Tahltan moratorium heats up the northwest

“We declare a complete moratorium on resource development in our territory.”

These words, in a statement issued by the Elders of the Tahltan Nation last week, have sparked controversy in BC’s northwest, where big energy companies like Shell thought they were going to get a virtually free ride, thanks to agreements they were negotiating privately with some members of the Tahltan who lacked the authority to speak for theNation’s traditional territory.

The story is another example of the BC government being only too willing to avoid its consultation responsibilities, handing them off to companies that claim they have agreements with the First Nations. As the recent Haida case makes clear, the government has a much greater responsibility than that. Its failure to properly consult and accommodate the Tahltan people has forced the Elders to take this unusual step.

As recent media coverage such as today’s Tyee story¬†indicates, the Tahltan Elders are becoming active. They have occupied the Telegraph Creek band office, making the point that the chief elected under the Indian Act, whose authority only extends to the boundary of the Indian Reserve, is not acting on behalf of the people. And they’ve declared a moratorium on development until proper consultation and accommodation can begin. Their statement puts all the companies pushing major development projects in the region on notice that they don’t have the legal right to start operations.

The Tahltan statement starts with an explanation of their traditional governance of their lands:

      We,the Tahltan People, historically a sovereign nation have occupied our traditional territories since time immemorial. Our culture is organized through a matrilineal clan system. This has always been and remains our broad governing structure. Tahltan Elders held the responsibility to uphold Tahltan beliefs, customs, values and laws for future generations.
      Our inherent rights are given by Creator and cannot be diminished or removed by any law including discriminatory government legislation such as the Indian Act. … Tahltan land remains Unceded territory, which has never been surrendered or taken in war or conquest. We will defend in any way necessary our rights and freedoms,to be self-determining.

The statement has led to a confrontation with spokespeople for Shell, who thought they had finessed the need for meaningful consultation by finding a Band chief who was willing to sign a memorandum of understanding last fall.

TheElders’ position is supported by the Iskut Band Chief Louis Louie, who stood with Tahltan elders on March 2 and confronted Shell, saying that the MOU is not valid.

The government, Shell, and other development companies are doing their best to spin the story, saying they tried their best, and that it’s unfair to expect them to know whom to consult. But the reality is they didn’t try to genuinely consult;they tried to find the easiest way to get around the “hurdle” (in their minds) of Aboriginal rights.

As the Tahltan Elders are showing, that’s not good enough.

When Shell representatives showed up in Telegraph Creek for a meeting onMarch 2, they somewhat slowly realized that were not being ceremonially welcomed – rather, they were ceremoniously being told to leave. And leave they did, promptly, in their private jet.

The next steps for the Elders are to develop a process for consultation,and to continue to keep the pressure on the companies and the federal and provincial governments, to participate in that process.

We’ll keep readers posted about this story as it develops.

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