Caleb Behn is a 34 year old Eh-Cho Dene and Dunne-Za lawyer from Treaty 8 territory in Northeastern BC. He is currently working for the West Moberly First Nation, one of only two First Nations still contesting the Site C dam in the courts, as Director of the Lands department. He is also the Executive Director of the Keepers Of The Water Society, a non-profit focused on watershed stewardship and advocacy throughout the Arctic drainage basin.
Caleb is the subject of the award winning documentary film Fractured Land. He currently divides his time between his territory and his ongoing public advocacy regarding unconventional energy development.
Do you consider yourself an activist?
I don’t consider myself an activist, although a lot of people call me one. Personally, I don’t think I’m an activist because as a lawyer I’m bound by the laws of British Columbia, the laws of Canada, so I would say I’m an advocate, not an activist.
I’m researching, like today, I’m looking at National Energy Board issues, Canadian Environmental Assessment process issues, neonicotinoids, and endocrine-disrupting chemicals and their role, and how to test them in a large bio-monitoring initiative in northeastern British Columbia. That’s just what’s on my plate right now, along with many BC Hydro projects on top of the Site C Dam project.
I still resist that activist characterization, because I’m not a professional activist. I’m just a Native guy from northeast BC who really cares about my land, and who had to dedicate myself to saving it for future generations.
I’m not anti-industry, I’m anti-stupidity – which is why I took on fracking. It’s a really unwise, dangerous technology. And it’s not that I have an axe to grind with industry, its not that I’m some bleeding heart, I’m not sleeping in trees surrounded by crystals, I own a large truck. I kill animals regularly, it’s a part of my culture. But if I can be effective and inspire some people and expand the debate and make some meaningful contributions, then that’s enough for me.
When did you begin to take a stand and who inspired you?
The Pine River oil spill which I cleaned when I was 19 cemented my direction. It was in my family’s territory and grandpa Dokkie’s trap line. But I’m really born into all of it. [I was inspired by] my grandfather, Chief John Dokkie Sr., my grandfather Chief George Behn and my father Richard Behn who was the manager for the Treaty 8 Tribal Association from when I was four until I was eight, and my mother, Chief Carylin Greatbanks. When I formally got involved in a serious way was when I came home after my undergraduate degree. I came home to spend time with my family and learn my language and instead got wrapped up in the war [against unchecked resource extraction].
What inspired you to pursue a law degree?
I felt disempowered. I felt like I chose law because I was making very compelling arguments, but people weren’t listening until I got my lawyers to send it, so I began to appreciate their power. I made the conscious decision to seek that [law] when I became frustrated with everything I saw in my territory.
You are currently writing a book scheduled to be published in 2017. Can you give us a synopsis?
What I’m trying to do is develop a short-, medium- and long-term strategy to alter how we engage with resources. I think that Canada, Northeast BC, and Treaty 8, represent the critical nexus we have to get right as a species, and I’d like to tell that story by telling the stories of myself, my family and my land, because those are the only things I have a right to. And my story is a story of bigger issues. “Fractured Land” was about opening people up to the idea of a more complicated story, and now I’m trying to tell that story in a way that draws out the very meaningful and tangible analysis and strategies and mechanics to make change.
Are you finding support for what you’re doing?
I’ve been gone for 11 years from my community for my education. That means that people don’t know me, they haven’t seen me, they see me as an outsider. The reason I left was to get knowledge and skills so I could come home, but then you come home and you find yourself isolated. Because now I’m not just another “one of us” – I’m a lawyer, so there’s a consequence to doing that. I’ll never think about things the way I did before. And I made the choice, but I can’t go back. This legal training trains you to think and analyze in a very structured way and you can’t undo that training. It changes how you view the world.
There’s a lot of people who send me well wishes and there’s a lot of people who see “Fractured Land” and are really stoked and motivated, but the truth is that being a public figure is really isolating. I’m trying to be a very accountable man, accounting for my privilege, my place in the world [and] it’s pretty lonely, frankly. When people who have been doing this work for a long time, you know, real legends, take me aside and say “I get it, and you’re doing the right thing,” that’s helpful. The truth is, I don’t get a lot of those moments, but those matter. And also any work with kids – I love working with youth. It refills my spirit and it helps me see why this is important.
What has it been like for you to take a public stand, living in the Treaty 8 lands where many people are dependent on the oil and gas industry?
It’s brutal to be ostracized and isolated because you’re fighting for something bigger than a pay cheque. And that’s within my community, not within the larger non-indigenous community – which is even worse.
And most people are so colonized and so materialistic, and have families to account for. I’m not hating on it, but most people aren’t willing to sacrifice their comfort and their privilege. My allies, a lot of your readership, they don’t see the complexity up here, because this is the sacrifice zone. So people have issue-specific activism in the south. You can be an activist for missing and murdered women, you can be an activist on Enbridge – we don’t have that privilege up here, and that means that I make enemies all over. So the truth is that I’m not very healthy, this is killing me. I survive off of coffee and rage. And the belief that there is something better on the far side of this.
What is it that sustains you?
I truly believe that someone’s gotta fight this stuff, and present a viable, clean, energy future and protect some of what we have left. The Canadian boreal forest is one of the three largest ancient roughly intact forest systems on the planet, the other two being the Amazon, which produces 40 per cent of the world’s oxygen, and the Russian Taiga. But of those three great lungs of the planet, ours is the only one with a fairly robust legal jurisdiction that could protect it long-term. And within that legal jurisdiction, First Nations specifically represent both legal and cultural uniqueness and distribution that could underpin a long-term survival for one of the three great lungs of the planet. And that’s why I go head-to-head with [everybody] on a daily basis, because history will absolve us.
We’re on the right side of history, we’re on the right side of energy equations, we’re on the right side of being accountable, responsible beings on this planet, and that’s the thing that keeps me from the dark.
Claire Gilmore is the Watershed Sentinel intern this winter.
Photo Credit Zack Embree, Two Island Films