After years of trying to get the province to protect an important salmon watershed, one northwest B.C. First Nation is taking matters into its own hands
Matt Simmons, Local Journalism Initiative reporter
April 17, 2021
photo above: Chief Wii Litsxw (Gregory Rush) hiking in Gitanyow territory. The area behind him is part of the so-called “Golden Triangle,” coveted by mining companies: Farhan Umedaly / VoVo Productions
WN: One can only wish for full harmony amongst all interest-holders. One can say a prayer about this spectacularly beautiful land. Lord, we ask for your sustaining mercy. Amen.
It’s a beauty that’s beyond Eden.—Naxginkw Tara Marsden, from Wilp Gamlakyeltxw and Wilp sustainability director for the Gitanyow Hereditary Chiefs Office.
See the article for the outstanding photos alone!
Finally, there is another kind of beauty. Dostoyevsky said: Beauty Will Save the World.
Please listen to the CBC radio documentary with Mary Hines and Frank Faulk to find out why. You Tube audio follows.
Then for a very deep dive, please see: The Ethics of Beauty by Timothy G. Patitsas, St. Nicholas Press, 2021; 748 pages. Of it we read:
Chaste and ardent eros for the Beautiful is the first task of human life, and falling in love with Beauty is the beginning of every adventure that matters …
The original task of Ethics was to guide us to the most just and meaningful life possible. Today, ethicists define their discipline more narrowly, as “the rational investigation of morality.” This reduces Ethics to the examination of the Good by the True, tacitly suppressing the deep human need for the Beautiful.
In The Ethics of Beauty, Orthodox Christian theologian Timothy G. Patitsas first considers Beauty’s opposite, the dark events that traumatize victims of war and other ugly circumstances, and then invites us to rediscover the older Beauty-first response to moral questions and the integrity of the soul.
Covering topics ranging from creation to political theory to the Jesus Prayer, including war, psychology, trauma, chastity, healthy shame, gender, marriage, hospitality, art, architecture, theology, economics, urban planning, and complexity theory, The Ethics of Beauty lays out a worldview in which Beauty, Goodness, and Truth are each embraced as indispensable elements of the best possible human life.
When the sun sets in a bowl-shaped basin on Ana’miso mountain on Gitanyow lax’yip (territory) in northwest B.C., that means the sockeye salmon are running in Xsi’dax river. Historically, about 50,000 sockeye would come up this tributary of the Skeena. But this river, like so many, is suffering a devastating decline in abundance. These days, the spawning population is down to about 200 fish.
Farther north, Gitanyow territory around Meziadin Lake is bursting with life. The landscape supports the likes of wolves and grizzlies, mountain goats and martens, salmon and steelhead. About 75 per cent of the Nass River sockeye spawn in the watershed after an epic journey from the coast through Nisga’a territory.
“This area is super special,” Wing Chief Sk’a’nism Tsa ‘Win’Giit Joel Starlund told The Narwhal about an area Gitanyow Hereditary Chiefs plan to declare as the Ha’Nii Tokxw Indigenous Protected Area — with or without support from the provincial government.
Eight years ago, most of the Nass River sockeye were protected by the freshly minted 24,000-hectare Hanna-Tintina Conservancy. But since then, the sockeye populations that spawn inside the conservancy’s boundaries have been in steady decline in part due to temperature changes in the creeks. Now, the healthiest remaining populations spawn primarily in glacial-fed creeks outside of the protected area. Those creeks — Strohn and Surprise — face the threat of increased mineral exploration.
After four years of trying to work with the province to protect an additional 30,000-hectare area around the conservancy through official channels, the chiefs have decided to move forward with an Indigenous Protected Area.
Indigenous Protected Areas, also called tribal parks or Indigenous Protected and Conserved Areas, are areas conserved under Indigenous law, through an assertion of a nation’s Rights and Title.
‘Set it and forget it’
In 2012, Gitanyow Hereditary Chiefs and the provincial government signed the landmark Gitanyow Huwilp Recognition and Reconciliation Agreement. It led to the creation of a groundbreaking land use plan, a collaborative management system including an Indigenous guardian program and the establishment of the conservancy. The land use plan and guardian program allowed the nation to facilitate and manage resource extraction on the territory, particularly forestry.
