Blog - November 2012

Stikine, Skeena, and Nass

November 19, 2012

For most of us it is difficult to understand the realities of even a hundred years. Few of us have lived that long. Few of us ever will. The time of our lives aside, we live out vastly different experiences. A Middle East real estate specialist in Singapore, a doctor at the Mayo Clinic, a plumber from Omaha, a writer from Toronto, a Masai warrior in northern Tanzania, a farmer in the Dnieper Hills of the Ukraine, an old Gitxsan guide and hunter surviving in the wild hinterlands of northern BC; we all have very different ideas about life, about what is important, about what needs to be done. In 1900 only 14% of us lived in cities, now that number is more than 50%. More of us have concerns about the rising price of bread at the supermarket than the prospects of next year’s yield of wheat necessary to make it. Fewer still concern themselves with the migrations of animals and whether or not there will be a good run of salmon in the rivers this year. For some it is more than science or sport, it is a way of life. It is life, and more and more there are fewer and fewer of us connected closely enough to it to know that we all rely on its continued integrity for our survival and well being.

With these things in mind I can understand that the fate of some land, a couple of mountains, and a few rivers would be of little importance in most people’s estimation. Or, that perhaps most understand that it’s important but that it has little to do with them or anything they might do. While abstract notions of our very real reliance on a viable ecosystem might be lost on many perhaps other ramifications of the siege of industrial development taking place in the lands First Nations know as the Sacred Headwaters will not seem so far removed.

It is lost on almost no one that a titanic shift in the world economy occurred in the late 1990s where Asian markets soared led by a giant and hungry tiger called China. China’s economy had become logarithmic in its growth and made it the world’s largest consumer of virtually every commodity: steel, zinc, cement, coal, aluminum, gold, and copper. With the law of supply and demand tilted precipitously “within sixth months of Vancouver securing the successful bid to host the 2010 Winter Games, the projected cost of the Olympics would double simply because of an increase in the price of steel and cement.” So what does this have to do with this place far from the Olympic site hundreds of miles north near the Alaskan panhandle?

With the stratospheric rise in commodity prices a rash of exploration and speculation broke out everywhere. Mammoth multinationals like Royal Dutch Shell to insignificant stock plays like Imperial Metals alike sent their surveyors out into Northern B.C. Out to a place where three of Canada’s most important salmon rivers – the Stikine, Skeena, and Nass – are born. A place that is home to the largest population of Stone sheep in the world. A place that is beautiful and sacred to the Tahltan and First Nations people who to this day, and since British Columbia joined Confederation in 1871, still have sovereign right to all of those lands “by every definition of British law and jurisprudence”. This legal fact has never been disputed by Canada or the government of British Columbia. But now, against the wishes of all First Nations, the BC government has opened the Sacred Headwaters to industrial development. Fine, what does that mean to you?

What it means to you is that when Imperials Metals sought to develop copper deposits so marginal at the Red Chris ore body that they would need subsidization to construct a northern power line, that you were put on the hook to pay for it. “A capital project expected to cost Canadian taxpayers $404 millon”. This in a time where our Federal government is slashing our service programs and preaching fiscal restraint. What it means is no accountability for public safety or public approval, to say nothing of the environment. The government approved, without consultation, an 8-year license Shell Canada paid $9.5 million for in 2004 to launch a massive coal bed methane (CBM) recovery project spanning almost a million acres. A process which has in many instances “altered the water table, decreased surface flows, rendered crops infertile, and left fish-bearing streams void of life. Methane has entered aquifers. Water wells have exploded, and in some Alberta homes it is possible to set tap water aflame.”

These are but a couple of abuses from a host of projects including NovaGold’s Galore Creek mine, Coast Mountain Power’s Forest Kerr hydroelectric initiative, Imperial’s Red Chris mine on Todagin mountain, Fortune Mineral’s anthracite project on Mount Klappan, and Shell Canada’s coal bed methane proposal slated to be fast-tracked with the approval of a puppet First Nations council in 2004. Since a sit-in by 34 Tahltan elders begun on January 17, 2005 they and all the First Nations people and those who have joined them have remained in opposition to these projects going forward without their approval or consent. An approval and consent dictated by precedent of law that has been upheld by The Supreme Court of Canada and that remains unchallenged.

This is no simple refusal of all industrial development either. The people who live in and are charged with protecting the lands they consider the heart and soul of their nation are not opposed to all development. They would wish to see a more robust economy like anyone, but “for whose benefit and at what cost to the land?” Their only wish is that they are “strictly and deliberately engaged, with fair, just, and equitable agreements” which is afforded them by law.

Much as living off the land might seem a thing of old to most of us, it may potentially be the way of our future. With commodities only becoming scarcer in the world and demand higher, and therefore possible profits for a few, prices will only continue to skyrocket. The pressure to mortgage all of the lands that support us and all life on this planet will only grow stronger. What will we do when every pittance of copper has been retrieved burying lakes and rivers under, quite literally, mountains of rock leaching poison? What will we do when we’ve used every means imaginable to blast every bit of methane from beneath the Earth’s crust? Every bit of steel, cement, coal, aluminum, and gold? What then? What will sustain us when even the most sacred of lands full are destroyed in the name of industrial development and enormous profit for a few?

Perhaps this would seem to be a tiresome refrain and that I have not made my case. Please do not take my word on it. This is but a précis from Wade Davis and his book ‘The Sacred Headwaters: the fight to save the Stikine, Skeena, and Nass’. You might not see that there is anything that you can do, but you could read the book. He certainly elucidates the importance of this growing greed and corruption and how valuable these far away land are to everyone far better than I. It is a beautiful book full of incredible breathtaking photography displaying the splendor and wonder of the region. But if reading’s not your thing you can come and listen to Mr. Davis in person. Question him, challenge him to show you why this matters. Wade Davis will be here in Peterborough on November at a reception, silent auction, and talk present by Kawartha World Issues Centre (details here). You can hear it from the man himself.

“In the continental United States, the farthest one can get away from a maintained road is twenty miles.”

 “Encounters with animals made up much of the narratives of his life.” (of Alex Jack, native guide and hunter)

“All these privileged strangers wanted was authenticity in their lives, and this was something that Tahltan guides and hunters, not the mention the country, could provide in spades.”

“Within six months of Vancouver securing the successful bid to host the 2010 Winter Games, the projected cost of the Olympics would double simply because of an increase in the price of steel and cement.”

Michael Fazackerley