The Tahltan Nation is based in northwest British Columbia. It has approximately 5,000 members, and includes two Bands: the Tahltan Indian Band (with headquarters at Telegraph Creek) and the Iskut First Nation (with headquarters at Iskut). Each Band operates under the Indian Act and is part of the Dease Lake-based Tahltan Central Council (TCC), which represents the Bands on issues of joint concern.
The Tahltan traditional territory is a massive area, which, at 93,500 square kilometers, makes up 11 per cent of British Columbia. The area is rich in natural resources such as gold, copper, silver, forestry, salmon and wildlife. The history of mining in Tahltan territory dates back thousands of years to when the Tahltan people would extract obsidian from Mt. Edziza. Modern mining in their territory dates to 1861, when gold was discovered on the Stikine River.
While more than 50 per cent of all mineral exploration and mine development in British Columbia takes place Tahltan territory, the Tahltan have not always benefitted from mining and mineral exploration. In the 1980s, unemployment on reserve was 98 per cent in winter and 65 per cent in summer. To take advantage of economic opportunities related to mining, the Tahltan created the Tahltan Nation Development Corporation (TNDC).
Over the next 25 years, TNDC became one of the largest native-owned and operated heavy construction companies in Canada, creating hundreds of jobs for members, and more than 20 joint ventures companies to service the mining industry. Along the way, it created economic development policies for the mining industry that have been copied by Indigenous communities around the world.
Tahltan Nation Development Corporation
In 1985, the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) was seeking a contractor to build 10 homes in Telegraph Creek. The Tahltan created the Tahltan Nation Development Corporation so they could bid on the contract, which they won.
TNDC is owned by the the Tahltan Band, Iskut Band and the Tahltan Central Council. Its mission is to enable the Tahltan to participate in the economic activities and development occurring in their traditional territory and provide employment, training and contracting opportunities to Tahltan members.
Since it began, TNDC has been guided by the 1910 Declaration of the Tahltan Tribe, which affirms Tahltan ownership and sovereignty over the Tahltan territory. While TNDC’s founding principles were aimed at creating new economic opportunities in the Tahltan territory, they placed an equally high priority on protecting the environment and the Tahltan way of life.
Initially, TNDC focused on construction opportunities in the mining industry. They soon expanded to road construction and maintenance, earthworks and heavy construction, gravel and mine tailing hauling, remote industrial camp operations and building construction.
It now provides specialized contracting and consulting services for the building construction, forestry, hydroelectric power, mining and road construction industries, as well as support operations in administration and accounting, ground transportation to remote sites, heavy equipment hauling and a mechanical shop for heavy equipment. Through its subsidiary, Spatsizi Remote Services, it also provides camp catering to several clients.
Today, TNDC owns and leases a modern fleet of heavy equipment that includes more than 30 bulldozers, excavators, graders, loaders, rock trucks, chippers and service vehicles.
Tahltan Resource Development Policy
In 1987, the Tahltan Central Council was about to begin talks with North American Metals Ltd., a company that was developing the Golden Bear (gold) Mine 150 kilometres west of Dease Lake. To help guide the negotiations, the Council created the Tahltan Resource Development Policy, a document that would establish the ground rules for North American Metals and other companies when it came to resource development in Tahltan territory.
The Policy stated that the Tahltan are not inherently opposed to any type of business or resource development in its traditional territory. However, before any resource development project could start, the developer would be required sign an agreement with the TCC, adhering to the following elements and principles:
- Assurance that the development will not pose a threat of irreparable environmental damage;
- Assurance that the development will not jeopardize, prejudice or otherwise compromise the outstanding Tahltan indigenous rights claim [as described in the 1910 Declaration of the Tahltan Tribe];
- Assurance that the project will provide more positive than negative social impacts on Tahltan people;
- Provision for the widest possible opportunity for education and direct employment-related training for Tahltan people in connection with the project;
- Provision for the widest possible opportunity for employment opportunities for Tahltan people with respect to all phases of the development;
- Provision for substantial equity participation by Tahltans in the total project;
- Provision for the widest possible development of Tahltan business opportunities over which the developer may have control or influence;
- Provision of the developer to assist the Tahltans to accomplish the objectives stated above by providing financial and managerial assistance and advice where deemed necessary.
BC’s first Impacts and Benefits Agreement
Using the Tahltan Resource Development Policy, the Tahltan and North American Metals negotiated BC’s first Impacts and Benefits Agreement (IBA). The Golden Bear Agreement gave the Tahltan:
- Work on building the 160 kilometre road to mine site;
- A three-year upgrading and maintenance contract for the road;
- A minimum of 20 per cent of the work force at the mine site and the right to negotiate for future contracts;
- Work building the settling ponds for the mine;
- A five-year open-pit mining contract; and
- General camp maintenance.
