Violating the Sacred

Rather than protect Canada’s “Serengeti,” the BC government has agreed to subsidize industrial development with Canadian taxpayer funds slated for environmental initiatives.

IN A RUGGED KNOT of mountains in the remote reaches of Northern British Columbia lies a stunningly beautiful valley known to the First Nations as the Sacred Headwaters. There, on the southern edge of the Spatsizi Wilderness, the Serengeti of Canada, are born in remarkably close proximity three of Canada’s most important salmon rivers: the Stikine, Skeena and the Nass.

IN A RUGGED KNOT of mountains in the remote reaches of Northern British Columbia lies a stunningly beautiful valley known to the First Nations as the Sacred Headwaters. There, on the southern edge of the Spatsizi Wilderness, the Serengeti of Canada, are born in remarkably close proximity three of Canada’s most important salmon rivers: the Stikine, Skeena and the Nass. In a long day, perhaps two, it is possible to walk through open meadows, following the tracks of grizzly, caribou and wolf, and drink from the very sources of the rivers that inspired so many of the great cultures of the Pacific Northwest, the Gitxsan and Wet’suwet’en, the Carrier and Sekani, the Tsimshian, Nisga’a, Tahltan, Haisla and Tlingit.

The only other place I know where such a wonder of geography occurs is in Tibet, where from the base of Mount Kailash arise three of the great rivers of Asia, the Indus, Ganges and Brahmaputra, vital arteries that bring life to more than a billion people downstream. Revered by Hindu, Buddhist and Jain, Kailash is considered so sacred that no one is allowed to walk upon its slopes, let alone climb to its summit. The thought of violating its flanks with industrial development would represent for all peoples of Asia an act of desecration beyond all imaginings. Anyone who would even dare propose such a deed would face the most severe of sanctions, in both this world and the next.

In Canada, we treat the land quite differently. Against the wishes of all First Nations, the government of British Columbia has opened the Sacred Headwaters to industrial development. These are not trivial initiatives. Imperial Metals Corporation proposes an open pit copper and gold mine processing 27,000 tonnes of ore a day from the flank of Todagin Mountain, home to the largest population of Stone’s Sheep in the world. Its tailings pond, if constructed, would drain directly into the headwater lake chain of the Iskut River, the principal tributary of the Stikine. Over its 25-year lifetime, the mine would generate 166 million tonnes of toxic tailings and 279 million tonnes of waste rock, which would need to be treated for acid mine drainage for over 200 years.

Imperial Metals’ Red Chris project is but one of several industrial schemes proposed for the Sacred Headwaters. Fortune Minerals and West Hawk Coal would tear into the headwater valley itself, on a similar scale, with open-pit anthracite coal operations that would level entire mountains.

The largest project, proposed by Royal Dutch Shell, involves extracting coalbed methane from the same anthracite deposit, across an enormous tenure of close to 400,000 hectares. Should this project go ahead, it would require a network of several thousand wells, linked by roads and pipelines, laid upon the landscape of the entire Sacred Headwaters basin. Coalbed-methane recovery is by all accounts a highly invasive process. To free the methane from the anthracite, technicians must fracture the coal seams with massive injections of chemical agents under high pressure. Using as much as 1.3 million litres at a shot, the technique creates enormous volumes of highly toxic water. More than 900 different chemicals, many of them powerful carcinogens, are registered for use, but for proprietary reasons companies do not have to disclose the identity of the solutions employed at any given site.

Environmental concerns aside, think for a moment of what these proposals imply about our culture. I recall overhearing a conversation some seasons ago at a neighbouring lodge between an assistant deputy minister of mines and an engineer from the Red Chris project. They had just come down by helicopter from the site and they could not stop speaking about how beautiful it was, how many sheep they had seen, how extraordinary the vistas were from the height of the mountain. They both said that they had never seen such a beautiful place in their lives. As it turned out, it was the first time either of them had come so far north. They had never ventured beyond the Yellowhead Highway and here they were in a land they had never known, stunned by the beauty of a mountain it was their bureaucratic and corporate mission to destroy.

