Some people call me an environmentalist. What in the hell is an environmentalist anyway? Growing up in my family, it was a dirty word to describe privileged and over-educated people who got their education out of a book instead of the woods. My upbringing taught me that hard work, hard damn work, was the way to make it in life. I was raised by a farming family in the Kispiox Valley and we made our way as loggers, guide outfitters, rodeo stock contractors and, from time to time, we worked in the mining or oil and gas industry running heavy equipment.
Editor’s note: It’s a pleasure to welcome Shannon McPhail back to The Cleanest Line. Shannon is the executive director of the Skeena Watershed Conservation Coalition, a group Patagonia proudly supported during their historic fight against proposed coalbed methane wells in Canada’s Sacred Headwaters. Note: minor profanities ahead.
But when we weren’t working the land for food or in the bush for money, we were on the rivers or in the mountains. My family vacations were spent on pack trips by horse going into the Skeena Mountains or the Atnas. But of course, we couldn’t take a vacation for a mere vacation, that would have been considered a complete waste of time. We had to get enough moose, caribou, grouse and maybe a black bear to bring home for winter’s meat. Black bear makes damn good ham and bratwurst, and you can render the fat for lard. We grew up growing or wild harvesting a lot of our own food because we couldn’t afford to buy it. Even though we raised cattle, we couldn’t eat much of it because that was money out of our pockets. So we hunted wild game to fill our pantries. The line between bankruptcy and paying the bills was incredibly thin but we certainly had an incredible life.
Living in the Skeena region has not been the easiest existence, especially in the winter. Communities are bonded by enduring the cold months together and it’s the time where we get out and get more social to chase away the long darkness. We dream of the warm summer sun, floats down the river, sitting with family and buddies around a picnic table and eating salmon so fresh that it curls when you cook it.
The Allen Family, 2010
Me and my mom, Joy, 1978.
I love this place. It’s my home. It was my home long before I was born – more than 100 years with six generations in the Kispiox Valley. We are known as the cowboy farmers, some might say rednecks. Actually, everyone says rednecks. My dad was known for being one helluva boxer and regularly got into fist fights. I don’t know if he ever lost a fight but then again, I don’t know that he would ever tell me if he did. He taught me how to go fist-a-cuffs and I was pretty good at it. The fact that I grew into almost a 6-footer and spent the summer tossing hay bales around for hours and hours every day might have had something to do with it. Still, I avoided conflict like the plague. I despised conflict or disharmony. They made me cringe and still do to this day. I would always try to walk away, feeling sick in my stomach, wanting to run, but growing up in the bush you know that running away only encourages chase and the best way to deal with it, or at least the most instinctual way, was to face up and deal with things because they will only get worse if you don’t.
This is why I have trouble with the word environmentalist. It’s not really inclusive of people like me or my family. We aren’t fighting for the environment. We’re fighting for our homes and for our families because we need clean water and wild game. If we protect the habitats for salmon and wild game, we can eat good clean food. I can’t believe I said habitat. Hell, I even catch myself talking about “ecosystems” these days.
My folks, Gene and Joy Allen.
My husband is a rig welder in the oil sands. He makes a damn good living over there but he’s gone 16 days then home for 12. When I first heard about Shell wanting to drill for coalbed methane in the Headwaters, I thought it was a great idea. Can you imagine how much money we could make? Shell is no small potato. With a big company like them comes big money and I wanted a piece of it. The history of my evolution into becoming an enemy to Shell’s proposal is a long one but the gist of it is that the more I learned about the development, the more my hackles went up. I couldn’t believe what they were proposing and moreover, I couldn’t believe they were trying to tell us that it would all be okay.
I did the only thing I knew how to do, I sat in people’s kitchens and drank coffee with them and asked them for help in figuring out how we deal with these guys who were coming into our watershed telling us that they were pushing forward with a development that we didn’t want and couldn’t stop. I wasn’t branded an environmentalist. I was Gene Allen’s daughter so there were no worries about being a NIMBY or a CAVE’r. Everyone around here knows that if anyone is going to get on the development bandwagon, it would be my family.
Working in the oil sands, SWCC logo on helmet.
