A Personal Account of a Meeting in the Sacred Headwaters

by John Gellard

“May I come to the meeting?”

“Yes. All supporters are welcome.”

It’s August 17, 2013. I’m in the cooking tent at the Tahltan Beauty Camp on the flanks of Mount Klappan. The women are preparing a moose. They have wrapped a giant femur – just the bone – in foil and are putting it over a slow fire.

I’ve just spent three contemplative hours in the heart of the “Sacred Headwaters”, five kilometers south of here. This is where three great salmon rivers, the Skeena, the Nass, and the Stikine begin in a wide flat valley. The wetlands are green with tall grass growing between five-acre ponds connected by slowly meandering streams. The waters mingle before snaking off to the north, south, east and west.

Getting here was a delightful journey. I drove from Vancouver, on deserted back roads wherever possible, tenting free in Forest Service campsites, beside lakes resounding with loon calls. I gassed up at Tatogga Lodge on Highway 37, 503 km north of Smithers, and drove east on the tortuous Ealue Lake road, then over the Klappan River bridge. I turned south on the subgrade of an abandoned BCRail line.

Within a kilometer, the road ended, swept away in a graceful curve of the river reclaiming its course north to the Stikine. Three such washouts have prevented vehicle travel to the Headwaters until this summer when the Tahltan people punched out bypasses.

130 kilometers up the Klappan and Little Klappan valleys, I stopped at the Fortune Minerals fly-in exploration camp, white tents nestled beside Mount Klappan. The folks there were friendly. “Oh, I guess we could spot you a little gas if you run short.”

So on I went. I camped at the Didene Portage and hiked five kilometers, there and back, down to the Spatsizi River, a kayak route to the Stikine. Two young rangers, Diana and Kevin, a Tahltan, joined me for supper by the fire, and we talked into the night. They urged me to drive the extra 15 kilometers of rutted road up to the heart of the Headwaters. They mentioned the dispute between the Tahltan and Fortune Minerals and urged me to go to the meeting. “I can’t go,” said Kevin. “I’m a ranger.”

Now here I am at the meeting. It’s 7 pm and cloudy. Fifty Tahltan are assembled in a rough semicircle. They place signs: “No Coal Mining in Our Sacred Headwaters”. A helicopter lands. Out comes Robin Goad, CEO, in a black “Fortune Minerals” jacket, carrying his own chair. Three assistants follow. They place their chairs to close the circle.

Goad, trimmed white hair, blue intense eyes, speaks quietly. The message that he has come from London, Ontario to deliver is hard to hear. Fortune minerals will do “everything we can to mitigate environmental impact” as they remove the top of Mount Klappan to get at the anthracite coal. He says that the land will be “rehabilitated…The only watershed affected will be the Stikine,” and besides, “this land is not pristine anyway.” He is “glad we’re having this discussion”, and hopes Fortune and the Tahltan can “work together”.

The Tahltan spokespeople listen politely. They reply clearly that there will be no coal mining on Mount Klappan. “We won against Shell [and their fracking plans] and we’ll win this one too,” says Marie Quock, chief of the Iskut Band.” Annita McPhee, President of the Tahltan Central Council reminds Goad that The TCC has approved other mining projects, but is unanimous in opposing this one.

“I’m sure we can work together,” says Goad.

Pat Edzerza, hunter and trapper, gets up and addresses him in Tahltan. “Did you understand that?”

“I’m sorry, I don’t understand Tahltan.”

“No,” replies Pat, “and you don’t seem to understand us when we speak English. We have a reason to be here. Take a look around. This is a Sacred Headwater. We drink this water. All the plants and the animals, they put food on our tables. Enough is enough.”

John  Philip Nole asks, “Do you have prior informed consent of the Tahltan people [to carry on your drilling operations]”.

“We have a permit from the provincial government.”

Not good enough. This is unceded Tahltan territory, There is no room for discussion. Fortune is trespassing and must leave here.

The meeting breaks up. Nine year old Caden Jakesta comes forward in tears. He is worried about the drilling, which is driving the game away. “We don’t want to starve.” Goad crouches to hear him. When he gets up, Jerry Quock, legendary hunter, looks up from his wheelchair and says, “Do you have a heart? You have a devil’s heart.”

The Fortune delegation goes back to the helicopter, the assistant shaking her head disdainfully. Buoyed by the strength of the Tahltan, I find a green and pleasant camping spot beside the road.

In the morning, near a washout, there’s a disabled truck. I give the driver a ride back to Tatogga. He’s a Tahltan who drives a rock truck at the new Red Chris Mine near Tatogga where they’re busy knocking the top off Todagin Mountain. He says people know it’s wrong. The Stone’s sheep are being displaced, “but nobody wants to be the first to say anything. We depend on the jobs.”

Next day, I start up the new mine road to look at Todagin Mountain where I hiked last year, but I am cheerfully turned away by a Tahltan security guard.

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