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'They are flexing their muscles' Add to ...

Between the abandoned mining town of Cassiar and the struggling port of Stewart, in the northwest corner of British Columbia, Highway 37 runs through one of the most dramatic and resource-rich landscapes in Canada.

It is the kind of place where the cabins are festooned with moose antlers, where grizzly bears can be seen fishing for salmon and where caribou herds stand dumbstruck by the roadside because they seldom see traffic.

The Stewart-Cassiar region, home of the Tahltan First Nation, is as remote an area as you can find in B.C. and isn't a place you'd expect highlighted on political and corporate agendas.

But a significant shift taking place in the native political structure there has drawn attention all the way from Victoria to Europe, as the Tahltan strive to assert control over a region that contains such abundant mineral resources that it has been dubbed the Golden Triangle.

There are eight mining projects proposed along Hwy. 37, and a recent study projected that they could generate $3.5-billion in capital investments, create 2,000 jobs and result in more than $300-million in annual revenues.

That is the kind of resource activity that the B.C. government, now in a run-up to a spring election, is starved for. And with a dead mining town at one end of the highway (Cassiar closed in 1992 when asbestos mining halted), a bulk shipping port at the other that is struggling because of a logging downturn, and with two active mines facing scheduled closing, the Tahltan need new job opportunities.

Drive Hwy. 37 north from Stewart and it isn't long before you see heavy lift helicopters clattering overhead carrying mining supplies. But there are also protest signs, declaring "Get the Shell Out." And close to the native community of Iskut there is a spur road that runs off into a region named the Sacred Headwaters where, for the past three years, Shell and Fortune Minerals have run into roadblocks set up by Tahltan elders.

Shell wants to drill 1,000 wells to extract coal-bed methane gas, and Fortune wants to mine 123 million tonnes of high-grade metallurgical coal. But first they need the band's approval.

The Sacred Headwaters, named because three major salmon rivers - the Skeena, Nass and Stikine - were born there, has become the symbol of wider conflicts in B.C. between native bands and resource companies.

Annita McPhee, the newly elected head of the Tahltan Central Council, says that, before dealing with any proposed mines, the band must first find a way for everyone to express their views.

"We're developing a process for decision making, a new governance structure, and it's going to take some time," she said in an interview this week.

"There's a high concentration of development proposed in our area and our people need to have a say in what is developed, and what isn't. ... We want to find a balance between protecting the land and providing employment for our people."

Ms. McPhee, who has a law degree from the University of Victoria, was elected in July on a ticket that emphasized the need for the Tahltan to speak with a united voice. Her decision to enter politics was spurred largely by a burning debate over Shell's controversial proposal to drill for coal-bed methane gas in the Sacred Headwaters.

Will Horter, executive director of the Dogwood Initiative, a non-profit group that helps indigenous people gain control over their traditional lands, said the Tahltans are at the forefront of a growing movement in B.C., which is seeing bands demand more say about resource development.

"There's a handful of vanguard first nations that are working internally and with partners like us and others ... to promote a positive vision of how they want their region and their territories to be managed," Mr. Horter said. "They are flexing their muscles."

He said that, in the past, resource companies have been able to push their projects through over the objections of often poorly organized local bands. But the Tahltan have realized that if they speak with a unified voice, they can gain control over which projects proceed and which do not, Mr. Horter said.

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