For more than 5,000 years, First Nations people have collected plants and harvested red cedar on Lelu Island, which sits where the Skeena River meets the Pacific Ocean near Prince Rupert in northern British Columbia. Adjacent to some of the most critical salmon habitat on the West Coast, Lelu Island is considered so valuable that, according to local Indigenous oral histories, Indigenous tribes have long battled to control it.
Not much has changed today — except that the battleground has shifted to Victoria and Ottawa. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government is set to make a decision about Pacific NorthWest LNG (PNW LNG)’s proposed $36-billion liquefied natural gas (LNG) project, which is majority-owned by the Malaysian energy company Petronas. That decision could come at any time, although deliberations are likely to stretch into the fall. If built, the project will link a pipeline that weaves through traditional First Nations territories with a conversion plant and[annotate info=’The City of Prince Rupert’s economic plan “builds upon the ambitious vision of a global port metropolis developed by Charles Hays, a railway tycoon and founder of the Port who died on the Titanic, in the early 1900s,” according to the city’s website. The B.C. government would also like to see Prince Rupert become an international trade hub, home to LNG projects like PNW LNG. At the same time, some community members in Lax Kw’alaams imagine a revitalized fishing industry (with a tanker-free shoreline).’]shipping terminal on Lelu Island.[/annotate]
The stakes are high for B.C. Premier Christy Clark, who, already campaigning for re-election in May 2017, has promised big on jobs and tax revenue she says LNG development will generate. She claims PNW LNG has wide backing among B.C. First Nations, whose support is critical. At a press conference on June 3, Clark said, “It’s important that people in Vancouver and across the country see how much support there is for LNG in these communities.”
Last year, members of the Lax Kw’alaams First Nation, whose traditional territory includes Lelu Island, overwhelmingly rejected the proposed development on the island — and almost $1.2 billion in promised benefits. Clark claims a breakthrough with Lax Kw’alaams occurred earlier this spring. “The Lax Kw’alaams voted massively in favour of supporting LNG, with some conditions,” she stated at the June 3 press conference.
But locals in the tiny town of Lax Kw’alaams, many too afraid to put their view on the record, say no such vote occurred. The only vote on the proposed project that Discourse Media was able to substantiate is the vote that occurred at a series of meetings in May 2015, when a majority of community members voted against the benefit agreement proposed by PNW LNG.
The political pressure on Lax Kw’alaams since then has been immense. Locals describe a community deeply divided over its future, desperate not to miss out on the economic opportunity LNG could provide, but with a majority opposed to developing Lelu Island. “Everybody’s bickering and fighting. It is tearing the whole village apart,” says Corinne Dudoward, who has lived in Lax Kw’alaams all her life save for a few years off reserve to attend school.
With sparring between elected and traditional power brokers, death threats and alleged vandalism, a culture of fear has left community members feeling they haven’t been heard by provincial or federal politicians. Pledges by both governments to meaningfully consult with the Lax Kw’alaams people have been broken, according to many community members.
While Trudeau has a relationship to foster with Clark, he has also promised a renewed “nation-to-nation” relationship with Indigenous peoples based on “recognition of rights, respect, co-operation and partnership,” as stated in his mandate letters to ministers in November. He reiterated this when Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs Carolyn Bennett [annotate info=’“It’s about righting historical wrongs,” Minister Bennett said in her speech to the U.N. “It’s about shedding our colonial past. It’s about writing the next chapter together as partners.” Trudeau has called adopting UNDRIP a first step towards reconciliation.’]committed[/annotate] to the U.N. Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) in May.
Central to UNDRIP is Indigenous peoples’ right to “free, prior and informed consent” when it comes to proposals like PNW LNG. “Especially in cases of large-scale development or investment projects that may have a major, severe or adverse impact on Indigenous Peoples’ territories, consent is necessary,” wrote Indigenous legal scholar Dalee Sambo Dorough in Northern Public Affairs. “The state must provide all relevant information well in advance of the decision making.”