The mine operated until 1994, when a flood suspended operations. When operations resumed in 1997, this time as BC’s first heap leach operation (a gold extraction method), the Tahltan raised concerns about contracting opportunities and wanted further environmental testing done. Following a brief blockade, talks between the mine and the Tahltan led to an improved relationship between the two. A few months later, the Tahltan made up 35 per cent of the workforce at Golden Bear. They secured the mine camp’s catering contract, as well as the maintenance contract for the road they had blockaded. The mine continued operations until 2001.
Out of Respect
Mining and mineral exploration in Tahltan territory continued at a steady pace during the 1990s with the Snip Mine operating between 1991 and 1999 and the Eskay Creek Mine becoming Canada’s highest-grade gold mine and world’s fifth largest producer of silver.
In 2003, the North America-based International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD) was involved with numerous other global organizations in a worldwide study of sustainability and mining. As part of the study, the IISD developed a process to study the impact of mining on Indigenous communities. The process included Seven Questions to Sustainability, which examined the health, social, cultural, environmental and economic implications of mining and mineral activity.
The Seven Questions to Sustainability were:
- Engagement: Are engagement processes in place and working effectively?
- People: Will people’s well-being be maintained or improved?
- Environment: Is the integrity of the environment assured over the long term?
- Economy: Is the economic viability of the project or operation assured, and will the economy of the community and beyond be better off as a result?
- Traditional and Non-market Activities: Are traditional and non-market activities in the community and surrounding area accounted for in a way that is acceptable to the local people?
- Institutional Arrangements and Governance: Are rules, incentives, programs and capacities in place to address project or operational consequences?
- Synthesis and Continuous Learning: Does a full synthesis show that the net result will be positive or negative in the long term, and will there be periodic reassessments?
In April of 2003, the Tahltan held the Tahltan Mining Symposium in Dease Lake. Using the IISD process and the Seven Questions to Sustainability, 28 members of the Tahltan Nation, nine representatives from industry and government, and a facilitator from IISD looked at the past, present and hoped-for future relationship between the Tahltan people and the mining industry.
One of the goals of the Symposium was to develop a strategy to ensure that future mining and mineral exploration is positive to the Tahltan people and their traditional territory over the long term. Using the findings of the Symposium and input from the Tahltan people in the months following the gathering, the Tahltan Nation and IISD published Out of Respect: The Tahltan, Mining, and the Seven Questions to Sustainability, in early 2004.
The report increased transparency for investors by describing the conditions under which the Tahltan people would support exploration and mining projects within their territory. The Tahltan strategy for action included:
- Sending a signal that Tahltan people are supportive of mining and mineral activity on their land under conditions that such activities are “done right” from a Tahltan perspective;
- Facilitating Tahltan participation in mining and mineral activity—not only through direct and indirect employment, but also in terms of overall management/co-management, as well as the broad perspective of seeing a fair distribution (considering all participating interests) of all benefits, costs and risks; and
- Ensuring that the broad range of concerns raised in the “Seven Questions to Sustainability” are addressed, in particular the health/social/cultural implications of mining/mineral activity that continue to receive inadequate attention.
In addition to recommendations for industry and government, Out of Respect also provided a comprehensive list of action items for the Tahltan related to internal and external communications, progress monitoring, program funding, capacity building, policy development, and business development.
One recommendation from Out of Respect was that the Tahltan develop a business plan to provide a wide range of services to the mining/mineral industry, such as exploration services, reclamation and restoration services, environmental monitoring, social/cultural monitoring, and recruiting and placement services.
Since then, establishing partnerships with select service providers has become a key part of TNDC’s growth strategy. These joint ventures enable non-Indigenous companies to participate in and benefit from development projects occurring in Tahltan territory and help TNDC expand its range of services and capabilities.
As of 2013, TNDC has created more than 20 partnerships that generate revenue as well as job creation and training opportunities for Nation members. The corporation is a major employer in the territory and employs up to 120 people during the peak construction season, making it the largest non-government employer in the region. TNDC accounts for four to five million in wages paid annually to local Tahltan workers.
In addition to earth works, heavy construction and camp services, the Tahltan Nation Development Corporation provides a comprehensive range of other services through its joint ventures, including:
- Bridge construction
- Camp rentals
- Communication services
- Drilling services
- Commercial explosive services
- Exploration services
- Engineering services
- Environmental services
- Freight hauling
- Gravel, rock hauling and aggregate processing
- Helicopter services
- Highway and industrial access road construction
- Medical services
- Pipeline construction
- Power line construction
- Summer and winter road maintenance
- Tanker hauling
- Water and waste systems
The future of mineral extraction in northwest BC will depend largely on the ability of mining companies to access the significant amounts of energy their large-scale mine developments will need. To that end, the Tahltan are playing a key role in BC’s economic future through its support and partnership in three new hydroelectric projects in its territory as well as BC Hydro high-voltage transmission line that will connect those projects to the grid.
