I am 100% against the Chieftain Metals road and against development happening in the Taku Watershed. I am 100% for protecting my ancestral homelands and there needs to be a balance between the economy and the environment, something that neither the Conservatives nor the NDP fully understand. I hate to turn anyone off from this argument, and I don’t want to make this into a political debate because the issue I am about to discuss is larger than party politics, but everyone knows that I am a Liberal. So I am going to begin with this as my opening statement instead of the closing.
When it comes to development; we have a choice, and based on our own intrinsic set of values, we make a choice. The choice doesn’t need to be 100% for development or 100% for protection, unless our values really are far left or far right on the political scale and this is where we fit and feel comfortable. I believe that our choice needs to be one that we are ultimately responsible for and one that we end up content with. I hope for a choice that fits the status quo and a decision that is a happy medium that appeases the majority, instead of one side compromising too greatly for the other. For myself I want a balanced approach between development and the environment, respecting special places like the Taku and the Peel Watersheds, but still allowing development in other less controversial areas. Most importantly I know that the Liberal Party is about respecting processes and the mechanisms that protect our democracy and people. Examples are: inquiries, public hearings and planning commissions. Further examples of these are things like the Peel Watershed Planning Commission and the Northern Gateway Pipeline Inquiry, things that stick to democratic processes and mechanisms to encourage public consultation and input.
People deserve honest answers and direct conversations instead of convoluted half-truths and misinformation to scheme and plot against the public. Now more than ever I think that people need straight-shooters: honest, ethical, smart and centered leadership. If you find yourself in a position of leadership: the electorate needs your mental brawn and fortitude to stand up for their rights. The electorate needs you to make smart, level-headed decisions that will propel our territories and provinces and ultimately this country forward to prosperity and pride. I want to see more gratification in what it is to belong as Yukoner (or British Columbian etc) and to be a Canadian, for people to stand up and be content and happy knowing that their views and beliefs are not being forgotten about or tossed to the wayside. I don’t want to choose between the environment, the people or the economy. I want all three: respect for the environment, respect for the economy and respect for the people.
I find it is a constant internal battle living in two worlds: That of modern day society and that of my ancestral knowledge. Two sides and two different sets of knowledge and understanding coming together as one to make an impact as a modern first nations person. On one side I need my culture, my language, my song and dance and my connection to the earth and my first nation. I need that communal sense of belonging. On the other side I need my education, my career, money and the self-motivated individualistic properties that I carry to make my life better for myself and my family. It is a balance between two worlds, and needing to carry forward for my own self-interests, but also the interests of others. I know that I cannot live one without the other. I need both sides to be working at an optimal level to feel complete and balanced as a person. I need both in order to not just survive but thrive. It is always a question of not just what I want, but a communal sense of what is best for my nation and finding a way to respect my ancestry and elders who are no longer with us while still doing what is best for our children tomorrow. It’s remaining grounded enough to consider myself grassroots but being able to articulate and rub shoulders with the ‘higher-ups’ to influence policy and have the views of the grassroots people properly represented.
As a First Nations person, I know that we are the stewards of our land. What is ‘our land’? It is the land that we have belonged to for millennia, the land that still sustains us today. If we live on our traditional territories, it is the land that is beneath our feet. Regardless of where we are in the world, it is the heartbeat of our territory that runs within our blood and in our DNA.
As Indigenous peoples, we have been shunned, disregarded and belittled for our views. They are seen as subpar and are not held in as high of a regard as non-indigenous values. Modern Society puts little value on the sense of communal property which is a First Nations viewpoint. Today in modern day society, property has a sense of self-centeredness associated with it. It is not valued unless it can be bought, bartered and sold, unless it can be farmed, mined, drilled. Unless we can derive some sort of monetary value from bottling or polluting it’s water, cuttings it’s trees, genetically modifying, altering, changing to make them more beneficial for humankind, destroying natural habitats to make them ‘humanized’. Is this right and does this work? Is this sustainability beyond my own lifetime? Does it think past the present and 7-generations forward into the future? What kind of a world are we creating? What does our action, or in-action, create for those children of the future? Are we leaving a legacy that they will be proud to inherit?
My hometown is Atlin. Home to some 400+ residents and it is the most remote community in Northern British Columbia with one road in and out. It is 2 hours away from Whitehorse Yukon. It has a very limited economy and is the home of the Taku River Tlingit First Nation (TRTFN). The lands of TRTFN encompass the watersheds of the Taku and the Whitling Rivers, as well as being the headwaters of the Yukon River. The heart of the Taku River Tlingit FN’s traditional territory is the transboundary Taku Watershed. This watershed flows through boreal, sub-boreal and temperate rainforests, from interior British Columbia to the coastal mountains of Alaska and is the largest wilderness salmon watershed on the Pacific Coast of North America.
