A Gentle Revolution

All they wanted was to slow the pace of development in their territory. But by the time their 254-day sit-in concluded, the elders had reshaped the Tahltan Nation
The glacier of discontent that had formed in January was a river by July. On the fifteenth, a heavy-equipment operator from Iskut named Peter Jakesta got a call from a company wanting to clear a campsite. As soon as he learned that the work was for Fortune Minerals, Jakesta knew he wouldn’t take the job. The next morning, he went to Ealue Lake Road, where he waited until an eighteen-wheeler arrived, laden with heavy equipment. As the truck approached, he and his then-three-year-old daughter, Katrina, stepped into its path.

The driver stopped and climbed down. Jakesta told him the road was closed. The driver asked why. “The people negotiating for this land do not represent us,” Jakesta replied. “We are blocking the road.” The driver went to call his boss, and Jakesta’s wife, Rhoda Quock, sped to Iskut to round up support. By the time the driver returned, there were a half-dozen Tahltan waiting. Oscar Dennis served the driver with a warning letter similar to the one he’d given Shell back in March. The driver left and the Tahltan set up camp by the side of the road.

For the first few days, a handful of elders came from Iskut to sit around the fire and tell stories. It was fishing season, and many Tahltan were loathe to leave their spots on the Stikine to join the protest. Then, a few days into the blockade, a semi carrying Alaskan salmon crashed just south of the roadside camp. Salmon spilled from the overturned trailer. The Tahltan retrieved hundreds of fish and built drying racks. For many, the salmon were a sign. The camp began to grow, and a few Telegraph Creek elders began commuting between the two protests.

Like the Telegraph Creek sit-in, the Iskut blockade evolved into an informal seminar led by a handful of strong women, in particular Rhoda Quock. “In Iskut everyone stays in their houses,” Quock observed. “Here they are getting to know each other all over again.” At night, with the sounds of the campfire crackling, the dogs sniffing about, and the wind rustling in the trees, the blockade had a timeless feel.

The sparks flying around the campfire soon spread to Chief Asp’s Tahltan Nation Development Corporation. On August 12, a group of heavy-equipment operators employed by tndc told a manager at the Eskay Creek mine that unless Asp resigned as president of tndc, they were yanking the keys out of their machines and starting a work stoppage. Barrick Gold depended on tndc to supply labour at the mine; more than a third of the 320 on-site workers are native. And tndc was even more dependent on Barrick; most of its 120 employees work at the remote mine. Neither company could afford a strike. By the following Monday, Jerry Asp had resigned from the company he’d helped found twenty years before.

After several postponements, Shell Canada and the tcc held a community meeting in August about the proposed development in the Klappan, but few elders attended—not even the lure of a free flight to Wyoming to tour US coal-bed methane fields could entice them to participate. Soon afterward, the company postponed its plans to drill more test wells, depriving tndc of a $4-million contract.

But Fortune Minerals would not abandon its plan to drill twenty-five holes in order to complete its environmental-assessment application. On July 19, Fortune president Robin Goad flew out from the company’s headquarters in London, Ontario, to try to work something out. When that failed, Fortune petitioned a Vancouver court for an injunction against the blockade. Given only two days’ notice, no Tahltan could attend, and Fortune was granted its order.

When the confrontation finally came, on September 16, the Iskut protestors held a traditional ceremony attended by roughly 100 supporters. These included representatives from the Haida, Gitksan, and Wet’suwet’en First Nations. The Haida had launched a blockade of their own in the spring, over logging rights, and had thanked the Telegraph Creek elders for the inspiration.

Wearing their button blankets and marching to the slow beat of skin drums, the Tahltan elders marched in unison toward the waiting rcmp. Some of the younger children cried as ten Tahltan elders and five youths were handcuffed. Among those arrested were James Dennis, who had faced off with Shell in March; Bertha Louie, a disgruntled director of the Tahltan Central Council; and Rita Louie, wife of Iskut chief Louis Louie. The honour of being the first elder hauled off to jail was reserved for “Tiger Lil” Moyer.

The Telegraph Creek band office stood empty over the fall. Indian and Northern Affairs Canada shut it down at the end of September. Asp said he requested the action because the band was behind on its housing payments; the elders believe Asp simply wanted them out. As a result of the takeover, Chief Asp and the band council lost all administrative authority. Autonomy will be restored after the next election in June 2006.

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