“Right now, in our ancestral lands, everything the Trudeau government has pledged to get right with Canada’s Indigenous peoples is in danger of going very, very wrong.”
“It means developing and maintaining a more balanced and respectful relationship,” says Senator Murray Sinclair, former chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. “It’s more than simply saying, ‘We’re going to stop taking your land away from you unless it’s really important.’” He says projects like PNW LNG are an opportunity for Trudeau to demonstrate his commitment to reconciliation.
In May, just two days after Bennett drew a standing ovation at the U.N. for committing to UNDRIP, [annotate info=’“We are not against development, but we are against this dangerous, irresponsible, foreign-owned and illegal intrusion into our sacred homelands,” Algmxaa, Murray Smith, one of the House Leaders of the Gitwilgyoots Tribe, said to the U.N., according to a press release.’]a group of First Nations people from the Skeena region also stood before the U.N.’s Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues[/annotate]. “Right now, in our ancestral lands, everything the Trudeau government has pledged to get right with Canada’s Indigenous peoples is in danger of going very, very wrong,” said John Ridsdale, a Hereditary Chief of the Wet’suwet’en First Nation. “It is 2016, and Petronas is the wrong project in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
The one thing everyone seems to agree on? That, had the consultation process been handled differently, free, prior and informed consent could have been achieved, PNW LNG could have been a success story for the Lax Kw’alaams, Petronas, Clark and Trudeau — and Lelu Island could have been protected for the use of future generations of Lax Kw’alaams people. Instead, it descended into one of the most polarized and contentious resource development battles that Canada has witnessed in years.
“Energy projects can proceed in a way that does achieve the purposes of reconciliation,” says Sinclair, “but not the way that we’re currently doing them.”
The battle for Lelu Island lands in Ottawa
PNW LNG has become one of the most contentious resource development battles that Canada has witnessed in years, and the battlefront has shifted to Ottawa.
Earlier this year, Premier Clark, four cabinet ministers and a delegation of over 80 people including industry representatives and First Nations travelled to Ottawa for what was dubbed a “trade mission.” PNW LNG has registered seven new lobbyists since the Liberals’ November election. First Nations groups opposing the development have also made multiple trips to Ottawa and the U.N., supported in part by conservation groups.
In addition to their conflicting demands, Trudeau’s government must weigh climate commitments made at the Paris Climate Conference at the end of 2015. The Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency has concluded that PNW LNG is “likely to cause significant adverse environmental effects … as a result of greenhouse gas emissions.” In fact, in late May, nearly 100 scientists said in a group letter to Minister of Environment and Climate Change Catherine McKenna that PNW LNG “would add between 18.5 per cent and 22.5 per cent to [B.C.’s] total GHG emissions,” making it “virtually impossible for B.C. to meet its GHG emission reduction targets.”
Not prior, not informed — not free
It’s unclear whether First Nations were consulted before key decisions were made concerning PNW LNG. Shaun Stevenson, Prince Rupert Port Authority (PRPA)’s vice president of trade development, says the PRPA acknowledges that the port exists on traditional territory and expects developers to engage with First Nations as “early as possible.” A 2014 report by PNW LNG suggests initial contact with Lax Kw’alaams occurred in December 2012. But at least six months prior, Petronas had already earmarked Lelu Island for its plant and signed a feasibility agreement with the PRPA.
Community members in Lax Kw’alaams were open to development that would bring economic opportunity to the region, but they were concerned about how developing Lelu Island would impact salmon. Three years after being initially contacted, plans to locate the LNG plant on Lelu Island seemed set in stone, even though band members had received little response to their concerns about environmental impacts. And so, in spring 2015, some of them occupied the island in protest.
Ken Lawson and his wife, Patty Dudoward, are on the frontline of this occupation. A trucker and a fisherman by trade, Lawson never imagined he and Dudoward would spend the better part of a year shuffling between their home in Prince Rupert and the camp on Lelu Island, organizing food and fuel and assisting other activists at the occupation. As a house leader in the Gitwilgyoots tribe, one of the Nine Allied Tribes of Lax Kw’alaams, Lawson is often called upon by his hereditary chief to [annotate info=’Lawson and other hereditary leaders from the Tsimshian Nation have asserted their authority over the island before the federal government in Ottawa and the United Nations in New York. Click to view their open letter to Justin Trudeau‘]speak for the community.[/annotate]
“Do we want to create jobs for First Nations people and others in the country or do we want to have no change at all?”
