At an isolated camp high on the Chilcotin Plateau, several elders, some children, and assorted hunters ring a large fire pit. Along its rim perches an enamelware coffeepot and well-scorched aluminum tea kettle. Behind, in a makeshift kitchen, younger women dredge strips of fresh deer liver in flour and fry it crisp, piling it on plates beside a cauldron of chicken soup. A ribcage from the deer is staked over the fire, and outside the kitchen, the remainder of the carcass hangs on racks, drying beside sockeye fillets draped like preternaturally orange hand-towels.
It could be a vignette from any First Nations harvest camp in B.C.'s vast landscape, yet this particular scene is somewhat surreal. Also seated at the fire is former Tsilhqot'in chief, Roger Williams, who shepherded his nation through the landmark 2014 land-claim victory that established Aboriginal rights and title over a large swath of their traditional territories. There are also several Tsilhqot'in councillors, and a few invited guest "elders"—luminary environmentalist David Suzuki and partner Tara, long-time supporters of First Nations land rights; and history-book-hero Miles Richardson, former head of the Haida Nation who'd helped kick off the national conversation around "title" in 1985 on a misty island named Lyell, where he and a cadre of likeminded Haida leaders blockaded loggers.
To a cluster of media and television cameras, Richardson had delivered the rallying cry heard across Canada: "This is Haida land and there'll be no further logging in this area."
More surreal is that the rest of us—a gaggle of non-First Nations friends, supporters, outdoor and environment-minded folk on a week-long rafting trip through Tsilhqot'in territory that will link descents on the Taseko, Chilko, Chilcotin and Fraser Rivers—were also invited to this hastily convened council near Teztan Biny (Fish Lake) for a glimpse into the Tsilhqot'in's continued struggle. The Tsilhqot'in extended gracious hospitality in today's meeting and in consenting to our trip, and Suzuki and Richardson wholeheartedly embraced the sit-down; despite ostensibly being on vacation, there's no break from the urgent work of social justice.
On Aug. 23, the B.C. Supreme Court upheld a permit authorizing Vancouver-based Taseko Mines to undertake exploration in the Teztan Biny area, a place of habitation, sustenance and ceremony sacred to the Tsilhqot'in for millennia. This lifted an injunction the Tsilhqot'in obtained after the spiteful outgoing government of Christy Clark—on its final day in office in 2017, and amidst wildfires that saw Tsilhqot'in communities fighting to save their homes—issued a permit to Taseko allowing for 76 kilometres of new or modified road and trail, 122 drill holes, 367 excavated test pits and 20 km of seismic lines. Absurdly, such horrendous impact to wildlife and wilderness that would disrupt hunting, fishing and other activities could be carried out under provincial aegis despite the fact that, having been twice rejected by the previous Harper government, a copper and gold mine here cannot legally proceed at present. It's disheartening déjà vu for the Tsilhqot'in, who've been fighting the "New Prosperity" (née "Prosperity") mine for 25 years.
Given this new threat, on Aug. 30, the Tsilhqot'in announced a peaceful gathering at Teztan Biny, but there was little doubt that should Taseko show up to begin work, it wouldn't be allowed. "This drilling program is an attack on our identity, who we are as Tsilhqot'in people. We would never show this disrespect to others ... We plan to come together in a good way, in a peaceful way, and gather strength from this special place," said Chief Jimmy Lulua of the Xeni Gwet'in.
After a few welcome songs and plates of food, we circle around the fire. Williams speaks and Suzuki and Richardson listen intently. Both want to know how they can best support the Tsilhqot'in's latest struggle. Richardson, who weeks before narrowly lost a vote to lead the Assembly of First Nations, works internationally with Indigenous groups on self-government, and wonders if developing a constitution would help. Suzuki agrees, but cautions that in the interim no quarter can be given based on precedents of Hydro Quebec's incremental takeover of Cree lands, and the example of B.C. salmon farms; in both cases, once the foothold and number of jobs were large enough, First Nations causes were thrown to the wind. Both agree that once the story gets out and is understood, the Canadian people will rally to the Tsilhqot'in the way they rallied to the Haida in 1985.
The suspected subterfuge on Taseko's exploration permit is that it's trying to game shareholders with the façade of a rejected project remaining afloat, or trying to ramp up spending so as to eventually soak government for more compensation, and, in either case, trying to break the spirit of the people.
But that spirit will not be broken. The Tsilhqot'in have fought this long and they are not about to give in. And on that front Richardson closes the discussion with some words of wisdom: "These are your lands, and what you're doing—standing up for them and exerting title—is exactly the right thing to do."
Postscript: A Tsilhqot'in submission to the B.C. court of appeals resulted in a new injunction against Taseko on Monday Sept.17. It's not over yet, but represents another key victory.