Digging for copper in the Sistine Chapel

By Briony Penn, March 2012

Author Wade Davis will be in Victoria March 7 to talk about efforts to save the Stikine, Skeena and Nass headwaters.

"This isn’t a souvenir coffee table book that the mining companies will take back home under their arms,” says Wade Davis about his new book, The Sacred Headwaters: The Fight to Save tbe Stikine, Skeena and Nass (Greystone, Oct. 2011). 

The book could be a souvenir if you just look at the pictures—they’re stunning, not surprisingly, as this is one of the most drop-dead beautiful places in the world. The watershed of these three rivers forms an essentially roadless wilderness three times the size of Switzerland, bounded by the Alaskan border to the west, the grand canyon of the Stikine to the north, Highway 16 to the south, and the Tatlatui Range to the east. The headwaters themselves are just south of the Spatsizi Plateau, which was designated an ecological reserve for being the “Serenghetti of the north,” because of its abundant wildlife, including mountain goats, moose, deer, and black and grizzly bears, all represented in these fabulous plateaux smothered in wildflowers. 

But the opening 30-page essay on the battle for this land—and what’s at stake—delivers a punch that would discourage any mining company executive from putting the book on his coffee table. With this book, Davis has stepped up another notch in a long, successful career of campaigner for, and storyteller of, the biosphere and ethnosphere (the term he coined for the landscape shaped by indigenous cultures). Fight is the operative word of the book’s title, for what has passed and what’s to come. This isn’t just the sacred headwaters and home of the Talhtan First Nation. It’s Davis’ home too, and he’s fighting hard for it. 

The very, very, few of us lucky enough to have spent any time there can rarely communicate the emotional impact these places have on us. Like veterans coming home from the war, we don’t know where to start and the experience is too far from the daily lives of urban Canadians to find a connection—and increasingly so. With 90 percent of Canadians living in cities and over half the population having no cultural connection to the wild and the lure of the north, Davis identifies the increasing challenge to reach an audience, let alone evoke their outrage at the rape and plunder going on in the north in the name of our urban energy and consumer needs. 

Davis’ intention was to use the emotional power of the photographs in the coffee table format, coupled with the words of Tahltan elders, to speak to the place. And they do—Carr Clifton, Paul Colangelo, Davis himself and the other photographers of the International League of Conservation Photographers who donated their time and images to the cause have created a powerful tribute. The Tahltan elders Rhoda Quock, August Brown, Peter Jakesta, Dempsey Bob and others provide equally strong words to accompany the images, words that ring true against the clutter and noise of our modern lives.

But what saves the book from being just another captioned photo essay of a rich watershed inhabited by “wise elders” about to be pulverized (and God knows we have had too many of those in BC) is Davis’ essay. He has waded (no pun intended) into the taboo topic of how decisions over land and resources are currently negotiated, with tiny besieged aboriginal communities conveniently left alone to fend against the world’s largest energy and mining companies. 

Davis’ mesmerizing essay is a day-by-day factual account of how individuals and families in these small communities are ripped apart by the massive machinery of globalization. It’s an important contribution to the national discourse about energy policy, aboriginal affairs, and land use decision-making in the north. 

I questioned Davis about why he took on a subject few have wanted to touch. “Simple,” he said, “I believe that non-native Canadian understanding of First Nations is still stuck between the left’s idealized, untouchable noble savage and the right’s hateful images as featured in Disrobing the Aboriginal Industry. When in reality, we are just talking about the lives of people, some good, some less so, some with deep connections to the land, others who are simply opportunistic. The question is not mines or no mines, but rather how many, at what pace in what places and for whose benefit? There is a lot of talk about consultation and accommodation. But consultation with whom, and accommodation for whose benefit? And what if these areas have global importance?” The situation, according to Davis, appears to ultimately benefit only the companies who can move full steam ahead without the weight of full public review.

The story of the ascendancy of Chief Jerry Asp, described by the Vancouver Sun as “government’s pro-development poster boy” reads like a textbook case study of complicit opportunism between Asp, the mining and energy companies, and government. The circumstances that led to the 2005 occupation of the band office in Telegraph Creek by 35 Tahltan elders, like Bobby and Roy Quock, who felt they were being misrepresented and their land getting trashed for a pittance, are now being repeated with the Gitksaan elders and the Enbridge deal. 

In delving into the impacts of the 1999 Corbiere Decision that enabled all tribal members, not just those living on reserves, to vote in elections and the upheaval between resident and non-resident band members this has created, Davis has written a story that white urban people can understand. By drawing out these “complications” against the backdrop of the involvement of behemoth Shell Oil, Imperial Metals and Fortune Minerals—all comprised of armies of professionals and shareholders that will never set foot on these landscapes—on top of the $130 million dollar federal subsidy for a transmission line to the mine, he reveals our own complicity in the process. 

A poignant moment in Davis’ account occurs when the elders participating in that 2005 occupation, speaking only in Talhtan, demonstrate their legitimate authority to speak on behalf of their nation. Asp doesn’t speak or understand his own language, which made his last bid to represent his nation, spoken in English, futile. Another memorable moment is when a geologist flies into the area and Davis overhears her speaking in amazement at the incredible beauty and richness of the wildlife. The un-noble savage and the un-evil corporate geologist metaphorically bump into each other in the general store of Telegraph Creek, and there’s the story. It isn’t easy to write about this stuff and not get trapped in cultural quick sand, which is why few non-natives or natives are doing it, especially in coffee table books. But Davis does, because these are his friends and this is his home. 

Davis asks the questions: If these scarce and endangered landscapes have extraordinary value to all humanity, is it appropriate that we leave their defence to a handful of courageous locals? What should the nature of Canada’s involvement be? Should we be digging for copper in the Sistine Chapel?

And he is saying, unequivocally, that in this pivotal time, when questions about energy policy are coming to the fore, and resource scarcity is putting power back into the hands of the resource holders, we resource holders should be standing up and screaming from the top of our lungs: “These places are too valuable to destroy.”

Wade Davis will be speaking on The Sacred Headwaters 7 pm Wednesday, March 7 at the Royal BC Museum. $15 per person, 10 percent member discount. Tickets at www.royalbcmuseum.bc.ca or at the RBCM box office.

Briony Penn PhD is a naturalist, journalist, artist and award-winning environmental educator. She is the author of The Kids Book of Geography (Kids Can Press) and a A Year on the Wild Side.