Tahltan builds mining and multi-faceted business success

Native band’s development corporation a powerful economic force in Stikine region

B.C.’s Tahltan Nation has a long history of economic self-sufficiency | Tahltan Nation 

The failure of a tailings dam at the Mount Polley mine northwest of Kamloops in August 2014 cast a chill over the province’s mining industry. Years spent rebuilding the industry after the dark days of the 1990s had yielded dozens of projects across northern B.C., and a disaster on the scale of Mount Polley threatened to scuttle operations.

Critics said the tailings pond was operated beyond capacity and lacked oversight, showing the need for stringent new standards at new dam sites, including the Red Chris mine Imperial Metals Corp. (TSX:III) was building near Iskut in partnership with the Tahltan Nation.

But with a history of defending the Stikine watershed from intruders, the Tahltan insisted on a strategy for managing tailings from Red Chris that exceeded those for Mount Polley, and secured additional safeguards after the disaster.

“We lean strongly towards protecting our land and our environment – very strongly,” said Garry Merkel, president and CEO of Tahltan Nation Development Corp. (TNDC), which last week won the BC Achievement Foundation’s BC Aboriginal Business Award for community-owned businesses.

He points with pride to the establishment of a tripartite monitoring committee for the Red Chris operation that brings together the Tahltan and provincial governments as well as Imperial – a first for the province.

The tough talk on the environment hasn’t lost it any business.

Owned by the Tahltan Central Government as well as the band councils at Telegraph Creek and Iskut, TNDC has evolved from a residential construction company to a multi-faceted business with annual revenues topping $25 million. Thirty years of growth have culminated in five major divisions and partnerships with 30 companies in almost every sector of the local economy, from road building to aerospace through Tahltan-Pacific, a partnership with Pacific Coastal Airlines.

Whatever needs to be done, the Tahltan are there.

“We own most of the local goods and services companies here, or have a share in them,” Merkel said. “We are working into owning a lot of the infrastructure in this area or having some share or significant say in them.”

The entrepreneurial approach has roots in the First Nation’s traditional role as a guardian of the Stikine and overseer of commercial traffic throughout the watershed.

“We patrolled that boundary regularly,” Merkel said. “[That’s] the history we come from as a people – pragmatic, get it done, focused on business.”

The Tahltan work ethic remains strong, with its members representing the largest proportion of TNDC’s 260 employees.

“Every Tahltan you talk to, one of the first things they’ll talk about is what kind of work they do and how they look after themselves and their families,” Merkel said.

Beginning with a 1910 declaration of sovereign right to its territories, the Tahltan haven’t been shy to speak up for a share of the opportunities others have eyed in their homeland.

“In a lot of ways, the signatories to that agreement did set the tone for the path forward,” said Steve Robertson, vice-president of corporate affairs for Imperial.

An “impact, benefit and co-management” agreement with Imperial regarding operation of the Red Chris mine that the Tahltan overwhelmingly endorsed this past spring and signed in July was consistent with the 1910 agreement, but the long tradition of seizing opportunities was already playing out.

“We defined a number of the business relationships we wanted to establish,” Robertson said. “But we found that a lot of the business relationships that actually happened on the ground weren’t described in that document because the Tahltan have become attuned to our needs.”

Dan Woznow, vice-president of energy exports with AltaGas (TSX:ALA), also praises the Tahltan workforce. Woznow, who has worked with the Tahltan since 1996, said the First Nation’s experience with the Barrick Gold Corp.’s (TSX:ABX) Eskay Creek mine and Cominco Ltd.’s Snip mine provided an experienced workforce.

The new ventures provide fresh opportunities that promise to keep local workers local.

“This was part of a strategy to get a lot more stability in our local employment,” Merkel said. “We are not inherently opposed to any type of development. … Without our locals working here we can’t keep our school open, we can’t keep our grocery stores and restaurants. You need stability.”