stikine for generations, paddling upriver to hunt and downriver to trade with the coastal Tlingit. Canadians and Americans of European descent began settling in the area in 1861, after gold was discovered. The town of Telegraph Creek came into being as a result of efforts to run an early communications line. Today the Tahltan elders are spreading news of their protest via e-mail.
They promise to continue their occupation until Asp resigns and the November “certainty” agreement is overturned. Asp has obtained a court order to have them forcibly removed, but had not yet employed that order when this article was posted.
“Asp and his family have learned the white man’s way well and are now using this knowledge against their people,” the elders said in their e-mailed statement. “They have mistakenly discounted us, saying we do not have any educated people. Our traditional knowledge goes back to time immemorial. Back to a time without papers, computers, and contemporary law.”
Monte Paulsen is a contributing editor at Vancouver’s Shared Vision magazine. Part 2 of Tyee’s special report on the Tahltan controversy looks at Chief Jerry Asp’s connections to the mining industry.