'We're not behind the pack anymore'
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Two communities in the Tŝilhqot'in Nation are saying "yes" - yes to clean energy solutions, yes to self-determined economic development and yes to a brighter, more sustainable future for their families and future generations.
Russell Myers Ross is chief of Yuneŝit'in (known in English as 'Stone' or 'Stoney') and Michelle Myers is from Xeni Gwet'in (known as Nemiah Valley), two communities in the Tŝilhqot'in Nation, located in the interior of B.C. (about a six hour drive northeast of Vancouver). Both Ross and Myers are working hard to develop their local economy and manage its resources in a way that aligns with their values, culture and laws as Tŝilhqot'in people.
Ross, who has been chief of his community for the past six years, sees the Dasiqox Tribal Park as a way for his people to actively exercise their rights and title rather than waiting to see whether the government will meet or fail in its duties to consult and accommodate.
For Michelle Myers, clean energy sources such as solar, wind, geothermal, and run-of-river hydro are the types of projects her community can stand behind, different from Canada's historical extractive industrial practices, which have either devastated or damaged some lands, waters and Indigenous ways of life.
Those extractive industries are represented locally by Taseko Mines Ltd, which first proposed to mine the mineral wealth under Tŝilhqot'in territory in 2008 and was last seen earlier this month in a Vancouver court pushing for an expansive “exploratory drilling” plan to go ahead. The legal battle continues.
"The history of Canada is based off of the extraction of resources and the expansion of large industries, and First Nations communities have been affected directly," Myers said in an interview by a campfire at Konni Lake, in her home community in Xeni. It was the last day of school before spring break and her and other parents joined the kids to skate around Konni Lake, drink hot chocolate and get some ice fishing in before the weather got too warm.
The projects communities such as Xeni and Yuneŝit'in are embarking on help to break that cycle and create a sustainable economic model worthy of emulating across the country.
"We’re not behind the pack anymore,” Myers said. “We’ve done a lot of work within our communities to heal and deal with the traumas we’ve been forced to go through because of colonization and assimilation and now we're becoming involved with the economy in ways that align with who we are and who our communities are."
The Tŝilhqot'in Nation has spent an unquantifiable amount of time, energy and resources in Canadian courts. They are the only nation to have won 'Aboriginal title' in a groundbreaking 2014 Supreme Court decision, which took over 25 years.
One of their longest battles has been to protect Teztan Biny (Fish Lake) and the surrounding area from the development of Taseko’s proposed open-pit copper and gold mine. The nation says its way of life would be threatened by any exploratory drilling, road and camp construction at the site and that the project calls for the burial of the sacred lake in order for a tailings pond to be dug into the land above it.
But residents of the city of Williams Lake who are interested in the economic development of the area started asking Chief Ross "if not an open-pit mine, then what?"
The people of Yuneŝit'in and Xeni started talking about what measures they could take to protect their lands and waters that was not imposed within a provincial and federal framework. Through open forums, forums with chief and council and staff, they reached a consensus that there was no time to wait for anyone else’s permission to protect their vision for a protected area, cared for by Tŝilhqot'in laws.
"We explored the concept of a tribal park, based on the Tla-o-qui-aht's tribal park," Chief Ross said.
The Meares Island tribal park in Tla-o-qui-aht territory was originally declared to protect the area from further logging, but the nation has since installed salmon-spawning pools and developed a culturally-grounded land-use plan.
One month after the Tŝilhqot'in won their historic title fight in the Supreme Court, they announced the creation of the Dasiqox Tribal Park. The park's governance team then put together a strategy report, based on the community engagement sessions. Jonaki Bhattacharyya, who built relationships with the Tŝilhqot'in nation through her grad studies, was called in to help fundraise, develop the idea, hire a coordinator and provide support.
Bhattacharyya, based in Victoria, travels to Tŝilhqot'in territory almost monthly to provide research and management support to Dasiqox Tribal Park and the Tŝilhqot'in Nation. She said in an interview that the governance team conducted extensive interviews with 70 people in both communities, following the highest standards of Indigenous community-based research methodologies, with consent from each member.