This was a powerful lesson for me, which I raised when I met some months later with Gordon Campbell, BC’s premier at the time. I was amazed to learn at that meeting that he too had never seen the Stikine. The Premier of British Columbia, the elected representative of all the people, had never visited a region encompassing fully a quarter of the province he presumed to govern. That a head of government would authorize a major industrial initiative of such consequence without having ever visited the region to be so irrevocably changed was rather startling.

I suspect that few of the principals of Imperial Metals ever saw this country until they began to set in motion their plans to transform it for their own personal gain. I understand this, as it is their business to do so. But I was astonished to learn from their proposal that their project is not economically viable unless Canadians subsidize it through the construction of power lines.

Moreover, the BC government’s preferred option, the $404-million-, 287-kilovolt Northwest Transmission Line, would access $130-million from Canada’s Green Infrastructure Fund (formerly the Canada EcoTrust for Clean Air and Climate Change). Meanwhile, a 2008 analysis by The Pembina Institute calculates that rather than lower greenhouse gas emissions, the Northwest Transmission Line would increase them by up to 1200 per cent. As currently proposed-, it would not even tie in nearby First Nations, allowing them to retire their diesel-burning generators.

That these tax dollars will be drawn from a fund conceived to improve the environment and then used to open up the Sacred Headwaters to industrial development represents a level of political cynicism that I have never before witnessed in the affairs of a major industrialized nation state.

We accept it as normal that people who have never been on the land, who have no history or connection to the country, may legally secure the right to come in and by the very nature of their enterprises leave in their wake a cultural and physical landscape utterly transformed and desecrated. What’s more, in granting such mining concessions, often initially for trivial sums to speculators from distant cities, companies cobbled together with less history than my dog, the government places no cultural or market value on the land itself. The cost of destroying a natural asset, or its inherent worth if left intact, has no metric in the economic calculations that support the industrialization of the wild. No company has to compensate the public for what it does to the commons, the forests, mountains and rivers, which by definition belong to everyone. It merely requires permission to proceed. This is very odd, if you think about it, and surely reflects a mindset that ought no longer to have a place in a world in which wildlands are becoming increasingly rare and valuable, even as we strive as a species to live in a sustainable manner on a planet we have come to recognize as being resilient but not inviolable.

The people of the Sacred Headwaters, the men and women of the Iskut First Nation who have rallied against these developments, have a very different way of thinking about the land. For them the Sacred Headwaters is a neighbourhood, at once their grocery store and sanctuary, their church and schoolyard, and their cemetery and recreational area. They believe that the people with greatest claim to ownership of the valley are the generations as yet unborn. The Sacred Headwaters will be their nursery. The Iskut elders, almost all of whom grew up on the land, have formally called for the end of all industrial activity in the valley and the creation of a Sacred Headwaters Tribal Heritage Area.

Beginning in the summer of 2005, Iskut men, women and children, together with Tahltan supporters from Telegraph Creek and beyond, have maintained in all seasons an educational camp at the head of the only road access to the Sacred Headwaters. Those who would violate the land they hold in trust have been denied entry. Those who accept and revere the land as it is have been welcomed. With everyone, they have shared their vision of a new era of sustainable stewardship both for their homeland and the entire northwest quadrant of the province. Meanwhile, the BC government has never agreed to consider the cumulative impacts of licensing as many as five new mines in the region, has failed to consider phasing in development over time and at no point has shown any interest in determining if these initiatives would pass a “positive contribution to sustainability” test, as it did for the Kemess North Project.

In the end, what is at stake is the future of one of the most extraordinary regions in all North America. The fate of the Sacred Headwaters transcends the interests of local residents, provincial agencies, mining companies and those few among the First Nations who favour industrial development at any cost. The voices of all Canadians deserve to be heard. Gordon Campbell, to his immense credit, attached his legacy to the fight against global warming, boldly calling for a 33-per-cent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2020. What better way to celebrate such a profound and courageous act of leadership by our former premier than to say that no amount of methane gas, no volume of gold or number of jobs can compensate for the sacrifice of a place that can be the Sacred Headwaters of all Canadians…

Photos for Wade Davis’s article were made possible by the International League of Conservation Photographers. Many thanks also to the contributing photographers. Buy this issue to fully enjoy their amazing photography in the context of Wade Davis’ warning call for three of Canada’s most threatened salmon rivers. Photographers: Graham Osborne | Paul Colangelo | Tom Peschak/ |