Almost 19,000 square kilometers, the Taku watershed remains wild; fully intact without roads and other development. The glacier fed waters sustain an abundance of life. The watershed is home to all five species of wild Pacific salmon, wolves, grizzly and black bears, moose, caribou, mountain sheep, goats, wolverine and lynx. Many migratory birds also live in this area including the trumpeter swan. The richness of this land and its rivers provides for the very foundation of Taku River Tlingit kustiyixh or ‘way of life’.
I don’t know why the most beautiful places on earth have to also be the most mineral rich. The creator gave us free-will and it seems as though he is almost giving us the greatest test our will, leaving us free to come to our own conclusions of values, and of importance.
The Taku River Tlingit FN is faced with a divisive issue. This issue has divided my community for the past 30 years and we will have to make a semi-final decision next month (Or if the governmental permitting process is delayed like the rest of the project, it will be in the coming year). I personally wonder how many times we can go back to this issue and how many more generations are going to be faced with the same dilemma: There is a 60 year old mine at the Tulsequah River in the Taku Watershed. Once this mining company was called ‘Redfern Resources’, now it is called ‘Chieftain Metals’ but is the same people, primarily lead by Terry Chandler. I feel further conflicted because I greatly respect and admire Phil Fontaine for the work he did for AFN, but he sits on the Board of Directors for Chieftain Metals. The mine is trying to find a way to get the resources out of the area. With no roads in the Taku Watershed, there was an idea to barge down the Taku River, which was subsequently declined by the Alaska Government because of the importance of the fishery of the Taku River. The only other method out is to build a 110km road right through the heart of the Taku Valley. Many want to feed their families and the prospect of the mine leaves options for economic growth of Atlin. Some want the road and the mine for the economic benefits they hope to reap for themselves, and for Atlin.
For the Taku River Tlingits: If we do not continue to work for the best interests for our traditional territories, it will not be a matter of ‘if’ the road will be built, it will be a matter of ‘when’. The only reason why there isn’t a road is because our Ancestors fought so hard for their not to be a road and because they protected our land. Now that many have passed away, it is up to us as the next generation to pick up that torch and protect our ancestral homelands. Not just for ourselves, but for the very heart of what it is to be a Taku River Tlingit. What would we be without the River? They would just call us the River Tlingits and we would be lost without an identity and without a purpose. The same battle between Aboriginal/Inuit/Metis people and development is fought all across the country for any other development happening. In fact, this immense conflict between development and indigenous rights wages on all across the world. Indigenous people are working to protect their traditional territories and protect them from ever encroaching capitalism.
With this junior mining company, there are so many loopholes for this to go horribly wrong for the Taku River Tlingit FN. There is always risk, and for the Taku River Tlingit: does the risk outweigh the benefits?
The Taku River Tlingit First Nation signed a Land Use Plan (LUP) with the BC Government. Many who worked on this LUP are proud of their progress. 26% percent of the land-use-plan area considered of exceptional conservation value and strong Aboriginal and community interest are recommended for protection. My objections are:
- By signing the Land Use Plan TRTFN gave away their last legal card against stopping development in the area.
- 13% of this 26% was already Atlin Provincial Park.
- BC Aboriginal Relations Minister Mary Polak said 90 per cent of the areas with the highest mineral potential remain available for exploration and potential development.
- Furthermore and most disturbing: a thatched out portion basically stating TRTFN will consider a road in this area.
- This road will open up the area to more development. Eagle Plains ‘Ringer Property’ is shown below and they are hoping to use the road I am referring to (The road is the thatched red line which is south of Atlin).
- The new road alignment would come directly down Warm Bay Road to Atlin, then to Jakes Corner on the Alaska Highway then turn at Carcross Cut-off to Carcross then to Skagway (The trucks cannot go through Tagish because the bridge will not support the heavy traffic)
Those who worked on the LUP tell me that we ‘might’ consider a road from the Mine site to Warm Bay (behind the Warm Spring Grotto). The BC government and Chieftain Metals tell me that we ‘will’ consider a road here. It’s the whole debate that duty to consult is not duty for consent. Meaning to me that the BC government will ensure that we are properly informed of what is going to happen, and they will ensure that the mining industry will work to mediate adverse affects, but at the end of the day, it’s their say. Sure under the LUP, we as Taku River Tlingits could say ‘no road’ but then what are the implications? Do we go back to court for millions of dollars or is that not even an option? Hence the internal battle of my intrinsic values begins.