It was a lengthy process in which Bhattacharyya and others recorded, translated and analyzed interviews. Suitably coded, they could be combined with research on Indigenous Protected Areas. The end result is a consensus-built community vision, guiding principles, management goals, and strategies.
A summary of the vision document is now public, with initial consultations with nearby non-Indigenous residents producing both support and opposition. The Dasiqox governance team (Yuneŝit'in and Xeni leadership and technical advisors) is in the process of writing the management plan, which will guide actions taken on the ground. There are also regular open houses and community dinners, plus General Assembly meetings in each community to discuss the Tribal Park, Bhattacharyya told National Observer.
"The idea was to turn Canada's consultation process on its head," Chief Ross said. "We're in the position of consulting others about what we're doing, and keeping it true to being Indigenous-led."
We can do a better job
"There are areas where there's sulphur leaching into water from a previous mine, or mine equipment left to disintegrate and rot, or where there's acid drainage puking up from the mountains...a viral red rusty colour into the watershed… areas where people have left camps or oil drums all over the place," Chief Ross said. "There's a huge amount of waste and it has never been properly regulated by the provincial government."
The disrespect on sacred ancestral lands and waters from outsiders has created a sort of "bad blood" between communities living there and the mining and forestry companies that come to exploit the area, Chief Ross said.
An 'out-of-site, out-of-mind' mentality means the implications of decisions aren’t always considered. For many Indigenous peoples, who rely on clean water and healthy ecosystems for survival and cultural wellbeing or who are located near camps and facilities, consequences of mismanagement are unavoidable.
"The impetus of the tribal park is to take some level of responsibility ourselves, not only to encourage our own cultural practices and everything that fits within our laws, but also trying to say that we can probably do a better job than the provincial and federal government if we're able to manage it the way we want," Chief Ross said.
Dasiqox tribal park crosses Xeni and Yuneŝit'in traditional territories, and rubs right up against declared title lands (the nation won title over about 20 per cent of their entire territory in 2014 and continue to fight for title in other areas). It includes the sacred Teztan Biny (Fish Lake) and the proposed site of Taseko Mines’ open-pit gold and copper mine.
The recognition the nation wants for Dasiqox from the federal and provincial governments would essentially make Taseko’s mining project untenable, since the Supreme Court ruling on its land claim gave the communities the right to hunt, trap and harvest on those areas of their traditional territory to which it did not grant them exclusive control.
While developing the park's vision and creating a management plan, Dasiqox tribal park also supports initiatives such as a Traditional Parenting research project, led by Michelle Myers; an ecosystem-based assessment of ecological restoration needs with Silva (Herb Hammond); and a series of revitalizing Indigenous fire management workshops with Vic Steffenson and Gathering Voices Society.
Dasiqox staff and advisors are also working to secure interim protections for the park area at the Nenqay Deni Accord table. The Accord is "a “made-in-Tŝilhqot’in” agreement signed on February 11, 2016 outlining a five-year framework for discussions between the nation and British Columbia “to advance and achieve a lasting reconciliation for the Tŝilhqot’in peoples," the Tŝilhqot’in website states.
At the federal level, the tribal park governance team has discussed whether Dasiqox should be considered an Indigenous Protected and Conserved Area (the federal government has made $175 million in funding available as part of a pledge to double the amount of protected land in Canada by 2020) and has applied for funding to help with cabin-building projects, ecological restoration, and to sustain its Guardian program.
A thorn the size of a mine
The tribal park surrounds Teztan Biny (Fish Lake), the sacred area threatened by Taseko’s proposed mine and early exploratory efforts. The nation has been fighting the development for almost 30 years now. Every time the company requests permission to disrupt the area, the nation goes back to court, spending more money, time and energy, back and forth to Vancouver, to stall the activity.
"It's heartbreaking for the communities to have to keep putting energy into this," Chief Ross told me. "It's heartbreaking to have to constantly go back to something that you feel like you've dealt with."
There are laws that the B.C. and Canadian governments have that allow for companies to keep coming back, even when they've been told "no," because think they have the right to property and ownership over land that has never been given up, Chief Ross said.
"I think there's a huge gap with Crown legislation trying to accept the reality of Aboriginal title, and the next steps on real reconciliation," he said. "We're caught in between this moment where the provincial and federal governments haven't quite implemented laws around consent or respect for Indigenous nations' authority on the land."
