No pipeline approval from First Nations without safeguards: Grand Chief
Michelle Zilio, CTVNews.ca
Published Sunday, May 17, 2015 10:32AM EDT
Last Updated Sunday, May 17, 2015 4:26PM EDT
A B.C. aboriginal leader says no pipeline projects will be approved by the province's First Nations until they are consulted and satisfied with the steps taken to protect the environment and land rights.
Grand Chief Stewart Phillip told CTV's Question Period that, to date, energy companies and the federal government have disregarded the rights of First Nations people and their environmental concerns when proposing major natural resource projects, such as pipelines.
"The First Nations people in British Columbia have long held their absolute constitutional and legal right to defend the environmental integrity of their territories," said Phillip, president of the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs. "The aboriginal title and rights interest and everything they represent to the First Nations people in British Columbia are not for sale."
Phillip's comments come days after B.C.'s Lax Kw'alaams band rejected a $1.15-billion deal that would have given consent for the Pacific Northwest LNG project, led by Malaysia's Petronas. Members of the 3,700-member First nation voted against the proposed project during three separate community meetings, the last of which was held in Vancouver on Tuesday.
Petronas is seeking consent for the construction of a terminal facility on Lelu Island, south of Prince Rupert, which would mark the end of an LNG pipeline stretching across northeastern B.C. The pipeline is being proposed by Prince Rupert Gas Transmission, a subsidiary company of TransCanada.
Lax Kw'alaams Mayor Garry Reece says the rejection of the project was "not a money issue," but rather "environmental and cultural." The band is concerned about the potential impact of a proposed 1.6-kilometre long suspension bridge on the nearby Flora Bank and its salmon habitat.
"In this case, the proposed project would have caused irreparable harm to some very delicate salmon habitat and jeopardizes the entire Skeena River and the fishery that the indigenous people have relied on for thousands of years. And it was absolutely unacceptable to undertake such a risk and accordingly they resoundingly rejected the offer," said Phillip.
Phillip said the Lax Kw'alaams band considered the Supreme Court of Canada's 2014 Chilcotin decision recognizing, for the first time, aboriginal title to a specific tract of land in B.C. The decision is expected to weigh on First Nations’ consideration of major natural resource projects on aboriginal land in B.C.
"The Chilcotin decision speaks about our duty and obligation to protect the aboriginal title and rights of our future generations," said Phillip. "(Lax Kw'alaams) took a very principled and courageous stand and rejected this proposal.”
Phillip said the band's rejection of the project serves as a reminder of First Nations' opposition to pipelines, including projects proposed by Kinder Morgan and Enbridge in B.C.
He said the current practice by energy companies, as well as the federal government's approach to environmental oversight, doesn't bode well for proposed pipeline projects.
"Under the current lack of environmental standards, the Harper government did a very effective job of completely gutting of all environmental regulatory oversight with omnibus legislation … and has certainly shown complete disregard for environmental concerns and the natural values of British Columbia."
Lax Kw'alaams says it's still open to development, including the proposed LNG pipeline, but not near the Flora Bank.
Gov't, company could still proceed
B.C. Premier Christy Clark said Tuesday that she believes the project will eventually go ahead, while Pacific Northwest LNG President Michael Culbert said in a statement that the company remains committed to the project and discussions with First Nations.
Lelu Island is Crown land, so the B.C. government could go ahead with the pipeline despite the band's opposition. The Lax Kw'alaams would have to prove it owns the land – likely through a long legal battle, which could delay the project.
But B.C.’s Minister of Aboriginal Relations and Reconciliation John Rustad told CTV News that while Pacific Northwest LNG is hoping to start construction this summer, the government is not prepared to go ahead without First Nations consent.
“I don’t want to be a situation where we’re thinking that we forced something. We want to make sure that we do everything we can to try and address the concerns and work with the Nations,” said Rustad.
That being said, the B.C. government doesn’t agree with the Lax Kw'alaams’ environmental concerns.
“We do not believe there is a significant impact. The Lax Kw'alaams disagree with that. And so what we need to do is we need to work down with them with the science that they have, with the science that we have, and then understand where there concerns arise from that and where the differences are,” said Rustad.
The minister said he remains “optimistic” that the province and company will be able to find a way forward with the band, as the project will be a “game changer” for B.C. and its people. According to Rustad, the investment in the pipeline project is 10 times larger than the current largest private sector investment ever been made in B.C.
“The jobs that will be created as well as the revenues that will come from this will certainly be significant, especially for First Nations.”
With files from the Canadian Press