Northword Magazine, Tahltan blockade feature

Renegade Park

🕔Dec 12, 2005

“Some folks call it ‘Renegade Park,’” laughs a Tahltan elder, nodding to the oasis of tents mushroomed amongst the pine trees, overlooking a silver lake and mountains beyond.

The encampment sits just off Highway 37, along a road into the Klappan/Spatsizi Region. And, depending on your perspective, into a reported eight trillion cubic feet of methane gas, a 200 million tonnes coal property and a proposed open-pit copper mine. Or, into “North America’s Serengeti,” a mountain with the planet’s greatest concentration of stone sheep and osborne caribou, as well as the “sacred headwaters” of three of the largest watersheds on the west coast of B.C.

The only barrier between these two conflicting visions for the land is a sign that reads “Tahltan Industrial Blockade” and a few dozen Tahltan elders. It is a soft blockade, meaning all can pass, unless you are pulling a drill rig. Respected elders or renegades, depending on your view, have already turned one convoy of Fortune Minerals trucks back.

Fundamentally, the conflict is over a difference of visions. But the spark that ignited the blockade, and before it an elders’ occupation of the band office at Telegraph Creek, was lack of consultation. Or rather, consulting with the wrong people.

“The jurisdiction of the ‘duly elected’ band chief only applies to the Telegraph Reserve,” says Lillian Moyer (Tiger Lil), a band councillor and one of 35 elders who took over the Telegraph Creek Band Office Jan. 17, 2005.

“For the last two years, our band chief has been travelling the world talking up mining on aboriginal land and meeting with mining companies in secret without consulting us, not to mention signing memorandums of understanding which we still haven’t read. The irony is, the companies have been dealing with a man with no authority.”

As the story goes, an elder, Bobby Quock, 84, awoke one January morning to the realization that the Tahltan people were looking down the bulldozer blades of four mega mining projects that year, with a dozen more waiting in the wings. “Enough is enough,” he told his younger brother Roy, and the two trundled down to the band office.

The first test of the elders’ resolve came a month later when Shell Canada, promoting its coalbed methane proposal for the headwaters of the Skeena, Nass and Stikine watersheds, came to Telegraph. But the sit-in elders had found their direction, and Shell was delivered a statement of moratorium that there would be no further drilling on Tahltan land until the leadership dispute is resolved and there is open consultation with all Tahltan people.

Realizing they hadn’t consulted the right people, Shell agreed. Fortune Minerals, of London, Ontario, however, did not, and in late August they were granted a court injunction plus authorization for immediate arrests for non-compliance.


It is Sept. 16, the day arrests are scheduled to begin. For two weeks, the regional MLA Dennis McKay and local media have been calling for the arrests of the “dissidents” and “renegades.” For the Tahltan elders, this is their first blockade, and for the last week everyone has been nervous. The day before, a delegation of chiefs from the Wet’suwet’en Nation arrived to show support. And following a welcoming feast of moose and music, their fears turn to resolve.

A giant council teepee is erected at the edge of Highway 37. Dempsey Quock, who has been living at the blockade since day one, is peeling poles. “I’ve done a few things I’m not proud of, but being part of this,” he nods to the blockade, “makes me real proud!”

The teepee tarps are donated. And in spite of the rumor that someone has contributed a million dollars to the blockade, everything is either gathered from the land or donated, sometimes by no less than the gods.

For example, the blockade went up just as the salmon were coming into the lower Stikine River, putting many elders in a dilemma: stay in Telegraph and fish, or remain on the blockade. They chose the latter, although still worried about their winter’s food. Then, one night, a semi-truck goes off the highway not far from the encampment. Its cargo: Alaskan salmon, gutted and beheaded, ready for smoking.

Arrest morning is occupied with media interviews. Rhoda Quock, whose family started the blockade, speaks of their personal quandary. On one hand, they discovered that Fortune Minerals was moving into the headwaters only when her husband, Peter, got a call to drive heavy equipment for them. On the other hand, she knows the land intimately, having spent her summers at her father’s ancestral camp in the Klappan.

“We discussed it amongst the family. And realized that even though Peter might have to go elsewhere to work after this, we had no other choice; we had to blockade.” The dust had hardly settled from parking their pickup across the road when the drill rigs arrived.

There’s a myth about the benefits of mining, says Oscar Dennis, who with his father James is a spokesperson for the family whose territory the proposed mine would occupy. “Mining companies haven’t helped northern communities beyond jobs. They contribute nothing of a lasting social infrastructure. We have nothing in our communities for the youth or the elders—no hockey rinks, swimming pools, not even elders’ facilities. In the last two years there have been seven suicides!”

Even the issue of jobs is a double-edged sword. As Dennis points out, locals could fill only a small percentage of the work force of four mega-projects. Consequently, rural communities would be swamped by thousands of outsiders. “We are not against development. It is the rate that will destroy our land and our people.”

Writer Wade Davis, who has a summer residence on the Klappan Road, expands: “In B.C., forestry and fisheries are all based upon sustainable development. Mining is ‘boom and bust’, riding the tide of world mineral prices. What the North needs is sustainable mining. Which is preferable, seven mines in one generation or one mine at a time for seven generations?”

“The Mounties are coming!” calls a kid from a ridge overlooking the highway. A tall, stately woman with spiked grey hair and wearing a red and black button blanket steps onto the road. “I wish I had my stop sign,” she mutters, raising her hand like Moses before the Red Sea. The police cars come to a dramatic halt. No one moves. Finally, she walks out to the lead car. Two senior officers are invited to a meeting with the leaders in the large council tent.

The elders sit in a semi-circle, a table between them and the two Mounties. Nobody from Fortune Minerals is present. James Dennis speaks first about the land and its history. “Our land is not for sale!” he concludes. A copy of the moratorium is read.

In turn, the two senior Mounties read the terms of the injunction. They have to enforce it. It is all done with great respect on both sides. “Where do you want to be arrested?” asks Corporal Fred Roach. Up at the blockade site, someone says.

The first one to stand in front of the advancing Fortune Minerals truck is Tiger Lil. She is informed that she will be arrested if she refuses to step aside. Defiantly she speaks to the crowd about the original sit-in, the blockade, and her commitment to the land. She is handcuffed and led away.

Another woman steps up on the road. “Grandma,” cries a young child. “What are they doing to grandma?” he wails. One after the other, elders come forward to be arrested and handcuffed. Then something occurs that impresses even the Mounties. “I am going to jail,” says James Dennis solemnly. “In front of my grandson, because my grandfathers for thousands of years have occupied this land and we want to protect it. This is a sad and shameful day.”

“Look!” someone cries, “an eagle!” All eyes turn skyward to a golden eagle circling slowly and deliberately above the blockade.

Epilogue: 15 people are arrested that day: nine of them over the age of 60, one in a wheelchair, and one 73-year-old great-grandmother. Two weeks later, the Telegraph Creek sit-in ends after 260 days of continuous occupation. The Department of Indian Affairs strips the chief of his powers and puts the band in third-party receivership. The Tahltan blockade is put on hold pending a court hearing Oct. 31 in Terrace. Hundreds of First Nations from across northern B.C. gather to support the Tahltan elders for their day in court. Only days before the scheduled hearing, Fortune Minerals gets the Crown to drop all charges.
Ironically, just days before the arrests, the provincial government announced that $100 million would be earmarked for improving First Nations relations.