Lawson isn’t against resource development in the region. His opposition hinges on the project’s impact on salmon — a staple for First Nations, tourism and the fishing industry. The Skeena River watershed is “one of the largest salmon watersheds in the world, second only to the Fraser River in its capacity to produce sockeye salmon,” according to the [annotate info=’The CEAA is a federal body tasked with carrying out environmental assessments under the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act, 2012. The goal of these federal environmental assessments is to “minimize or avoid adverse environmental effects before they occur; and incorporate environmental factors into decision making.“‘]Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency (CEAA)[/annotate].
In April 2015, PNW LNG presented Lax Kw’alaams with a benefits proposal totalling nearly $1.2 billion in payments and land transfers that would be delivered over 40 years. The mayor of Lax Kw’alaams at the time was Garry Reece. Wanting to better understand the impacts on salmon and dissatisfied by information provided by PNW LNG, Reece’s band council commissioned consultant and geologist Patrick McLaren. The sediment expert found that PNW LNG’s plans for Lelu Island could have a disruptive effect on Flora Bank, a sandbar where juvenile salmon spend time transitioning between the river and the ocean.
A collaborative study published in March 2015 in the journal PLOS One shows that Flora Bank is critical habitat for migrating salmon. The authors point to previous studies which show “that estuary habitat degradation can negatively impact salmon populations”; they conclude that “these alterations of this habitat could degrade nearby and distant fish populations and their fisheries”.
The CEAA’s draft report to the federal government ran counter to McLaren’s and Moore’s findings, arguing that “taking into consideration mitigation measures … the Project is not likely to cause significant adverse environmental effects on marine fish and fish habitat.” Experts have called into question the CEAA’s findings. On March 11, a group of 134 scientists submitted a letter calling on Minister of Environment and Climate Change Catherine McKenna to reject the CEAA’s draft report; [annotate info=’They called out the federal process for being too proponent-driven, a criticism echoed in a report for BCBusiness by Anne Casselman.’]they said[/annotate] the government report is “scientifically flawed and represents an insufficient base for decision-making.”
In May 2015, Lax Kw’alaams-commissioned scientists and PNW LNG representatives presented their contrasting views at a series of public meetings called by Mayor Reece to consider PNW LNG’s benefits proposal. The meetings occurred in Lax Kw’alaams, Prince Rupert and Vancouver ([annotate info=’According to Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada, 817 members live on band land while the total registered population of Lax Kw’alaams people is 3,351.’]the vast majority[/annotate] of band members live outside of Lax Kw’alaams).
In all three locations, large majorities of attendees rejected the deal. Two days after the final vote in Vancouver, the band council released a statement: the band would not support LNG on Lelu Island, but was open to collaborating to find an alternative plan. “Lax Kw’alaams is open to business, to development, and to LNG (including PNW). It is not open to development proximate to Flora Bank,” the statement reads.
Those occupying Lelu Island felt bolstered by the vote, confident that they represented the view of their community. “What it’s all about for Christy Clark is the jobs, and I get that. There aren’t a whole lot of jobs around,” says Ken Lawson from his vantage point on Lelu Island. “They just simply can’t put it on Flora Bank, Lelu Island. Put it somewhere else.”
“If they had asked where to put this in the first place, [the community’s] answer would probably be different,” says Lawson. “There would have been proper consultation — which there wasn’t.”
PNW LNG didn’t take up Lax Kw’alaams on its offer to find another location. But that didn’t mean the deal was off.
The premier doubles down
Premier Clark’s confidence in the venture was not lessened by Lax Kw’alaams’ rejection, according to reports by APTN and CBC. She reportedly said it was “only a matter of time” until a deal was reached with Lax Kw’alaams and the rejection was nothing more than “a bump in the road.”