BC Hydro’s Northwest Transmission Line (NTL) is a $561-million, 344-km project under construction between the Skeena substation (near Terrace) and a new substation to be built near Bob Quinn Lake. Approximately 70 km of the line (from Treaty Creek to Bob Quinn) and the Bob Quinn Station are in Tahltan traditional territory.
In May 2011, before construction began, the Tahltan Nation signed agreements with BC Hydro and the Province of BC, which will provide it with economic development funds, jobs, training and skills development during construction of the Northwest Transmission Line.
Providing energy to the Northwest Transmission Line are three projects in Tahltan territory that will be built operated by AltaGas.
The first is the Forrest Kerr Project, a run-of-river hydroelectric project that will generate 195 MW of energy and deliver it along a new 37 km transmission line to BC Hydro’s substation at Bob Quinn Lake. Construction on the project began in July 2010. Once complete in mid-2014, it will be the largest independent power project in BC.
In March 2013, the Province of BC signed an agreement with the Tahltan Nation regarding the Forrest Kerr Project. The Tahltan will receive at least $2.5 million annually for 60 years as a share of water rentals and land rents the provincial government will collect from AltaGas. The revenue-sharing agreement is the first one signed under BC’s First Nations Clean Energy Business Fund, which was created by the Clean Energy Act in 2010.
The Tahltan have also signed a separate agreement with AltaGas for the Forrest Kerr Project. It provides the Tahltan with:
- Cash payments connected to project key milestones,
- Revenue sharing,
- Access to contracts, employment and skills training, and
- Ownership shares in the project with an option to purchase more shares.
The McLymont Creek (55-70 megawatt) and Volcano Creek (15-18 megawatt) projects are two smaller run-of-river hydroelectric projects. IBA’s for both projects were signed with AltaGas and approved by Tahltan members in 2011, and construction for both projects is currently underway.
On the energy front, the Tahltan Nation is also embarking on a study of its own energy use with the aim of developing a Tahltan green energy plan. With the help of an energy planner provided by the Provincial government, the Tahltan will study the use of energy by their people, homes, facilities and business operations. It will also look at green energy opportunities in Tahtan communities such as wind, run-of-river, geothermal and other technologies.
The goals of the project will be to get Tahltan communities off diesel generated power, reduce energy costs and reduce their own environmental footprint.
At the same time that the Tahltan signed the Forrest-Kerr agreement with the Province in March 2013, it signed a second government-to-government agreement that will see the Tahltan Nation and the Province make joint decisions about resources, wildlife issues, mineral exploration and environmental monitoring on Tahltan lands. The agreement is especially important at a time when new hydro projects are creating new roads and infrastructure that will open up other resource development possibilities.
“We knew when we agreed to the hydro transmission line that our lives would be impacted forever,” said Annita McPhee, President of Tahltan Central Council. “We wanted to find a way to have control over the resources and the decisions that were being made in our territory. These two agreements today will let us do that.”
The agreement with the Province will also provide the Tahltan with $1.2 million over three years to access the training and technology required to better assess the environmental impacts of development in Tahltan territory.
While the Province and the Tahltan announced an agreement to stop the existing and future development of coal-bed methane extraction in the Klappan Valley in December 2012, there are 15-20 mines currently under consideration in Tahltan territory. As many as 10 of those mine could start production by 2017. The first would be the Red Chris (copper-gold) Mine, which is under construction and expected to begin operating in 2014. The Tahltan expect to conclude negotiations for an IBA with Red Chris in May 2013, and the Province has already agreed to mining tax revenue sharing with the Tahltan.
Mining has played a central role in the economic growth of the Tahltan Nation. Through the development policies and partnerships that provided transparency and certainty for the mining industry for investors, the Tahltan went from 98 per cent unemployment on reserve in 1985, to zero by 2006.
The principles and Seven Questions for Sustainability that the Tahltan put forward in the Out of Respect report are as important to them today as they were they day they were written. In fact, the report is still given to any partner looking to carry out a project on Tahltan territory.
To ensure the benefits generated today will serve future generation, the Tahltan are exploring placing portions of its IBA revenue into trust funds that could be used to pay for community programs and projects like swimming pools. The Tahltan are also exploring new economic opportunities like eco and adventure tourism that will capitalize on the majestic beauty of the lands they have fought so hard to protect.
For thousands of years, the Tahltan have been intimately connected to the majestic lands of northwest BC that have sustained them. Through innovative partnerships they have demonstrated that, under the right guidelines, development on those lands can happen in a way that balances the need for economic growth with the need to protect the environment upon which the Tahltan and all British Columbians depend.