But when the nation started observing the changes on the landscape, it asked the B.C. government to adjust the land use plan and expand the conservancy in accordance with the agreement, which acknowledged a need for adaptive management of species like salmon.
The Gitanyow showed the province what was happening on the landscape and told them what was at stake if the unprotected area were to become a hotbed of mining activity.
“When we first started to really push the province to expand the conservancy, the message we got back was, ‘Well, industry doesn’t want to hear it,’ ” says Naxginkw Tara Marsden, who is from Wilp Gamlakyeltxw and works as Wilp sustainability director for the Gitanyow Hereditary Chiefs Office.
“That model of really static reserves — locked in place, set it and forget it — just does not work in the face of climate change.”
Mining exploration charges ahead without Gitanyow consent
B.C.’s free-entry mining system allows any individual or company to stake a claim — and subsequently explore for minerals on that claim — anywhere in the province that is not already set aside as a protected area. This includes private land and Indigenous territory. Under provincial laws, which date back to the mid-1800s, no consent or consultation is required.
“It’s so archaic. It’s so colonial,” Marsden says.
In the mid-2010s, mineral exploration and mining companies started staking claims on Gitanyow territory. A tenure allows a company to conduct exploratory work, and if it finds enough evidence of minerals, it can then propose a mine. But even exploratory work has impacts on the landscape, Marsden says.
“Mineral companies don’t have to apply for water permits — they can go out and they can draw straight from creeks for their drilling and then they can release the water back into the ecosystem,” she explains. “They can claim that it’s treated and it’s safe, but there’s no monitoring of that, so we don’t know.”
She says the Hereditary Chiefs petitioned the province to set up a no-staking reserve, taking government officials including Mark Messmer, B.C.’s chief gold commissioner, out on the lax’yip (territory). Marsden said subsequent conversations with the commissioner were unsuccessful in having the area declared off-limits for mining claims.
In 2019, the Gitanyow applied for funding through the federal government’s Nature Fund to buy out all the mineral tenures in the protected area. Marsden says the province provided them with the formula to figure out how much it would cost to get all the tenures out of the area, which revealed it would be between $5 and $16 million. The nation didn’t get the funding.
While working to find a solution through the provincial system, the Gitanyow Nation also developed its own guidelines for activity on the territory and reached out to the companies directly.
“We are very upfront when we talk to companies,” Marsden says. “We just say this is an area that is a go zone or a no-go zone, and this is why.”
This pragmatic approach has earned them some success. When the Hereditary Chiefs approached one of the companies that has claims in the watershed, P2 Gold, it agreed to leave the area alone.
“We’re trying to be good neighbours and work together up in the area,” Joe Ovsenek, president of P2 Gold, says on a call from his office in Vancouver, noting how the Gitanyow told his company the salmon runs in the creeks close to the company’s claims were the last healthy populations in the watershed. “The last thing we want to do is jeopardize any of that.”
But P2 Gold is just one of several companies with interests in the area, and the province continues to permit exploratory activity.
The Gitanyow’s Starlund emphasizes the nation is not anti-industry.
“We’re not against mineral staking, we’re not against mining,” he says, explaining that the Gitanyow have many positive relationships with mining companies. “It’s the matter of where these mineral staking tenures are located.”
Marsden says the next step is to create a management plan for the area that clearly states what activities are allowed and what activities are not allowed. Then it’s a matter of making sure those rules are being respected. Without provincial protection, Gitanyow guardians will have to continually monitor activity on the landscape to hold companies accountable.
“I’m pretty confident that we can,” she says. “It’s just not ideal. Ideally, you have those legal designations.”
Starlund is also confident the Gitanyow can protect the watershed and says they’ll gain strength from sharing what makes the lax’yip special.
“If we’re not going to be afforded the protection of British Columbia law, we want to create a brand and a name recognition for this Indigenous Protected Area,” he says, adding that they hope to have everything in place by August.
“It’s a beauty that’s beyond Eden.”
Please click on: Saving the salmon