I went to my peer group, the rod and gun clubs, fishermen, the old farmers, the guide outfitters, hunters and trappers. These were simply the people I was comfortable talking to because they were people I could relate to. It wasn’t long before some people told us about the Tahltan and that I should head up there to meet some of them because they had blockaded some of these big developments. The Tahltan had long been supporters of development with most of BC’s major mining projects being proposed on their territory, so I was curious as to why they had changed their tune.
The Tahltan were no strangers to my family. My dad had horse traded for decades with some of the Tahltan guide outfitters. He would take his champion stud named Simon (after Simon Gunanoot, the famous Gitxsan outlaw) to breed the mares in Tahltan country and in three years, he would take half the foals back as broncs while the other half became mountain horses. Simon bred amazing broncs, some of the best in the world. He also had the perfect genetics for mountain horses with big, wide feet, strong backs and a quiet demeanor about them for packing hunters and gear.
I remember making the trip to Telegraph Creek every spring with a horse trailer full of 10 horses. One was Simon and the other nine were Simon foals that just didn’t buck. That was the thing about Simon foals, all of them were quiet and loved to snuggle but some of them genetically loved to buck while the others wouldn’t buck, ever. The ones who wouldn’t buck became great horses for kids or working in the mountains. We’d get into Telegraph, give the horses a day’s rest and protein-rich grain before turning them out into the hills. Fletcher Day, a Tahltan Chief and guide-outfitter would send his Tahltan wranglers out to gather his horses and off they would go with some halters and a bucket of oats. One-to-three days later they would return with all the horses that had been turned out for the winter. I don’t know what those wranglers ate or where they slept while they were out there but they came back looking as fresh as when they left. They would gather in the round-pen and everyone from the community would come out to watch Tahltan cowboys get on the three-year-old foals to see which ones would make their living on the rodeo circuit and which ones in the mountains. All the while, Simon was having a great time with the mares.
I didn’t enter into the Sacred Headwaters campaign as an enviro or a campaigner. I came into it as a concerned citizen, a cowgirl, a hunting guide and just talked about plain old common sense. People described it as a David and Goliath story but that never resonated with me because our region is where the power lies, not industry. If anything, we would be the Goliath. When we unite, we’re unstoppable. We’ve seen it time and time again. Industry has to come in here and tried to convince us that their project is worth it, that they are good, corporate citizens. They have to spend millions to figure everything out, to “consult” and try to earn social license. Some companies have realized that you can’t buy social license in the north, you really do have to earn it. Those are the companies I want to work with.
We don’t have millions. We don’t have slick PR budgets and executive types to woo government. We simply have our truth, our stories and our relationships with each other and to the land – those are assets I’d much rather have than vast amounts money any day. These companies have to counter our truth with all that money and history has shown that it just isn’t enough. If they come to our watershed, our communities and they don’t tell the truth or genuinely have our best interests at heart, they will lose. We have a culture of uniting against bad ideas. Government knows it and they refer to us as the “Republic of the Skeena” with Kitimat included. That makes me feel pretty damn good and has given so many others hope too – hope that they can stand up to ill-advised development and the big corporations behind them.
Ancient petroglyphs on the Skeena River. Photo: Jim Allen
“We simply have opposing world views,” was a comment made by one corporate executive. Well let me give you an education, sir. You don’t live here, you don’t depend on the return of the salmon each and every year and you don’t drink the water. When PR teams come to our communities I wonder if they recognize that the First Nations territory they’re proposing their development on is the only territory that nation has? If you’re Gitxsan and someone destroys your traditional territory, you don’t get to pull up stakes and move. You don’t get another traditional territory. You have only the territory that has been passed down to you from countless generations and that you are borrowing from the generations yet to come. We are left with the consequences of our own decisions and those of industry and government, whether they are positive or negative, and as such, we should be the decision makers.
The thing about being a northerner is (something us settler types learned from the First Nations), if the shopping sucks, or we don’t like our kid’s school, our jobs or the weather, we don’t move. We work our asses off to make our community better – we have to because no one else will. Opposing world views? This place is my whole world. It’s the centre of my universe. It’s my home. It’s where I was born, where my father was born and where my grandmother and great-grandparents were born and buried. It’s where I will be buried and my grandkids and their grandkids will continue on.
No amount of money can counter the truth. It can’t counter our commitment to our home and to our future generations. It can’t counter our real connections to this place and to our neighbours. We are the people who live here and as such, we have a say in what happens here. We have a big say!