At the Western Premiers’ Conference in May 2016, Discourse Media asked Clark what responsibility her government has to Lax Kw’alaams. She responded: “Do we want to create jobs for First Nations people and others in the country or do we want to have no change at all?”
Her comments echoed the message the B.C. government has been sending for months: it’s either the Petronas plant on Lelu Island or no economic progress at all. That kind of ultimatum has left people living in the region fearful of missing out on a limited-time offer, yet at the same time feeling that their concerns about the project’s location have been ignored.
Four of the five First Nations that the CEAA and the B.C. Environmental Assessment Office required PNW LNG to consult with — Metlakatla, Kitselas, Kitsumkalum and Gitxaala — have signed either impact benefit agreements (securing payouts for their communities along with environmental commitments from PNW LNG) or term sheets, which are often a precursor to impact benefit agreements.
With Lax Kw’alaams emerging as the sole holdout among those five First Nations (some upriver tribes that harvest Skeena salmon, including the Wet’suwet’en and Gitanyow, are also opposed), Lawson and Dudoward found themselves under increasing pressure from locals who felt they and their fellow occupiers were standing in the way of jobs and prosperity. “It feels like Ken’s and [my] heads are on the chopping block,” Dudoward says. They also acknowledge a lack of visible public support for their position, which they find understandable, but frustrating. “People are afraid of what could happen to them if they helped us out,” said Lawson. “They have to protect themselves and their jobs. I don’t hold that against anybody.”
Lawson himself is paying a toll for standing up. “I’ve logged all my life and I’ve run trucks for the last 12 years,” says Lawson. “The business has suffered… big time.”
In a smoke-filled teepee on Lelu Island, where the occupiers often debrief, Lawson talks about the recent breakdown of one of the trucks in his commercial fleet. Under the hood, he found a hole in a component behind the engine, one he believes was an act of sabotage. After inspecting the damaged part, his insurance company agreed it didn’t appear to be a wear hole. An investigation is underway.
Malcolm Sampson, a Lax Kw’alaams fisherman for more than 40 years and an outspoken activist against PNW LNG, also became a target for those in the community who disagreed with him. He recalls one phone call that made this particularly clear.
“You see that big hotel sitting there?” he asks, pointing to a modest, weathered building he owns. “I was threatened they were gonna burn it down. A man threatened to come up to my house and he was gonna shoot me and all my children,” he says. “My heart fell to my knees; I almost cried.”
Police in Prince Rupert say they have seen an increase in calls resulting from the controversial nature of these large-scale LNG projects. Sgt. Jagdev Uppal of the Prince Rupert RCMP adds: “This has included marine-based offences such as dangerous operation of motor vessels and uttering threats (complaints).”
James Anaya, U.N. Special Rapporteur on the rights of Indigenous peoples, could have been describing the situation playing out in Lax Kw’alaams when he criticized Canada’s relationship with Indigenous people in a 2014 report. When consultation does not take place in a consistent and timely manner, he wrote, the result is “an atmosphere of contentiousness and mistrust that is conducive neither to beneficial economic development nor social peace.”
Murray Smith, a house leader from the Gitwilgyoots Tribe, believes PNW LNG proponents are stoking divisions in his community by taking advantage of internal governance challenges. “They look for the weak link, people that are hungry for money,” he says. “They see that they’re poor and say, ‘Sign your name here.’”
A sudden flip-flop
Despite this mounting pressure, elected and hereditary leaders remained relatively united in their opposition to LNG development on Lelu Island — until a new mayor and council were elected in November 2015.
At first, the newly elected leaders maintained the community’s position. Mayor John Helin even submitted a letter to the CEAA reiterating the band’s rejection of the benefit deal on March 7, 2016.
