A young indigenous law student and activist plans to visit the Yukon to speak about his own experiences with hydraulic fracturing on his traditional territory.
Caleb Behn, who is Eh-Cho Dene and Dunne Za/Cree, sports a Mohawk hairstyle, tattoos and a three-piece suit as he travels the world speaking about the conflicts that arise between First Nation communities and the natural gas industry.
In his mind, it’s often not a fair fight.
“I don’t think that the dialogue, the debate or the regulations, the law regarding it, match the sophistication of the industry, the potential impacts, the potential benefits. To my mind this is a whole new ball game.”
Behn will soon graduate with a law degree from the University of Victoria. He grew up all over B.C. and beyond, but he will always call his family’s traditional territories in northeast B.C. home.
The places where he has spent his life hunting and trapping are also home to some of the biggest natural gas developments in the country.
His mother is from the West Moberly First Nations, next to the Montney Shale gas development.
His father is from the Fort Nelson First Nation, adjacent to the Horn River Basin, the Liard Basin and the Cordova Embayment.
“The four biggest shale gas plays in Canada, the most developed, just so happen to be in my mother and father’s traditional territory,” said Behn.
Behn has been on the front lines of oil and gas development in his territory through B.C.‘s most recent boom in natural gas development.
After finishing an undergraduate degree in political science with a focus on indigenous-state relations, he was hired as the oil and gas officer for the West Moberly First Nations.
He was the point person for dealing with government and industry on all oil and gas files, he said.
“For about a year, I got thrown into the deep end of consultation, of issues in the community, of inadequate capacity for the nation to deal with literally thousands of files.”
The province, at the time, was making billions of dollars a year by selling tenure for the massive oil and gas discoveries in the northeast.
“It was a pretty intense education in how oil and gas is developed and regulated in this province, and in particular how it impacts indigenous people, especially my people, my mother’s people, the Dunne Za.”
He moved on to a job with the nearby Saulteau First Nations. There, his file became even more daunting.
He was in charge of monitoring oil and gas projects, assessing potential and real impacts to the ability of First Nation members to access the land for fishing and hunting, and dealing with litigation when rights were trampled upon.
“Frankly, we got railroaded,” said Behn. “We couldn’t stop anything. We had a hard time getting what I would perceive to be basic consultation. It felt like the Wild West from my perspective.”
It was that experience that convinced Behn to pursue a law degree.
He has met that goal, but he’s not done yet. He wants to get his master’s in law from Harvard and a PhD from Cambridge.
The ultimate goal is to develop a regulatory framework for oil and gas development that is informed by indigenous legal traditions and better reflects the complexity of the technology and the potential long term impacts.
Behn’s visit to the Yukon will not come with a plea to ban fracking in the territory.
“I’m not totally opposed to industry,” said Behn. “My family works in it, my mother has worked for the oil and gas majors for a long time. I’m not naive enough to believe that we can eliminate our reliance on hydrocarbons.”
But there are problems with how the industry operates now that need to be addressed, he said.
One of the big problems is that the technology is so complex, and there are so many unknowns when it comes to the long-term environmental and health effects.
Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, involves injecting a pressurized slurry of water, sand and chemicals into wells to split apart the rock and release natural gas trapped inside. Combined with horizontal drilling techniques, fracking now accounts for most of the natural gas production in B.C.
“They say, you know, Haliburton has been fracking since the ‘50s,” said Behn. “They haven’t been doing high-volume slick water hydraulic fracturing with two- or three-kilometre horizontal drills two kilometres down for 50 years. That’s a total lie. That’s bullshit.”
Another problem is that the area that assumes most of the risk gets so little of the benefits.
In 2001, Behn spent two months helping to clean up an oil spill on his family’s trap line.
“That really made me deeply appreciate the fact that when this industry or any industry goes on in the North, it’s not the south that feels the impact,” said Behn. “It felt like it was the south that was taking the lion’s share of the revenues.
“Especially from the indigenous perspective, in the indigenous community – you could say the same thing in the Yukon – there’s massive issues and inequalities in our communities.”
Here in the Yukon, recent changes to the Oil and Gas Act will pave the way for using natural gas as the territory’s primary backup energy source.
Northern Cross hopes to eventually extract enough natural gas from Eagle Plain to fulfill the Yukon’s demand and have enough left over to ship to Asia.
And in the Liard Basin in the southeast, just across the border from Behn’s traditional territory, EFL Overseas Inc. has announced ambitious plans to expand natural gas production.
Behn, who spent a summer as a law student working for Yukon’s Department of Justice, hopes his visit will bring the conversation about fracking and natural gas production beyond a divisive industry-versus-environment debate.
Behn will visit Watson Lake on the Jan. 19, Whitehorse on Jan. 20 and 21, Mayo on Jan. 22, Dawson on Jan. 23 and Ross River on Jan. 24.
For more details on Behn’s speaking events, visit the Facebook page for Yukoners Concerned About Oil & Gas Exploration/Development.
Behn’s story will also be featured in an upcoming documentary, Fractured Land. To learn more, visit www.fracturedland.com.
Contact Jacqueline Ronson at