The thing that lies between the bullshit future promised by liquefied natural gas (LNG) development and an economy and environment that actually works, is us. By “us” I mean the folks who make this watershed their home. We are the people we need to turn to. We tend to look around for someone to save us but we are it, and I thank the powers that be that it’s us. Who better? But that also means we gotta get our asses in gear. We’ve got a lot of work to do and if there’s anyone that can get it done it’s the citizens and First Nations of the Skeena watershed. I’m not trying to blow sunshine up anyone’s ass or give a false sense of hope. I simply know that we are winning.
Skeena salmon. Photo: Paul Colangelo
Wild Skeena salmon contribute $110 million to our economy every year. Guide outfitting contributes another $28 million. For a watershed of 50,000 people, that’s an awful lot of money. Every seven years it’s $1 billion just for keeping our watershed healthy. And that doesn’t take into consideration the sustenance or cultural value of these things.
I get pretty grouchy when someone tries to say that we can’t be against everything because we are not. There is over $10 billion dollars of development happening in northwest BC right now, that doesn’t include the Northern Gateway pipeline or a single LNG project. People have been shipped in from the USA, South Africa, Alberta, etc. to work the jobs that are in our watershed. It’s happening right now. We are already overwhelmed with development, hundreds of mining referrals, railway expansions, power projects, etc. Then you add LNG and it becomes something out of a science fiction movie. We are a resource extraction region, it’s what we do and we’re good at it. Not one single “enviro” group or First Nation is saying we need to stop all of it, but they are ALL saying that we need to stop the ridiculous proposals that give us more to lose than gain, that trade our wild-salmon economy for bigger corporate profits in some bank account with a mailing address in another country. We are reasonable folks who want reasonable solutions and it’s up to us to help build those solutions.
That’s where my head is at these days. I want solutions. I want to help figure out economic developments that will help us more than hinder us, build infrastructure that gives us employment and energy and does so without messing with our clean air, wild salmon or water. The more we look into this, the more we discover that there are alternatives – good ones. Ones we can implement right now. Machines that convert plastic into oil from plastic we can mine from our own landfills. Wood to gas electricity systems using sawdust from lumber mills, wind power, solar heat and power, and the list goes on and on. The more we research, the more solutions we find. If we had a tiny fraction of the PR budget being spent promoting LNG, we could be completely self-sufficient and even export power as additional income. The solutions exist.
LNG is natural gas that has been frozen to -160 Celsius to turn it from a gas to a liquid. The name “natural gas” is another slick PR deal. Because it’s called “natural” gas, it invokes a vision of some kind of organic product naturally emitted from the Earth that we capture and use for clean, green energy. I call bullshit.
The Northern Gateway pipeline will never be built, of that I have no doubt. It doesn’t mean there isn’t a lot of work yet to be done. It simply means that we have a big, bright light at the end of the tunnel. LNG is far worse than Northern Gateway in my opinion and we’ve got a government who has put the blinders on to try and bulldoze it all right through. Proposing terminals as big as oil sands infrastructure in our Skeena estuary where our wild salmon and steelhead go. Air quality assessments conclude these terminals will more than double the pollution in BC and result in acid rain. The gas supply will be obtained by drastically increasing fracking all over the Province when more and more countries are banning that practice daily. They’re changing our entire economic structure to be based on LNG and we don’t have a single buyer for our product. Even if we did, there are some pretty knowledgeable folks who say we don’t have the gas supply to keep the industry going long enough to pay back the investment. The problem I have with learning about LNG and educating people about LNG is that there is so much wrong with this industry that it makes it confusing. It’s so hard to keep track of all the government promises versus the contrasting reality.
The BC government is trying to get support by motivating people with fear, telling us how LNG will save us from the impending economic peril. They tell us that it will keep schools and hospitals open, that infrastructure will be maintained and the story goes on and on. Meanwhile, schools are being closed, hospitals are slammed and underfunded, ferry routes are being canceled and foreign workforces are still being shipped in.
Bottom line, it’s all bullshit and no matter how much perfume or potpourri you put on it, it’s still shit. Being a farmer, I’ve shoveled my fair share of bullshit and in the end, if we put it in its proper place, it can fertilize our gardens.
Time to get your shovel.
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