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A Good Use of Heartbeats: An Interview With First Nations Activist Caleb Behn

Hailing from Dene in Northeastern British Columbia, Caleb grew up with the oil and gas industry.

Caleb Behn along the proposed Enbridge pipeline route at the Morice River in Houston British Columbia. (Photo: Rebecca Carter)

First Nations activist, attorney and writer Caleb Behn talks about the continuing colonial incursions into his Dene homeland in Northeastern British Columbia, his family and nation’s fight against the extractive industries and bringing Idle No More to a minus-35-degrees-Celsius-environment.

By the age of 31, Caleb Behn had endured 18 facial reconstructive surgeries. He has had 20 screws and 7 plates in his face. At the age of 10, he had his lips sewn shut.

Caleb Behn: I was born with a cleft upper palate and the source of that is unknown, but it is disproportionate amongst indigenous people. It may be a genetic predisposition, but as a result I’ve always had a keen interest in the effect of toxins on children and their development,” he explained. “I’ve spent a lot of time under the knife and having been born humbly, and having to suffer and experience so much pain made me realize that I want to commit myself as a man to trying to relieve that pain in others.”

Caleb is the focal point of a new documentary called Fractured Land by filmmakers Fiona Rayher and Damien Gillis, which explores the ever-deteriorating symbiosis between humanity and the land that we are privileged to inhabit.

Hailing from the Dene homeland in Northeastern British Columbia, Caleb grew up adjacent to the oil and gas industry. He has witnessed from an early age the devastating effects that the industries have had on the environment and the unique and often difficult social climate that arises when cultures clash. With the advent of fracking, an unconventional method of extracting oil and gas, the toll on the land and its people has increased tenfold in the past decade. With degrees in both law and political science, Caleb has been at the forefront of the indigenous movement, representing his people in the centuries-long battle to protect their land and, in turn, the very core of their culture.

Industrial Impact

I grew up in an interesting and beautiful country. We have large amounts of resources of every kind, except uranium – thank God – but we have pretty much everything else.

They’ve been (conventional) drilling here since the ’60s, and Halliburton will say, “Oh, we’ve been fracking since the ’50s,” and I think that’s misleading.

What we saw back in 2007 was the first real rise in unconventional industry development and it happened very quickly. There was water tribute restructuring in Alberta and the oil and gas majors in response didn’t like that, so they pushed out of Alberta and sent their guys east and west to Saskatchewan and British Columbia. The western Canadian basin has the largest hydrocarbon deposit on earth, which just so happens to be contained almost entirely on Treaty 8 land. [Approximately 840,000 square kilometers of land guaranteed to First Nations in the 8th treaty signed between the indigenous of people of North America and the Queen of England in 1899.]

Alberta is very conservative and has always been the bastion of oil and gas and always pushing for the unconventional, so in 2007 we started to see coal bed methane, and then the timber sales, and then we really started to engage the question of fracking.

I always got the history from both my grandpas about how the land had changed in the last 100 years. The land that I grew up in, the land that I thought of as normal by our standards was not. There used to be way more moose and more everything, more beaver, more martins. I always knew that our land was being significantly impacted. There’s a lot of impact because there’s more and more and more development; there’s more forestry, way more petroleum development roads – and with every road comes a parallel increase in every other industry and of course non-indigenous hunters, trappers, campers and I’ll speak quite frankly, a lot of the oil industry guys that I see in our territory aren’t very progressive people; they like big power toys; they like big trucks; they like big guns and they don’t like Indians and they like to mess up the land.

Culture Clash and the “Roughnecks”

The roughneck (oil rig crew worker) culture has come to be a serious and significant culture within the Canadian social mosaic. They use the term roughneck as a term of pride. I don’t mean to judge all of the industry, I know there’s lots of good people, and some of my family works in the industry. I don’t mean to judge them all, but my experience has been there’s a lot of people, a disproportionate amount of rough-and-tumble people, who give conservatives a bad name. There’s a lot of white supremacy, a lot of racism, a lot of biker and biker wannabes. Racism, sexism, and violence against women: These are all big issues and they’ve been identified by public health officials in the territory, but it’s been like that since the beginning. Social dynamics change because cultures change. I suspect there’s violence in most of the resource extraction industries and I suspect that it’s a psychological by-product of the environmentally destructive process, but those are my values speaking. I just have my perspective; I don’t want to stand in judgment. There’s not always violence. There are some great guys who come; there are so many interesting stories of human interaction. There’s something to be said for our territory, we’ve had the missionaries, the settlers, the farmers, the trappers, we’ve had the oil guys and the gas guys and the unconventional gas guys and the dambuilders who come in and they change things – not just on the land, but within the human culture and, speaking frankly, it’s not been good for the indigenous population: That’s the consistent dynamic.

