The Accidental Activist: how a back-woods crew of local yokels mobilized the North.
Shannon McPhail knows a thing or two about water.
She grew up next to the Kispiox River. She met her husband, Steve, while working as a raft guide in Alberta. And through Skeena Watershed Conservation Coalition, it’s become her life’s work to see that her children grow up enjoying the same cool, clean rivers.
But let’s be clear: The SWCC executive director never set out to be an activist. Nor did she fancy herself an environmentalist (the word twists awkwardly from her lips). A fourth-generation Kispiox Valley resident and daughter of a rancher, McPhail’s passion is for community.
“None of us have ever considered ourselves environmentalists—we considered ourselves community advocates,” says McPhail, drinking tea in her Hazelton home while her children Sarah, 4, and Grant, 7, head outside for a picnic despite the sub-zero February temperatures.
McPhail and a “backwoods crew of local yokels” founded SWCC in 2004. In December, they won their greatest battle to date when the provincial government announced a permanent ban on coalbed methane drilling in the Sacred Headwaters. In bringing together northern BC’s diverse communities—First Nations, fishermen, environmentalists—they defeated one of the world’s largest gas producers. But perhaps the biggest fight still lies ahead.
A rough road
From her kitchen overlooking the Skeena, McPhail reflects on SWCC’s decade-long journey that started when some locals came together over a proposed resource road from Kemess Mine through the Kispiox Valley, including a “hippy from Jersey” who was in the area studying grizzly bears.
Biologist Brian Huntington had recently arrived from the Rockies, where access roads had splintered grizzly bear habitat. In the North, he saw a landscape still un-fractured.
“It just blew me away,” Huntington remembers. Through his love for the land, he connected with McPhail and her brother Jim Allen, whom he joined on weeks-long trips into the backcountry. What he brought back with him was a deep appreciation for the North and images that could be shared with the rest of the world.
“My role has been to connect people with that landscape,” says Huntington, whose photos comprise the image many have of the Sacred Headwaters. “There’s no getting around that we’re not trying to save a stream on Vancouver Island or a grassland in Manitoba. This landscape is what drives any success and positive change that comes out of this office.”
Ten years later, Huntington remains SWCC’s associate director.
“We’re still the same core group of people,” McPhail says. “Nobody is doing this because they want to be an environmentalist. We’re doing this because we live here.”
The mining road was just a warm-up for the fight ahead. In 2004, Shell Canada was awarded a 400,000-hectare tenure to develop coalbed methane in the Klappan, birthplace of the Skeena, Stikine and Nass rivers.
When McPhail first heard about Shell’s plans, her reaction was pragmatic: She tried to get Steve, a high level welder, a job.
“I was like, ‘whatever, you guys.’ This country has been built on natural resource extraction,” she remembers. In the hopes of allaying growing concern and finding out about employment, McPhail called the provincial government. Someone offered to come up from Victoria — but retracted the offer when McPhail invited her community.
Instead, McPhail brought local fisheries researcher Kenny Rabnett, who asked about an environmental assessment. There would be none.
“When my dad wanted to build an outhouse in his territory he had to do an environmental assessment,” McPhail says. Worse, Shell’s project threatened water quality and wouldn’t employ locals. “It was government who created me, really. I was so angry and so upset when I left that meeting.”
McPhail describes the following year as the hardest year of her life. Her faith in government crumbled and she found herself in a role she’d previously associated with hippies and overeducated yuppies: environmental activist.
She began researching and learned that Shell could drill anywhere from 1,500 to 10,000 wells in the Sacred Headwaters. She talked to industry insiders who warned her not to let coalbed methane into her community. She did over 200 presentations and every community she presented in eventually signed a resolution opposing Shell’s plans.
Most importantly, she formed an ongoing partnership with the Tahltan First Nation, on whose territory the Sacred Headwaters sits.
In 2005, SWCC staged a protest outside Smithers’ provincial government building. Still angry and disillusioned, McPhail took to the stage and shook an angry fist at the provincial government, and gave the finger to Shell.
Merran Smith was living in Smithers and working on environmental issues when the Sacred Headwaters campaign got underway. She and other campaigners quickly realized they needed to focus McPhail’s energy.
“We had to try to tone this cowgirl down,” she says. “She definitely brought home the passion of the people and what people were prepared to do.”
McPhail was offered a week-long Canadian Environmental Leadership Program course at Hollyhock on Cortes Island. Her initial response: “I am not going.”
“First of all, it was vegan. And, you know, they do yoga and meditation,” she remembers. In the end, she consented. “I learned that a cabinet minister was not a carpenter. I learned an MP was not military police. I mean, I didn’t know the first thing about government.”
She was beginning to understand her role and the reason people fight for the environment. That they are really fighting for their community. They are advocating for landscapes and lifestyles unseen and un-experienced by urban-dwelling decision-makers.
When asked about turning points in the headwaters campaign, McPhail has only to point to a framed photograph. The image is of a man standing midstream in a river barely 30 feet wide, holding an eagle feather.
Shell was given tenure to drill near the Upper Skeena on the assumption there were no fish. The elders knew otherwise. In summer 2006, the Tahltan and SWCC stationed themselves along the river to await the salmon’s arrival.
It was August, dinnertime, and Tahltan member John Nole was sitting next to the river. He heard a splash. Although the water was only inches deep, he couldn’t find the salmon. He heard another splash. Still, no fish. They were playing with him.
Nole gathered the others and, returning to the river, found an eagle feather laying in the impression where he had been sitting. In the photo, Nole herds the salmon downstream to Huntington, who took the first image of a salmon in the Upper Skeena.
In December 2008, the province declared a moratorium on coalbed methane development in the Sacred Headwaters and SWCC turned its attention to giving back to the community. It started programs like Youth on Water and supported Ali Howard’s 2009 Skeena swim. It hosted Conservation Leadership Action Workshops to share what it had learned.
On the day the four-year moratorium was set to expire, the Province of BC announced that it had reached an agreement with the Tahltan First Nation and Shell Canada that would ban future oil and gas development in the area.
This battle is won, but the fight isn’t over. There are 39 mines currently proposed for Tahltan territory, including Fortune Minerals’ Red Chris copper-and-gold mine at Todagin Mountain, and an onslaught of liquid natural gas pipelines and processing facilities proposed for the region.
“We are being faced with the greatest threats ever: it’s the cumulative effects of all that’s being proposed,” McPhail says.
As I leave, she shows me a painting in her living room called In the Current by artist Leah Pipe. It exemplifies SWCC’s existence: Water. Salmon. Fighting an upstream battle.
“But fighting alongside your family — your community,” McPhail adds.