Tahltan vote on Iskut Land Code to take control of reserve lands

Group of grassroots elders oppose the move due to limited understanding of implications

A small group of Tahltan elders from Dease Lake and Telegraph Creek are frustrated by a lack of understanding about the Iskut Land Code agreement, which is up for vote by the Tahltan First Nation.

If the land code is passed by its members, it will make the Tahltan band fully responsible for the environmental management of their reserve lands.

The code builds on the Framework Agreement on First Nation Land Management, which the Tahltan signed in 2014 and gives them more control over their reserve land and resources by opting out of sections of the Indian Act.

The Tahltan Band Council set up polling stations in Iskut, Dease Lake and Telegraph Creek Feb. 28 to March 4, as well as options to vote online and with mail-in ballots. The voting period was extended to March 28, with polling stations open again March 27 and 28 in Dease Lake and Telegraph Creek.

But a handful of people from Iskut and Dease Lake, calling themselves the Grassroots Elders, are opposed to the land code and want the chief to step down.

In a March 5 letter addressed to chief Rick Mclean and the elected band council, the group said they are concerned about “misinformation and lack of information” about the land code.

“The chief has no right to make decisions that greatly affect the Tahltan people and communities without including the Tahltan grassroots elders and members,” the letter states.

Lillian Campbell, a spokesperson for the group, says their main concern isn’t necessarily the land code itself, though that’s part of it, but it’s the lack of understanding and of simple face-to-face communication with council.

“It wasn’t explained to us, period. They didn’t go piece by piece, line by line, and say ‘this is what it actually means’,” said Campbell.

“It would be different if he (chief Mclean) came to the table and he says ‘well, this is what’s happening here, how do you feel about it?’ And then we sat for three or four days and explain,” she said.

“Explain it to us. Have workshops on it, not just one or two, but until the people really get to understand what it’s really all about… what really bothers me, is that this is not our way to do things.”

Campbell says she and others are wary of the potential impacts of fine print and voted against the land code.

“I’m speaking for myself: The wording sounds good. But one word in there, can change everything around. We could lose everything … We all know everything sounds good on a piece of paper, but there could be one word in this land code that the government takes it all,” she said.

Chief Mclean says the land code basically means the Tahltan are taking responsibility to govern their own land, but the band has yet to draft laws about exactly how their land will be governed.

“There’s been no laws or nothing drafted yet,” said Mclean. “That’s the next step if we are successful in the vote… but that will be a whole new process, a whole new committee.”

In response to the letter and it’s accusation that band council has no right to make decisions apart from members, chief Mclean said that it wasn’t the band council that developed the land code, but a committee of band members who put it together.

“Our membership actually developed the land code, with chief and council reviewing and moving ahead as we had to,” said Mclean.

He adds that the band council has gone through an extensive engagement process, using its website, a new Facebook page, several community meetings and information packages mailed out.

“This is one of the most extensive engagement processes I’ve been through,” said Mclean, noting that there’s been a lot of misinformation from naysayers as band administration tries to engage between 1,500 to 1,600 members scattered throughout the province.

Community meetings were held in Dease Lake, Telegraph Creek and Iskut in Feb. 2017, May 2017 and Feb. 2018, and a round of meetings was also arranged in Terrace, Prince George, Whitehorse, Fort St. John, and Vancouver, where the largest pockets of Tahltan members live.

“What I’m finding out is no matter how hard you try and what you do, you’re always going to have people who say ‘I didn’t know nothing about it’,” Mclean said. “We tried to engage as best we could, but no matter where it goes or how it goes, you always can do better I guess.”

Ultimately, the land code needs approval from members to go forward, Mclean added, and in order to pass, it needs a threshold of at least 25 per cent of members to vote in favour of it.

“That’s a pretty high threshold,” said Mclean, “being that we don’t hardly get 400 members to vote for band council in chief and council elections.”

“It’s up to our members to vote for it or against it, to accept it or reject it. If we get the membership vote in favour, we will move ahead. And if not, we will put it to bed.”

The opposing letter was signed by 10 Tahltan elders who live in Dease Lake, Telegraph Creek and Prince Rupert: Roy Quock, Lillian Campbell, Margery Inkster, David Brown, Lucy Brown, Orville Brown, August Brown, Millie Pauls, Clements Tashoots, and Peggy Campbell.

The voting on the land code ended yesterday, March 28, after this newspaper went to press.