How Enbridge Sawed Off Good Relations with BC First Nations

Killing Haisla's sacred trees just one way firm has undercut dealings with aboriginals on Pacific Gateway route.

By Geoff Dembicki 16 Jan 2012 |

Geoff Dembicki reports on energy and climate issues for The Tyee.

More than five years ago, in a patch of coastal rainforest not far from the mouth of the Kitimat River, what was supposed to have been a quiet land survey turned into a public relations nightmare. 

The purpose of the survey was to scout locations for an upland terminal and tank farm site, part of the infrastructure needed to stretch a 1,172 kilometre steel pipeline from Alberta's booming oil sands to B.C.'s ragged north coast. 

The Calgary-based pipeline company Enbridge had contracted the job to an international engineering and consulting firm named AMEC, which, in 2006, sent survey members into old-growth forest dense with Sitka spruce and Western red cedar. 

Covered by thick moss and ferns, this area, about 700 kilometres north of Vancouver, is literally a living museum of First Nations history. 

Scattered throughout the forest are deeply notched tree trunks where Haisla peoples once stripped bark for their baskets, or took planks to build their homes. 

Carbon-date these culturally modified trees, Haisla leaders say, and you can establish native land claims dating back hundreds, even thousands, of years. 

Sometime during their expedition, AMEC workers chopped down 14 of these trees, irreplaceable artefacts in a culture largely built on oral histories. (A company spokesperson declined to explain why.)

Worse yet was that Haisla leaders didn't know their territory was being surveyed at all until Enbridge got in contact to make amends. 

"We compared it to a thief breaking into your house and destroying one of your prized possessions, and then calling you later to apologize for it," Haisla councillor Russell Ross Jr. told The Tyee. 

What followed over the next five years was a blueprint for how not to engage with native communities, an incident that to this day remains unresolved. 

The picture that emerges, and from several milestones like it, is a decade-long First Nations consultation process fraught with errors and missteps. 

And with historic public hearings on the $5.5 billion Northern Gateway pipeline just begun last week on Haisla territory, some observers think Enbridge may be in a much more precarious legal position than most people are aware. 

Making a tough sell tougher

Northern Gateway was always going to be a tough sell to B.C.'s First Nations, no matter how good the relationship between Enbridge and their communities.

The proposed pipeline, after all, would cross hundreds of salmon-spawning streams and rivers across the northern Interior.

These are spiritual and economic lifelines for such cultures as the Dakelh (more commonly known as the Carrier peoples) whose name translates to "people who go around by boat." 

Few First Nations west of the Rocky Mountains have signed Crown treaties either, leaving the rights and title to their traditional territories in legal purgatory.

Yet a series of tactical stumbles early on in Enbridge's consultation process only intensified an almost inevitable clash of cultures.

The pipeline giant delegated much of its initial outreach work to an Alberta-based company named Wynterose, self-described as "the largest Aboriginal consulting firm in Canada." 

Owned and operated by aboriginals, the group, which declined to comment for this story, claims to have "earned a reputation as leaders in bridging the gap between government, industry and Aboriginal communities."  

Beginning in early 2000s, and under Enbridge's authority, Wynterose dispatched consultants to meet with dozens of B.C. First Nations leaders.

A major oversight was that these native leaders hold prominent positions of authority in their communities. And so if they were going to negotiate something as serious as a pipeline crossing their territory, they wanted to meet Enbridge eye-to-eye, debating the project with actual executives, not some middleman hired to do the job.

Those tensions were very much evident at the late June 2005 general meeting of Northwest Tribal Treaty Nations (NWTT), held west of Terrace, B.C., in the Kitsumkalum community centre.

"The [First Nations] cultural and traditional way of life is at stake," read notes from a question-and-answer session between native leaders and Kent Patenaude, a Wynterose contractor speaking on behalf of Enbridge. 

"Feel it only appropriate," one participant argued, "that company officials ([with] decision making powers) meet with NWTT." 

Patenaude, who declined The Tyee's request for an interview because he no longer works for Enbridge, tried to reassure the room. 

