The traditional territory of the Tahltan in northwestern British Columbia covers more than one-tenth of the entire province. It is a region rich in natural resource opportunities – mining, forestry and clean energy – and when the Tahltan opposed coal extraction in an area they consider sacred, the provincial government accepted “no” for an answer.
To avert conflict and allow other development in the region to flourish, the government handed the Tahltan veto power over 61 coal licences.
That was four years ago, and the sky has not fallen.
Chad Day, president of the Tahltan Central Government, was a keynote speaker last week at a gathering of Indigenous leadership and the B.C. government. A central theme of the two-day conference was the government’s efforts to implement UNDRIP – the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Mr. Day was asked to explain his community’s model of what that can look like.
For the Tahltan, the principles of UNDRIP have already been largely embraced, and industry has a very clear map, known as the Klappan plan, that lays out where resource development can proceed, and where it cannot.
“We’re definitely ahead of the curve,” Mr. Day said in interview. “We only support projects that follow Tahltan processes, that don’t sacrifice our environmental and cultural values."
There are many projects that have won their consent: The Tahltan own, or are in partnership with, businesses that include catering, aviation, road construction, IT management, power line construction, engineering, and more. Earlier this year, the Tahltan bought a $125-million stake in a trio of clean-energy projects. Mining is a major employer: Of the 800 Tahltan living in their traditional territories, 300 are working in the mining industry. The Tahltan’s economic development arm is turning a profit, and paying dividends that are invested in community infrastructure. The unemployment rate is virtually zero, the standard of living is high.
The B.C. legislature is expected this fall to pass Bill 41 that commits the province to bring its laws and policies into alignment with UNDRIP, which states that resource developments require the “free, prior and informed consent” of affected Indigenous peoples. When consent cannot be obtained, redress must be provided.
British Columbia’s resource developers are cautiously embracing Bill 41. But business is wary of what the details will look like. The definition of free, prior and informed consent, for example, has yet to be made clear, and the promise of restitution is vague. It is expected to take years to work out.
Susan Yurkovich, chief executive officer of the Council of Forest Industries, said the forestry sector has been seeking for years to work in partnership with the communities where they wish to conduct business. “I can’t think of a company that is not engaged in partnerships," she said in an interview. "This is the way you do business in British Columbia.”
But the industry is facing tough times, buffeted by trade disputes and a shrinking supply of timber. What her members want from this new UNDRIP law, she said, is “clarity and transparency.”
Premier John Horgan wrapped up the two-day leadership gathering confident that his UNDRIP legislation has hit the right notes.
“We’ve had, I would suggest, universal support for the thrust of the legislation,” he said in an interview. He acknowledged that some parties were unhappy about the lack of consultation prior to the introduction of Bill 41, but he said he has heard no complaints about the contents from the roughly 1,000 Indigenous leaders who attended the two-day meeting.
While the details of the UNDRIP legislation are worked out, Mr. Day said the Tahltan experience should provide assurances that industry, government and First Nations can work together.
“We have created an environment where we can come together to make smart, collective decisions that all stakeholders can buy into,” he said. “Ultimately, it may create more work within the process, but if that will ultimately lead to less conflict and better decisions, then it’s worth it.”