MAC/20: Mines and Communities

Elders continue demand: "Tahltan chief step down" - Tahltan Band Office Occupation (Day 2

Published by MAC on 2005-02-10

Elders continue demand: "Tahltan chief step down" - Tahltan Band Office Occupation (Day 25)

February 10th, 2005

by Ron Collins,

Jerry Asp is the elected Indian Act chief of the Tahltan First Nation. Last month, he was the poster boy for the BC Liberal government's new "BC Mining Plan" which promoted a new synergy between native communities and the mining industry. Now he is not even welcomed in his own office.

35 Tahltan elders, between the ages of 55 and 84, have been occupying their band council's office in Telegraph Creek for 25 days. They say their chief has abandoned traditional values in pursuit of a fast buck and are asking him to step down.

The elders are concerned that there has been a lack of consultation with the community in the negotiations to start several new mining projects on their traditional territory. They insist they are not against mining or other industry but want "sustainable development and accountability".

"It's embarrassing!" says Lillian Moyer, a firey elder and one of four band councilors who are supporting the occupation. "People come up to me on the street and talk about how upset they are about the new projects but the council doesn't know about the decisions until they were slapped on the table as done deals. These decisions are being made by the two chiefs of the Tahltan Nation (Louis Louie and Jerry Asp) along with the central council but without the support of the band council." Only one councilor, Asp's cousin, supports him.

There is no legal requirement for the chiefs to have the support of their council.

Oscar Dennis holds degrees in first nations studies and anthropology and is a member of the Iskut Band which is part of the Tahltan Nation. He supports the elders' action and in an interview this week, said "Traditionally, when a band chief is no longer acting in the interest of his people, he steps down taking what dignity he has left with him."

Dennis said that Asp is "trying to impose a government based on ideals that have more in common with the Bush administration, than with traditional values. You can't do that and expect it to work smoothly. Traditional values need to be given serious consideration when decisions affect our people and traditional territories."

Asp appears to be in a conflict of interest since he is both the Chief Operations Officer of Tahltan Nation Development Corporation (TNDC) which is bidding on the mining projects as well as the chief councilor giving the contracts the go ahead. Terri Brown, a spokesperson for the Tahltan says Jerry Asp's relatives hold many of the key positions in the company as well as in the band administration. "The Tahltan and Iskut Bands along with the central council are the three shareholders of TNDC yet the band members have no say in the company's direction."

Dennis says a large percent of the population want Asp removed but are afraid to speak out because many of them work for him. Besides being chief, he is the area's major employer. "Without the separation of government and business, there can be no democracy for our people."

The elders are concerned that the possible environmental impacts of the proposed projects are not being given enough weight in the planning. For example, Nova Gold plans to build an access road which will cross a tributary to the Stikine river and then run along the river for hundreds of kilometers. The river is home to salmon that come from Alaska to spawn. The Tahltan people have harvested the salmon sustainably for thousands of years. They say that with salmon already struggling to survive, putting more pressure on their limited resources brings them one step closer to extinction -- a future that the Tahltan people themselves have so far managed to avoid.

Currently, unemployment in the area is below 6%. Lower than the national average and far lower than that of most reservations. With a mine already in operation in Eskay Creek, they don't see a need for more projects at this time.

Asp has attained a court injunction to remove the protesters from his office but it would not likely be used except as a last resort. The publicity of having elders dragged from his office by the RCMP could be political suicide. Moyer says that despite the threat of jail, the elders are content and telling stories. They say they "won't leave until [Asp] is out of here. They will have to carry us out."

Jerry Asp's office declined to be interviewed for this report.

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