A U.N. committee’s recent call on the federal government to halt three major resource development projects in British Columbia continues to spark outrage among Indigenous leaders who are in favour of the projects.
The First Nations LNG Alliance has now issued an open letter to the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD), saying its recommendations should “immediately be withdrawn” and an apology given to the 20 nations that support the Coastal GasLink pipeline, one of the three projects.
“The committee should have been aware that that 20 First Nations participated extensively during five years of consultation on the pipeline, and have successfully negotiated agreements with Coastal GasLink,” the letter stated, while accusing CERD of failing to do its research before taking a position.
Haisla Nation Chief Councillor Crystal Smith, whose community supports the pipeline, called the committee’s edict “condescending.”
CERD chair Noureddine Amir later admitted he “did not know” that most First Nations communities support Coastal GasLink. The committee wanted the project halted until the “free, prior and informed consent” of all affected Indigenous groups was granted.
A small group of Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs and their supporters who are against the project are continuing to blockade a portion of the pipeline’s right-of-way, in violation of a court injunction.
Meanwhile, the Wet’suwet’en’s elected band council is behind the $6.6 billion pipeline to deliver natural gas to an LNG Canada export facility in Kitimat, B.C., which will provide jobs and spur a local economy reliant largely on government largesse and boom-bust resource cycles.
Disproportionate media coverage of hereditary chiefs’ opposition to Coastal GasLink and the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs’ touting of CERD’s pronouncement hasn’t helped public understanding of matters, says Indigenous affairs expert and Macdonald-Laurier Institute senior fellow Ken Coates.
“A lot of Indigenous people support resource development if it’s properly done—they see no economic future for themselves without engaging in the resource economy,” says Coates, a University of Saskatchewan professor and frequent commentator on colonization and the intersection between Indigenous rights and resource interests.
“They want to break away from that economic dependence … and then they get a really small number of Indigenous people and a larger but still smaller number of non-Indigenous people interfering with their decisions, and pushing back against it.”
At a press conference on Jan. 23, Chief Councillor Smith punctuated her frustration with internal and external forces ginning up a tiny minority of opponents.
“I’m disappointed that the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs is choosing to stoke the fire of conflict regarding the Wet’suwet’en issue rather than stand in support of the 20 Nations which have signed agreements for the natural gas pipeline,” she said.
“Whether it’s the [Union] or the Assembly of First Nations or the First Nations Summit, these groups seem content to rush to offer their perspective on what is happening within the Wet’suwet’en, but have remained silent on all of the First Nations which are benefitting in real terms from these projects.”
Smith ended her speech by referring to the pipeline project as “a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” that won’t come again, noting that she was “tired of managing poverty, tired of First Nations communities dealing with suicide, low employment, or educational opportunities.”
Former Haisla Nation chief councillor and current B.C. MLA Ellis Ross had some fighting words of his own for the U.N.
“For these people to come over at the last minute and claim Aboriginals were not engaged is nonsense,” Ross told the Canadian Energy Centre. “I want to defend these band councils. They’re honourable people and they’re trying to fix Aboriginal poverty.”
Trans Mountain Expansion
A little further south of the Coastal GasLink right-of-way is the 1,150 km Trans Mountain pipeline expansion (TMX) between Edmonton, Alberta, and Burnaby, B.C., which the federal government nationalized for $4.5 billion in 2018.
At the time, Finance Minister Bill Morneau said the decision to purchase the existing bitumen line and right to build a proposed $7.5 billion twin was to de-risk the project amid the Tsleil-Waututh and Squamish (coastal) First Nations opposition.
The First Nations won initially in the Federal Court of Appeal, which agreed that Ottawa failed to meet a constitutional standard of consultation with them over the pipeline’s expansion.
The Tsleil-Waututh’s second challenge of the government’s decision to permit TMX is still before the Federal Court of Appeal, and construction remains largely in limbo, occurring only in municipalities that don’t overlap with First Nations.
When Prime Minister Justin Trudeau re-approved TMX in June 2019, he also offered 100 percent ownership of it to Indigenous groups.
Since then, Indigenous groups have clamoured for a stake, but Morneau claimed in December last year that “we just don’t yet have a sense of which [Indigenous groups] impacted would be keenly interested and capable of moving forward.”
Joe Dion, CEO of the Western Indigenous Pipeline Group, represents dozens of First Nations along the existing pipeline’s right-of-way that support the project and want to buy a piece of the action.
Two other Indigenous groups have also expressed interest—Iron Coalition and Project Reconciliation, both based in Alberta—though Dion says his group should get first dibs.
Between making his case to Ottawa, Dion is trying to wrangle opponents like those First Nations in the Squamish litigation camp to come onside.
“We know these folks, we talk to them on a regular basis, they have their issues and we respect those issues … the impact this will have on the marine life, on their water rights, on their livelihoods. Absolutely we respect that,” says Dion.
“But there’s also the balance of the First Nations we’re working very closely with along the line who support the pipeline and want to get it built—they know it’s going to bring them benefits, long-term jobs, long-term revenue streams.”
As the chairman of Frog Lake Energy Resources, the country’s first Indigenous-owned petroleum company, Dion has watched the sea change among non-Indigenous politicos, resource companies, and business leaders toward Indigenous participation in mega-projects like TMX.
“This is where we’re going now, and it’s basically reshaping the country, reshaping Canada,” he says. “It’s good for our people that we finally have this, but it’s our responsibility as Indigenous leaders to make sure these rights are exercised properly and responsibly to ensure it’s a win for everybody.”
Coates says TMX has the chance to make “world history,” but the government should act sooner rather than later.
“There are Indigenous people lining up to be part of the process and make big investments,” he says. “I just wish [the government] would move faster on these things because the First Nations are anxious to have conversations about this, anxious to have negotiations and discussions going forward.”