But eight days later, in a move that hereditary leaders call a betrayal, Helin submitted a [annotate info=’This second letter was submitted (and accepted) to the CEAA four days after the deadline for submissions, on March 15, 2016.\n Then, a third version of the letter was sent; this version was an update to the second, but, unlike the second, was on official Lax Kw’alaams band letterhead with errors corrected, such as the previous date line of March 15, 2015 changed to read 2016.’]second letter[/annotate] to the CEAA that contradicted his earlier letter and offered conditional support for a project. The letter was dated March 15, when several elected councillors were away on an annual kelp-gathering trip on Digby Island.
Community members in Lax Kw’alaams were shocked. According to Smith, “the last time we had a band meeting was in a previous administration,” before Helin’s November election. Many Lax Kw’alaams community members corroborated this.
The band council is [annotate info=’Lax Kw’alaams implemented a custom election code in 2011. This means the band is self-governed and not beholden to the Indian Act. Because the federal government doesn’t oversee elections or regulation for the band, only the band can answer questions about governance.’]not required under law[/annotate]to make financial or governance documentation available to the public. But, according to former mayor Reece, a band member can request meeting minutes at the band council office. So on April 8, after a prolonged silence from the elected council, fisherman Malcolm Sampson went to the band office and requested any relevant minutes from meetings concerning the letter.
Instead of providing the requested documentation, according to Sampson, the band council shut down the office and an impromptu protest ensued that resulted in someone calling the RCMP. By the time police arrived, there was little action. Const. Monte Webb describes the protest as “three cops and thirty people standing around just talking.”
Mayor Helin declined to comment in response to multiple interview requests made by phone, email and text message. When approached by Discourse Media reporters in person, he held his hand up and said “no.”
Discourse Media also reached out to each band councillor with publicly listed contact information. Only councillor Stan Dennis responded. Dennis says he is not at liberty to provide details on how the council operates, but stated for the record: “I am still standing against this development on Lelu.”
Political talking points
Helin’s contentious letter became a speaking point for Premier Clark. At the Western Premiers’ Conference in early May, she said Lax Kw’alaams leadership “voted overwhelmingly in favour of moving forward into the next stage of this agreement on LNG.”
In multiple interview requests, Discourse Media asked Clark to elaborate. In an emailed response, the premier’s office stated, “First Nation officials carried out their own internal engagement processes prior to their vote and letter of support to the federal government.”
Then, in a follow-up phone call, a spokesperson for the premier who spoke on background explained that Clark may have misspoken when she referred to a “leadership” vote and that it was in fact a public meeting where the community voted 244 to three in favour of developing Lelu Island.
In written statements, the province has maintained that “Lax Kw’alaams First Nation conducted its own community engagement process and vote, prior to its letter being submitted,” but how many people voted and whether they were leadership or band members remain unclear. At the June 3 press conference, Clark said, “There will always be some people who disagree and that’s the nature of a democratic society. But in the Lax Kw’alaams, when they took that vote amongst the chiefs and the vast majority — I think over 150 people voted in favour of it and three voted against — at some point you have to say the people have spoken.”
But have they? Neither the premier’s office nor the band council provided any documentation of either a band council or community vote in response to multiple requests. Discourse Media has been unable to identify a single community member who attended or was aware of a public meeting that was supposedly attended by between 150 and 247 people.
PNW LNG declined multiple interview requests and provided a written statement: “PNW LNG is working collaboratively and constructively with local First Nations. To date, PNW LNG has received conditional support from all local First Nations within the project area. We do not comment on band governance issues.”
Malcolm Sampson hasn’t shied away from pressing council to explain what happened in those eight days between letters to the CEAA; he is circulating a petition demanding answers and organizes occasional protests outside the band office. But he’s not sure how long he can keep it up; he no longer feels safe in the community.
“I’m going to try and sell what I can here and then maybe move on. We don’t feel liked here,” says Sampson. “It’s sad. It hurts to leave because I’ve lived here all my life.”
Updated: July 6, 2016
At Discourse Media we’re wondering: Does the right of freedom of the press apply to First Nation communities? How about in B.C.’s new treaty First Nations? If you’ve got a story about reporting challenges or accessing information, reporter Wawmeesh Hamilton would love to hear from you. Be in touch ->