People need jobs to provide for and feed their families. I am not anti-development; I know that it needs that to be a resource based economy, we need to access and utilize our resources. Everyone wants to be self-sufficient with a good paying job being able to make ends meet. I just believe that there are special places that we should be protecting and the Citizens of TRTFN are not getting a good deal out of this. I wish that TRTFN could open our own mine and develop our own resources on our own land instead of arguing over scraps from external corporations. Then we could choose who and where and when and why and what. I spoke to someone in leadership about this possibility (I know not an easy feat since it costs a lot of money to start a mining operation) and their response was “if we do this then we are hypocrites.” Well, I want to know what leadership IS going to do, where is the vision and the determination to boost our local economy and boost our Tlingit people and the people of Atlin up? I don’t think that anyone wants to wake up on welfare, we need to work on self-sufficiency and work to have a plausible industry in something. Expand on Tourism including hunting and fishing guides? First Nations Art? Building log cabins? Commercial fishing? Leadership looked at me and said “Well if we solved the problem of jobs and the economy for our people then they would all be against the road.” Well then start planning for the future of our people and get busy finding ways to employ them. We need more direction, vision, accountability and transparency from our leadership at Taku River Tlingit FN, I hope that the election coming up in July will offer that.
Chieftain Metals has stated that they will have resource revenue sharing with TRTFN, but at 2-4% this is not true resource revenue sharing, like I said this is TRTFN left fighting over scraps at someone else s table. Chieftain Metals states that they will give jobs to TRTFN people, but who is actually qualified at TRTFN to take the high paying jobs? Cheiftain Metals tells TRTFN citizens that work at the mine that they will be rich in a decade. Well guess what? Sure the mining ventures will provide jobs, but how many of our people are going to be fully qualified to take the top paying jobs instead of the lowest paying ones? Sure in 10 years you might be qualified enough to have one of those top paying jobs, in 10 years you can do and be a lot of things: a lawyer, a doctor, go for your masters degree, be an entrepreneur. Again: do you really want to sit around waiting your turn for scraps at someone else’s table, waiting around while a bunch of outsiders get rich? Who do you think has money to fund for the mining operations anyway? It’s probably not the US, it’s probably not Canada, but we would be selling out to Foreign Interests. The countries with the big money like China and India. And what will be the outcome of the IBA (Impact Benefits Agreement)? The last I heard we were only getting 15% of what we had requested and also receiving between 2 – 4%. Is that a fair deal? And Department of Fisheries and Oceans(DFO) is being gutted to allow more expedited development. What do DFO and the federal responsibility and federal obligations play into the picture? (Specifically because the LUP is signed between TRTFN and the provincial BC government and not the Federal government). With all of the changes to the CEAA how dependable is the process going to be? Sure a road can be changed to not cross the traditional trail of the Taku River Tlingit people, but is a few measly kilometers far enough away? What will we do about the alcohol and drug abuse that explodes in our community? How are we going to deal with that fall out? Road routes can be changed, some effects can be mitigated, but it’s more than that, it’s a decision we have to make knowing that our ancestors are watching us. It’s a decision that we have been debating for 30 years and an argument that we initially took to the Supreme Court of Canada. How do you explain that to the CEAA and the environmental assessment process and submit these comments on the project? How do you tell them: “Hey this land is my lifeblood and my culture. it’s my spirit and my faith, the land is like my church that I go to get sustenance and healing from. Please don’t alter our way of life and allow a company to destroy it for a 9 year mine site”. The environmental assessment process cannot understand or mitigate these effects because this value system is not easily understood or given significant value by society. How are you supposed to mitigate the effects on a way of life and set of indigenous values?
We say it’s our land, but is it really? Or is that all a façade? We don’t have full control over who and where and when and why and what. The government does. We are left questioning ourselves, selling out our values, and compromising out our hakustiyi (way of life) as Tlingit people for the all-mighty dollar.
As First Nations people we value our Elders and the leadership that they provide. Things that my elders and people have said live on in my memory.
I think of my Great-Auntie Jenny Jack who went down to fight alongside the warriors at OKA for the protection of the traditional territory of the Mohawk people and my Mother Lucille who was also there.
“They showed us where that road is going through, and I thought to myself, if my Dad [Taku Jack] were alive, he would fight. There would be bloodshed on that ground before they took it over from us”. – Great-Grandmother Antonia Jack on the Redfern Resources Road.
“You have no land to give me, this land belongs to me.” – Chief Taku Jack (June 17th, 1915) on the establishment of reserves in Atlin.
A fight for First Nations rights, for our land to be protected for future generations and working “Together today for our Children tomorrow” – Elijah Smith (*)
(* Elijah Smith is not my direct relation, but still someone who I greatly respect)