Roots of Activism and Leadership

My grandfather, George Behn was the grand chief of Treaty 8. My mother’s father, John Doty Sr. was the vice grand chief of Treaty 8, so the way that I grew up I was deep in the nation’s politics. I was very aware of the industry; I have family involved in it. We’ve always had this love/hate kind of dual relationship where some family members work in the industry and some family members hate the industry and choose to fight it. I knew that they were impacting our way of life, our land, our family and I can remember from 3, 4, 5 years old … they would have us come and sit in as children and serve tea and just listen to the political discussions our families and our people would have on these issues.

There was a boom in the gas industry in ’83 in our territory and I was born in ’81, so as I came up there were big questions about aboriginal rights in Canada, aboriginal rights generally and what we were going to do as families and as a people – so I was quite engaged and lucky and privileged to be trained traditionally.

My family is very political, but the other side of it is both of my grandfathers try to stay very close to the land; they are very traditional, and my mother’s father was one of the most renowned hunters and trappers and elders in the territory. You can’t describe this man; he’s the epitome of indigenous values. We hunted every summer; we trapped every winter and he was very traditional, very soft-spoken. He’s the one that trained me how to hunt, fish and trap. Hunting with him, I saw my first kill at 4; I got my first gun, a pellet gun, at 4 years old and I was hunting actively from then on.

I killed my first deer when I was 12 and [that] was kind of a big deal. When you kill your first big animal you’re kind of seen as a man within the family and culture. I killed my first moose and my first black bear at 15. When I was 7 years old, me and my grandpa we were out trapping and we caught a seismic exploration team on his trap line and that was the first time I had seen my grandpa get really angry and really upset and we went home and the next day we were calling the family saying they’re exploring up here. So at 7 years old, I was already aware of what happens when the initial exploration happens, the impacts on the indigenous people and the impact on the hunters.

I went to law school because I got tired of paying our indigenous lawyers massive amounts of money to argue what I thought I could argue just as well. I’ve always been attracted to law I think because I come from an oral tradition and trained to be a leader traditionally … and I don’t mean to sound vain: the path of leadership in my community is one of servitude and one of humility. To speak on behalf of your community is a massive responsibility and it’s a hard road. I finished my undergrad in 2007, and when I came home we got wrapped up in this massive fight with oil and gas development and I found this to be a kind of colonial war; and if I’m going to get caught up in a war, I want to fight effectively and lawyers are the only citizens in Canada who are allowed by right to speak to a judge. It’s a very powerful tool, so I decided to get that tool on behalf of my people. My degree has been entirely focused on the nexus between environmental law and indigenous people

Idle No More

I was in Ottawa when Chief Theresa Spence began her hunger strike. I went down and met with her on the third day of her fast and I started hearing about Idle No More, and I started seeing these flash mobs and these videos and I couldn’t wait to get home. I helped arrange our Idle No More here in Fort Nelson, with my chiefs and trustees … who are all women. It’s really heartening to see the women reclaiming their rightful place as leaders in the community and I don’t just mean in my territory, but in Canada and even globally…. I was the only male in the room as we were planning this event.

In a rural place like this, where it’s minus 35 degrees Celsius, you can’t flash mob dance outside because our elders will die, so we’ve had to approach it differently. We had a little flash mob in town. We went to the local school government offices there and had a demonstration, and then we drove around town with all of our trucks with signs, honking our horns and shutting down traffic. It was a very northern thing to do in the spirit of these flash mobs and these round dances and these spontaneous expressions of hope and pride and just the rejection of being idle.

In general, for me, it’s been invigorating and I think it’s interesting when you compare it to Occupy. Some people are saying that Occupy was about the money and Idle No More is about the land. I’m not sure if I fully believe that, but there are some very salient observations there. The way I understand it is, just to stop being idle in the face of constant colonial encroachment. The land is a fundamental issue, but it’s not the land; it’s the environment and not the western-centric idea of land as something that needs to be protected so that you can use it later. The land is what we are obliged to protect; it’s more than us; I fight for the land because it is that which is greater than me and I have to live a life and conduct myself in a way that honors it. The land focus isn’t just about land; it’s also about culture.

Next Steps

In the next six to eight months, I’d like to see legal personhood extended to water bodies. In my own work, I’d like to see indigenous values, concepts and traditions become incorporated into the law of the country, provincial and federal – and my hope is to take that global. I’d like to spend my life on trying to bring indigenous laws made around natural resource development to be as strong, as recognized, as received and as compelling as the western colonial law, because I believe that within indigenous law are very different perspectives on how we as human beings interact with the natural world and I think that there are very pragmatic principles that deal with the destructive potential that we have now as a species that was never in existence before. My goal is to empower that vision through scholarship and through legal activism and through my own personal life.

I read this interesting research paper back when I was younger about how most mammals have the same amount of heartbeats regardless of their size … whales, hummingbirds, tortoises, humans … we have different life spans but we have a relatively consistent heartbeat in our lives and that made me realize that the clock is ticking; you only get so many heartbeats and I wanted to make mine count for as much as possible and I believe that helping to end the suffering and erosion of tradition in the world expanding around us will be a good use of my heartbeats.

Fractured Land is still in production and seeking donations to help complete the film. To view a demo of the documentary, or for more information on how you can donate and get involved please visit here.

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