Elders with e-mail -- government and industry take note

Jamie Kneen

National Program Co-Lead

Column by Stephen Hume, The Vancouver Sun, February 5, 2005

Last June, the province was trumpeting breakthrough relationships with first nations as a welcome to new investment capital for British Columbia's mining sector.

Initiatives with first nations like the Tahltan of northwestern B.C. aimed to assure certainty for mining investors. The Liberals continued to push this theme in their Mining Plan, released in mid-January.

Prominent in the literature promoting new relationships between government, industry and aboriginal peoples is articulate Tahltan Chief Jerry Asp, who's now the government's pro-development poster boy.

"Relations have definitely improved," Asp is quoted as saying in a government newsletter. "We wanted to send a signal that the Tahltan people are supportive of mining on their land... We want to make sure that any mining that happens on our traditional land is a win-win for all parties -- the Tahltan people, the mining industry and the government."

The newsletter quotes Dan Jepsen, executive director of the B.C. and Yukon Chamber of Mines, describing Tahltan support as a major step toward the certainty industry requires.

So imagine the surprise when, on Jan. 17, a group of 35 traditional Tahltan elders, some of them in their mid-80s, occupied the band office in Telegraph Creek to protest mining development on their territory and repudiated Chief Asp's authority to speak on their behalf.

They were still there, 18 days later, when I called the band office Thursday. Elder Pat Etzerza told me they have no intention of leaving any time soon, despite the fact that Asp has obtained an injunction that would legally oust them.

The chief sighed when I asked him where things stood.

"You tell me," he said from his home in Dease Lake. "Me and my council can't figure this out."

Asp confirmed he has indeed obtained an injunction to clear the band office -- "I can use it any time" -- but said he was reluctant to invoke the law against elders he thinks are being exploited. "It's the elders who have to settle this."

Oscar Dennis, a Tahltan graduate of the University of Northern B.C. with degrees in first nations studies and anthropology, said he recognizes the horns of the dilemma upon which Asp finds himself. Bringing outsider's law down on elders might well prove an act of political suicide.

Asp said he's supported by a Tahltan majority and he'd soon talk to other elders as well as those he says are being misled and exploited by outside interests -- environmentalists, feminists and agitators from other tribal groups.

"We elders have been used as window dressing," countered Etzerza. "The window blinds have been closed to us. Well, the elders have learned how to open the blinds. We're talking accountability, transparency and responsibility. That's all we're asking."

A tiny community of 450 on the Stikine River about 1,000 kilometres northwest of Vancouver, Telegraph Creek and the tribulations of Chief Asp might seem a blip on the consciousness of the Lower Mainland. But it serves as a powerful reminder of something that government and industry frequently fail to take into account.

First, aboriginal government is far deeper and more complex than many mainstream politicians and business leaders comprehend. The elected forms of government imposed by the Indian Act rest, sometimes uncomfortably, upon governing structures that reach back to the beginning of time for many of these communities -- and sometimes seem invisible to outsiders.

Relationships among elected leaders, people on the land and elders who are custodians of the traditional culture are influenced by the complicated dynamics of ancient family territorial jurisdictions, hereditary clan ranks and affiliations, and rights to intellectual property based on lineages legitimized by principles that don't apply in mainstream culture.

Elders such as those occupying the band office in Telegraph Creek, for example, have a moral suasion in aboriginal communities that simply does not exist in mainstream society, where seniors are routinely marginalized -- turn 65 and you're out -- and their social role trivialized.

Second, elected aboriginal councils with which mainstream government and industry prefer to deal, remain a colonial -- and therefore suspect -- veneer upon these older forms of government.

Third, the era of colonization is ending. Nobody, least of all aboriginal communities, wants to return exclusively to the old ways, but traditional forms of governance -- as they have been in the Nisga'a Treaty -- will have to be acknowledged and accommodated.

So if government and industry are sincere about wanting to establish certainty in resource development, they are going to have to get past the temptation to stage dog-and-pony shows that amount to public relations exercises.

Too often these events only pay lip service to genuine consultation. What set off the Tahltan eruption, it seems, was a pro-development session that Dennis said industry considered consultation but which offended many elders because "all they did was tell us their plans for exploiting resources on our territory."

Protests like the one taking place in Telegraph Creek, whatever the cause of the breakdown in relations between the chief and a significant faction of his band members, are a reminder that in the age of elders with e-mail, the old way of doing business is ending.

In future, consultations must be genuine. They should be organized not by public relations specialists but by anthropologists and aboriginal advisers who are sensitive to both the official and the unofficial power structures in communities.

They have to involve everybody on a forthright and honest basis, particularly elders. Industry must learn to listen as well as talk.

The alternative is more upheavals like the one tearing apart Telegraph Creek, where there is indeed a signal being sent to other first nations in B.C. -- but it's hardly the one endorsed by glowing government propaganda and industrial public relations.

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