Indigenous protests at Mt. Klappan show respect for the land

Date of publication: 
29 May 2014

From tar sands in Alberta, to wind farms and gravel quarries in Ontario, to pipelines in British Columbia, resource conflicts in Canada often arise over different ideas about how land should be used. As summer approaches, such a conflict seems certain to resume in northwestern British Columbia over a planned coal mine.

A dispute between Aboriginal Tahltans and Fortune Minerals over the Arctos Anthracite project in the Klappan region (known popularly as the Sacred Headwaters) reflects an age-old debate: Use the land by taking something from it or by leaving it alone.

The Tahltans prefer to leave the land intact for hunting and camping. Last September, they protested Fortune Minerals’ environmental assessment work by camping at traditional locations near the mining company’s work site.

The provincial government noticed and the province and the Tahltan agreed to a Strategic Initiative to discuss the future of the Klappan.

After a mediator was appointed to facilitate discussions between the Tahltan and Fortune Minerals in order to push the project forward, the Tahltan Central Council reacted angrily. Fortune Minerals suspended its operations at Mt. Klappan in September to let the Tahltan and the Province of British Columbia talk.

There are indications, however, that Fortune Minerals is moving forward with the project.

Following a commentary by David Suzuki in which he remarks that the Klappan region owes its “continued existence to indigenous peoples who have … consistently resisted incursions of industrial development,” I am reminded of my time camping with Tahltan elders at Didini Camp, on the flank of Mt. Klappan.

This hunting camp is threatened by the mining plans. Even if the camp isn’t destroyed, the area will be a noisy construction zone for several years.

Some people may ask why a hunting and camping area should be preserved when the economic impact of a mine would be so big. The Tahltan are not opposed to development and, in fact, have a long history of participating in mining, infrastructure construction, guiding and other resource-related entrepreneurial endeavours.

But the Tahltan I speak to prefer local development projects to proceed slowly and in consultation with them. In the case of the Klappan, the historical and ancestral connections run so deep that mining is a non-starter. The Tahltan feel so strongly about this that they have asked Fortune Minerals to stay out of their communities. There are other places, other projects — and likely always will be.

Why not simply move the camps away from developments, as I was once asked? This is to think of Tahltan camping as the kind of “weekend-warrior” car camping I do with my family. Car camping gives us access to the outdoors and to wild places. But such adventures are usually temporary escapes from home.

In contrast, the Tahltan word for camp is kime (kee-may). Kime also means home — and the word evokes all of the emotional bonds we associate with our homes.

Tahltan camps are where children hear stories of the past and the present, and learn about everything from family histories to maintaining ATVs. The permanence associated with “home” is precisely why Tahltan people are protesting the possible leveling of Mt. Klappan.

Tahltan camps exist on a landscape imbued with history and mythology. It is common in camps to talk about ancestors who used the site and whose presence is felt today. Tahltan stories discuss respect for animals, including taking what you need and never talking badly about an animal that has offered itself to you. Violating the rules of respect risks punishment by the animals — the most worrisome punishment for hunting peoples is starvation.

Hunting, fishing, collecting and camping are all examples of using the land lightly. Not consuming the land itself — leaving the land alone — reflects a deep emotional, intellectual and respectful commitment to places such as the Klappan.

This position stands in ironic contrast to that of developers who, as Wade Davis notes, need only bureaucratic permission — not personal or historical ties — to “leave in their wake a cultural and physical landscape utterly transformed and desecrated.”

To ask why camps can’t be moved reveals an attitude in which using the land requires that something be taken from it. This inverts the Tahltan rules of giving respect and receiving sustenance. And that’s simply untenable for the Tahltans at Mt. Klappan who, through acts of respect, have fought to preserve their land for generations.

I don’t expect the protests against Fortune Minerals to end until Mt. Klappan is fully protected.

Thomas McIlwraith is an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Guelph. He is the author of ‘We Are Still Didene’: Stories of Hunting and History from Northern British Columbia (University of Toronto Press, 2012).