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B.C. First Nations Chief creates alliance for LNG supporters amid backlash

Lelu Island, site of an LNG export terminal proposed by Pacific NorthWest LNG.

Brent Jang/The Globe and Mail

A group of First Nations communities that supports a liquefied natural gas industry in British Columbia will meet on Wednesday in an effort to forge a pro-development alliance.

Aboriginal leaders who have signed up for benefit-sharing agreements for their communities are facing a strong backlash from other First Nations leaders – often within their own communities.

Over the past month, that opposition has snowballed and the 28 First Nations that have already signed development agreements may find themselves increasingly isolated. Those First Nations chiefs who are still on the fence find themselves in a politically volatile climate.

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"Our community's members are being shunned, they are being treated badly by other First Nations," said Wet'suwet'en First Nation Chief Karen Ogen, who has invited leaders from 15 First Nations along the line of the proposed Coastal Gas Link pipeline to meet her community. The pipeline project would supply a proposed LNG export facility in Kitimat which is still awaiting a final investment decision.

When Ms. Ogen signed a $2.8-million agreement with the province last December to support the pipeline, she said the attacks from critics – from neighbouring aboriginal communities as well as hereditary chiefs of the Wet'suwet'en – were strong. Supporters were hard to find. She said only one B.C. chief – there are 203 Indian Act bands in B.C. – publicly supported her community's decision.

"I think there is a need to support the First Nations that have signed on, so I'm setting up a First Nations-LNG alliance," Ms. Ogen said. She said she asked for help from the political organizations that represent the province's First Nations, but there has been no appetite. "If we can't get the support from the political organizations that supposedly represent us, let's just do this."

Since December, the divisions over LNG have heightened. Two weeks ago, the Lax Kw'alaams near Prince Rupert rejected a $1.1-billion offer to provide consent to a proposed export facility on Lelu Island. The project has support from neighbouring Tsimshian communities but now faces an uncertain future.

The province has sold LNG as a "generational opportunity" that can lift aboriginal communities out of poverty. But the Lax Kw'alaams have been widely praised for their stand against the project, which they fear will harm the critical habitat of juvenile Skeena salmon.

Norman Stephens is a Gitxsan hereditary chief who has led protests in his community against natural-gas pipelines that would deliver fuel to LNG facilities on the coast. "I felt great pride to hear the Lax Kw'alaams turned down a billion-dollar deal to protect the salmon," he said in an interview. "They have made such a noble gesture."

Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, president of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs, said the concerns raised by Lax Kw'alaams have prompted a reassessment of the impact of LNG. "First Nations are beginning to wake up to the impact a full-scale industry would have on our way of life," he said. "We are moving away from Yes in the direction of No."

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The Haisla Nation in Kitimat were early adopters of LNG. Chief Councillor Ellis Ross says his community went through the backlash stage several years ago. "We were ahead of the curve," he said in an interview Tuesday. The Haisla leader said Ms. Ogen is "brave" to stand up against her critics. He said he is sending a delegate to support the Wet'suwet'en in creating an LNG alliance.

"First Nations members are asking for employment, asking for training, asking for a future. And there is no way to deliver unless the First Nations leaders look at some sort of development that impacts the environment," the chief councillor said. "I'm talking about mining, forestry and LNG."

Ed John, Grand Chief of the First Nations Summit, said LNG continues to be a topic of debate among aboriginal leaders, but proponents will have to find a way to get to consent or their projects won't move ahead. "You can't focus solely on jobs and damn the environment, that's not going to fly in our communities."

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About the Author
B.C. politics reporter

Based in the press gallery of the B.C. Legislature in Victoria, Justine has followed the ups and downs of B.C. premiers since 1988. She has also worked as a business reporter and on Parliament Hill covering national politics. More

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