Tsay Keh Dene Community - photo G Mullins

by Garth Mullins

In 2005, I was invited to the small, remote indigenous Sekani community of Tsay Keh Dene. The village of 250 is in BC’s Rocky Mountain Trench at the northern tip of Williston Lake - a massive body of water created by flooding for the WAC Bennett Dam. That flooding inundated and submerged the original village site and historic heart of the territory.

Hours on unpaved roads will get you there. Or single engine plane. Our pilot had to buzz the landing strip to clear off the horses that were grazing there before landing. Over a week, I got to talk to community members, elders and students at the village school.

Tsay Keh Dene is negotiating a treaty in an attempt to preserve some of its territory, which is slowly being eaten away by forestry, hydro dams, mining and non-traditional over-hunting. Many Tsay Keh people have been forced to seek out a non-traditional living – hard to do from the margins of the BC economy.

People told me of feeling inundated by various resource development projects and the accompanying environmental degradation; of feeling alienated and powerless due to a lack to influence over activities on the land and from rarely being informed or consulted about such activities. There are always rumors of more projects on the way. The people deal with the risks and environmental consequences of development, but rarely share in revenues or jobs.

The Flood.

In the 1960s, construction of the WAC Bennett Dam BC Hydro flooded the heart of Tsay Keh Dene territory, where the First Nation had lived since time immemorial. The resulting Williston Lake resevior is the third largest man-made lake in North America.

There was little consultation and some compensation. Hunters returned home from their trap lines to find their cabins underwater. Residents were relocated to anther community, hundreds of miles away.

This rupture with traditional ways disrupted traditional food gathering and cultural practices. It led to an increased dependence on social services, alcoholism and family strife.

Many didn’t like the new place. After years of disintegration, a group Tsay Keh elders led the nation back - north to Inginika Point - the closest place to the submerged village site.

Without utilities, infrastructure or government assistance, they built a community with housing, a school and a store. The Inginika Point community was not officially recognized government. The nation was considered squatters on their own land.

In 1989, Tsay Keh began negotiating with the federal government to access resources and on-reserve programs. The provincial government “donated” a piece of Crown land. The Department of Indian Affairs built housing and infrastructure. The community was at last officially recognized as a reserve.

Now, there’s a school, store, nursing station, RCMP detachment, band office, gym, about 45 houses, public access computers with broadband internet and a 35 watt radio station, installed last summer in the bathroom of the band store. Telephone communication is done via satellite. There’s a lot of pride in the place – in coming back.

“I hate everything”

While the community is officially “dry” by resolution of the band council, bootleggers get in, and alcohol and drug use remains.

Many had been forced to attend Lejac Residential School, near Vanderhoof. Between 1922 and 1976, Lejac took students from their families and communities. Jean Isaac is an elder and survivor of that school. She told me about their punishments and practices. Speaking the Tsay Keh dialect of Sekani was forbidden. Traditional cultural practices were banned. Beatings and sexual abuse were not uncommon. “They taught me to hate,” Jean told me. “I hate everything.” 

The Aboriginal Healing Foundation provided counseling to residential school survivors with federal dollars from Health Canada. Funding will expire and the program will close by March 31, 2007. Counseling helped Jean, but its sudden halt is another wound.


Tsay Keh Dene started negotiating a treaty with BC and Canada in 1994.  The parties are working to an Agreement in Principle. It will define a range of rights and obligations, and form the basis for the treaty. These treaties don’t create or acknowledge sovereignty - a preference of many elders. But the pace of industrial development leaves Tsay Keh with little choice but to protect what territories they can by whatever means are available.

Ultimately, the treaty will replace the authority of the federal department of Indian and Northern Affairs which acts as a trustee of reserve lands. The Indian Act which administers many aspects of Aboriginal life will no longer apply. The treaty will create self-government with powers in education, health, culture, social policy, economy and environment. The treaty will also provide for a fee simple title to part of Tsay Keh Dene’s territory, defining more limited roles on the rest. In 2000, Canada and BC made a settlement offer of land and cash. Tsay Keh rejected it, as it represented only a small fraction of the territory. Resource extraction and development do not stop during negotiations. There is no pause button. Meaningful consultation on any development is crucial to the Tsay Keh Dene.
“We cannot move,” said Jean Isaac. “We are here to stay.”

But the treaty process won’t protect all the Tsay Keh Dene land. So the nation has to go through the heart breaking process of determining which parts it wants to keep. It’s called “land selection”.  Tsay Keh’s original Statement of Claim covers a large area bounded to the north by Mt. Trace, to the west by South Pass Peak, to the south by the Nation River, and to the east by Mt Laurier. The prospect of having to select some areas, and having a limited role in others was clearly painful.

Ella Pierre is very concerned that trap lines be saved, and suggesting that if no other means could be found, that the band find the money and buy them outright. Trevor Tomah said that since environmental activists had destroyed the market for fur, people can no longer make a living trapping and that other activities needed to be considered on the trap line lands.

For Ella, Jean and Trevor it was not a question of acquiring jurisdiction over traditional lands for economic development, but of preventing their degradation by industrial development, over-hunting and pollution. The elders’ focus was on “saving” the land and environment and of stopping further ecological decline. “Nobody owns the land,” Jean said. “The land owns us.”

Family heads responsible for specific parts of the territory are now being forced to reconcile their duties with the prioritization of lands for inclusion in the treaty. In order to save some areas others must be let go.  An impossible task, when one has inherited responsibilities as custodians of the territory.

Off the Gird

The power consumption of distant cities affects the lives of those living on the Williston reservoir. Reservoir levels raise and lower as people turn on and off their lights hundreds of miles away. As the water recedes, large mud flats are revealed, which dry out and create dust storms over the community. The resulting poor air quality leads to respiratory and other health concerns. Its been a perennial complaint of the community to BC Hydro.