Chief Ross has been frustrated, for years, dealing with the ongoing mine dispute. There's so much willingness and desire among his people to put energy into other initiatives, like moving ahead with the tribal park, he said, rather than being in a constant state of defense. Despite the burden of never-ending court battles, Chief Ross' community has made progress on its goals, slipping in to nail down one of the last energy purchase agreements before B.C. Hydro's standing offer program was suspended indefinitely.
Solar hot spot
The Chilcotin region is one of five places to receive the most sunlight year-round in B.C., making solar energy an easy decision for the nation. Before the Site C dam and hydroelectric generating station was approved by the province, which essentially eliminated the possibility for independent energy projects for First Nations across B.C., the nation was able to build the first large-scale power plant owned and operated by a First Nation in Western Canada.
The plant is a one megawatt (MW) solar farm, to be fully constructed by the end of April, and Chief Ross said his community is already planning to construct two or three more over the summer. The nation worked with Ecosmart for technical and financial advice on the project, which involved converting a closed sawmill into a solar farm. The project will generate clean energy, a move that would support local communities by creating jobs and business opportunities and increasing technical capacity.
In Ross' community of Yuneŝit'in, they’ve built three 30 metre by 12 metre (90 x 40 foot) greenhouses, to produce fresh vegetables such as tomatoes and lettuce. Growing edibles at the greenhouses will increase food security, encourage healthy eating habits, and create the first full-time jobs in Yuneŝit'in that aren’t on either the federal or provincial government’s payroll or otherwise funded or subsidized by them.
'Clean energy can turn the tables for our communities'
Michelle Myers spent most of her life in her home community in Xeni, where some off-the-grid homes don't have electricity and rely on diesel generators for power. Myers is passionate about clean energy and is just about to begin community engagement sessions with all six Tŝilhqot'in communities, to educate the people on what clean energy is and what different options are available, and hear which direction people want to go.
"For me, clean energy, renewable energy sources, like solar panels, wind turbines, hydropower, geothermal, biomass, all of those resources align with who we are as Indigenous and First Nations people, especially within the Tŝilhqot'in Nation," Myers told me, bundled up by the fire on the west side of Konni Lake. "We’ve always been very connected to our lands and our territories and utilized it the best way we could."
Myers said she grew up hearing stories from her father and mother, about how closely aligned they and their parents, grandparents and great-grandparents were with their lands and territories. She learned about traditions which used resources with respect, which ensured the longevity of that resource for future generations, she said.
"Clean energy is a route that provides for the energy needs we have within our communities and within the Tŝilhqot'in Nation, but it's also a route for our people to be actively involved in an economy that doesn't destroy our environment."
The history of Canada, she said, was built on and based off of the extraction of resources and the expansion of large industries, like the mining and logging industries, to the detriment of Indigenous peoples. But clean energy offers solutions to the traumas caused through colonization, in a way that aligns with Indigenous values.
"Clean energy can turn the tables for our communities, because we can have full control, plan for ourselves, and be able to execute our own solutions, in ways that don't damage our territories," Myers said. "We can provide an economy without destroying the environment or going with mining, oil and gas, or further increasing logging activities."
Act of sovereignty
"There are about 100 First Nations communities in Canada that aren’t connected to any type of electricity or electricity resource," Myers said, “which reflects the ongoing colonial and assimilative behaviours of the Canadian government in withholding very basic resources and necessities for communities to be able to survive in a good way."
Myers said she sees Indigenous communities stepping up and taking their power back, making decisions to be self-determining and self-reliant, taking more control of resources and resource-management in a continued act of resistance.
"For communities to say they're going to do it on their own is not only an act of resiliency, but sovereignty. We’re not going to wait for anybody to provide something on a silver platter for us, and we’re not going to continue to rely on an outside government, or an industry that thinks about us in hindsight," Myers said. "As the Tŝilhqot'in nation, we’re taking the lead and stepping forward to take full control right from the beginning."
Editor's note: Due to an editorial error, an unedited version of this article was published on March 28, 2019. It was subsequently updated with stylistic changes at 6:00 p.m. ET on the same day.