"The concerns are brought back to the company," he said. "They are highlighted and will be acted upon."

Enbridge was in a tricky position, for even the most well-intentioned response could sometimes create mixed results.

A good example was the company's decision in 2005 to formalize its relationship with native communities by sending out Memorandums of Understanding (MOU) to dozens of groups affected by the pipeline route. 

Several B.C. chiefs had recommended the process, as Patenaude noted at the General Meeting in Kitsumkalum. 

But when it was actually carried out, many leaders bristled at the standardized MOU documents, which appeared to treat First Nations as a single entity, rather than a collection of diverse communities with their own hopes and fears.   

"Enbridge was taking a cookie cutter approach," Terry Teegee, vice-tribal chief on the Carrier-Sekani Tribal Council, told The Tyee. "A lot of First Nations didn't like that."

Rocky relations and lawsuit

What riled leaders even more, particularly those on Teegee's tribal council, was that throughout 2005, Enbridge had been dispatching field crews of two to six people to survey native land. 

It signalled to some First Nations that the company didn't really care about their input, that it was going through the motions of consultation, but considered the pipeline a foregone conclusion.

In late July of that year, the Carrier-Sekani leadership demanded Enbridge "forgo any studies this field season unless the company is willing to complete negotiations with the tribal council." 

Enbridge could ill afford to alienate the eight member nations of the Carrier-Sekani, who together control about one-third of the entire pipeline route.

So the company agreed that fall to provide $500,000 in funding for the tribal council to prepare an Aboriginal Interests & Use Study.

The decision established a temporary detente with the Carrier-Sekani leadership, but any goodwill crumbled soon after the report's release in May 2006. 

"The benefits from the pipeline to the Carrier Sekani will be very limited as presently proposed," it concluded, "and will not be sufficient to outweigh the impacts of the pipeline."

Enbridge became immediately hostile, according to Teegee, and offered the tribal council an ultimatum: "They said we must negotiate a deal now or risk receiving no benefits."

But the company's hard line tactics merely "strengthened our resolve," Teegee recounted online, "and united our people."

And from that point on, the Carrier-Sekani became one of the loudest, and most powerful, opponents of Enbridge's pipeline dreams.  

A true test of the the tribal council's strength came later that fall, when federal environment minister Rona Ambrose announced the Gateway project would be assessed by an independent review panel. 

Here was a decision that moved the pipeline one step closer towards approval, reached without any meaningful input from the Carrier-Sekani leadership, its legal team argued.

So the tribal council filed a lawsuit against the federal government in October 2006. 

"The Courts have been clear that First Nations can no longer be ignored in this way," Carrier-Sekani Tribal Chief David Luggi declared, "and we are challenging the Minister's decision."

Opposition grows unified

The next month, Enbridge announced it would delay its Gateway project by up to four years, focusing instead on fast-tracking a new pipeline into the U.S. midwest. 

But this was hardly the end of tensions between the Calgary company and its First Nations opponents.

Enbridge by 2008 had begun its second attempt to push through the Northern Gateway project. This time, however, the company faced a galvanized native opposition growing more united each year.

One example was an early June 2009 Energy Summit held in Moricetown, B.C., where representatives from more than 20 Alberta and British Columbia First Nations gathered to share their pipeline grievances.

"This Energy Summit was a reminder that the tar sands affects us all," Wet'suwet'en hereditary chief Alphonse Gagnon said at the time. "We can only protect our lands and waters if we stand together."

Early that December, the Carrier-Sekani's Teegee flew to the international climate talks in Copenhagen, where he denounced Enbridge at a protest outside the Canadian embassy.

But back in B.C., Enbridge laid claim to a competing narrative, one in which the company was gradually winning the trust and respect of First Nations.

"As of 31 December 2009," the company noted, "Northern Gateway had entered into 30 relationship protocol agreements with 36 Aboriginal groups." 

Though no indication of support, these agreements, which provided logistical funding to First Nations who signed, at least laid the foundation for an ongoing relationship, one the company claimed could benefit them immensely.  

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