Before flooding, the valley was not logged. There are forests underwater. Waterlogged roots occasionally give way and trees explode to the surface, launching like missiles. It makes navigating the lake dangerous. Once freed, these trees can clog rivers and trap unsuspecting wildlife.

The flood deeply affected fish and wildlife in the area, interrupting migration corridors and submerging habitat. Mercury contamination affects fish. Development and over-hunting for sportsmen and non-residents has forced a greater reliance on non-traditional food sources. Food has to be transported to the remote village, so it costs more.

But incomes are lower. In the village, police, nurses, doctors, teachers, psychiatrists, biologists and other professionals are predominantly non-aboriginals. They are a rotating cast, living in the community only briefly. Some fly in from Prince George or elsewhere. 
Training and staffing these jobs with community members is a priority for Tsay Keh, but they can be hard to fill anyway.

There is resentment that while the community was displaced by a massive hydro dam, electricity comes from a sporadically-reliable diesel generator. Tsay Keh is not on the grid. Negotiations are ongoing with BC Hydro and the provincial government on issues related to the WAC Bennett Dam and Williston Lake Reservoir.

It’s so remote that it can be hard to stay. About 100 Tsay Keh Dene live in closest city of Prince George, including Chief Pierre and some band councilors. The band office is there. Industry and government officials are often reluctant to make the trip up to the village so many meetings happen in Prince George, out of reach of most community members.

Students must leave the community to complete high school or acquire post-secondary education. The trauma of residential school, lack of culturally appropriate curriculum and high costs mean some parents are reluctant to send their kids out of the community to finish high school. Teen pregnancy keeps many girls from graduation.

While a doctor makes periodic visits to Tsay Key, many have to fly out for medical appointments. Air transportation accounts for the big chunk of Health Canada’s First Nations and Inuit Health Branch spending.

The elders also spoke of the role of television and mainstream culture in creating a generation of Tsay Keh children alienated from their own culture. Kids are seeking an identity beamed in by satellite from the urban south. It makes connecting with elders and traditional knowledge more difficult.

With four RCMP officers and only 243 residents, Tsay Keh Dene is one of the most policed places anywhere. Jean and Joanne Isaac spoke of police abuse and excessive force, especially against the young. Community dialogue and meetings had been attempted with mixed results.


Robert Tomah pointed out that a great deal of economic activity has been undertaken and continues to go on in the territory without the nation’s consent. Sometimes, he said, there is no consultation – or even notification. Even after the Delgamuukw, Haida and Taku River Supreme Court decisions.

Hunters, guides, outfitters and resource companies almost never come to the village; they say they don’t have time. Mining companies are “gridding out” traditional territories, Robert says. Oil and gas exploration and claims are creeping across the area, often unbeknownst to nation. The relatively slow pace of treaty negotiations and government / industry consultations are outpaced by resource development in the territory.

Trappers and hunters come back off the land with reports of pollution from resource exploration or of poaching. But there are little or no provincial or federal environmental enforcement efforts.

Trevor Tomah unrolled at a map. He pointed out a forest access road that had been built in a well-documented, sensitive archaeological area.


I knew the teacher at the K-10 village school. He asked me to drop by the classroom. About half the registered kids were there that day. Some hadn't had breakfast. They asked me all kinds of questions, particularly about a proposed mine in the area. 
The class had gone on field trip to the tailings impoundment area of an existing mine. They brought jars from home and took water samples. They worried about the fish. But they also worried about jobs for their parents.  The mine is the talk of the town – on the radio and at the band store.

At that time, an Environmental Review Panel was assessing the proposed Kemess North project - a copper and gold pit mine in the traditional territory of the Gitxsan House of Nii Kyap, Kwadacha, Takla Lake and Tsay Keh Dene. The four nations opposed the project.

The potentially acid generating rock from the mine and other byproducts would be put in Duncan Lake - called Amazay - an important place to the Tsay Keh Nay. The process of converting the lake to a tailings pond will require damming and re-configuring the lake itself. 

The company argues that it cannot afford any of the alternatives, including the idea of depositing the tailings in the Kemess South pit, another of its close by mines. 

The four First Nations have come together to oppose the project. They assert that this course of action will disfigure the ecosystem and destroy life in the lake for generations after the mine’s 15 year productive life is over. The nations also argue that making Amazay / Duncan Lake into a tailings pond would set a bad precedent for other fish bearing lakes throughout Canada.

The four nations have urged the environmental review panel to reject the option of using Duncan Lake for tailings impoundment.   

A Gitxsan elder stated: “We will die on the hill to protect this lake. They cannot wreck lakes and river systems in our territory the way they have the Fraser in the South.”

Jean Isaac said that while starting up the Kemess South mine years ago, Northgate Minerals promised jobs for the community and that the company would set up a technical school in Prince George to train band members. The school never materialized. The few community members who worked at Kemess South found racism and frustration, she said.

Robert Tomah said the record of mining in his territory is not good. He pointed to several other mines, abandoned mines and mineral claims that transect the territory. Tsay Keh members have come upon claim stakes while hunting and fishing. All an individual need do is fill out an internet form to stake a mineral claim on Crown land.

Jean Isaac quipped: “Crown land? How can a hat own land?”

Thanks to Tsay Keh Dene elders Jean Isaac, Robert Tomah, Billy Poole, Trevor Tomah, and community members Ellie Pierre and Joanne Isaac for sharing their stories. Thanks to Tsay Keh Dene for inviting me and letting me stay in the little room above the gym. Thank the village school for inviting me to participate in one of their class discussions.   

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