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.

"A lot of First Nations are interested in development," Enbridge spokesperson Paul Stanway told The Tyee. "Their communities have high levels of unemployment and not a lot of opportunity, particularly for youngsters."

Even still, the Coastal First Nations were having none of it in late March 2010, when they declared, on the 21st anniversary of the Exxon Valdez disaster, that "oil tankers carrying crude oil from the Alberta Tar Sands will not be allowed to transit our lands and waters."

'Almost an insult'

That alliance of North and Central Coast native communities had every reason to fear an oil spill in the treacherous Hecate Strait or elsewhere could wipe out their cultures for good. 

For the Haisla First Nation as well, a key alliance member, Enbridge hadn't exactly shown itself to be a vigilant environmental steward.

It'd been four years, in fact, since the company's contractor, AMEC, had chopped down 14 culturally modified trees on traditional Haisla territory. And still there was no agreement on compensation.

But if relations between Enbridge and the Haisla leadership were strained then, they only got worse over the next year and a half. 

582px version of Kitimat meeting
On May 29, 2010, nearly 1,000 people gathered in Kitimaat Village vowing to stop the Enbridge project. Photo by Ian McAllister/

A major factor in that deterioration was the money company officials offered to settle the incident, $100,000 in total. 

That was "almost an insult" as far as Chief Councillor Ellis Ross was concerned. 

"$100,000 per tree would be a better point to start from given how serious this issue is," he wrote to Enbridge President John Carruthers on Aug. 23, 2011. 

Even worse was Enbridge's offer to make amends by staging a "cleansing feast" with Haisla representatives. 

"I have never witnessed Haisla Nation Council initiate a cleansing feast and I doubt I ever will," Ross wrote in the same letter. "I would appreciate it if your company's shallow understanding of our culture is kept out of our discussions."

This issue now looked to be completely tainting Enbridge/Haisla relations, though beyond local media reports, few outsiders had any idea. 

"The anger and resentment that is building up around these [culturally modified trees]," Ross continued in his letter, was the "number one" reason why Enbridge "has not achieved relationship status with our community."

"We recognize this is still a matter of concern for the Haisla," company spokesperson Stanway explained to The Tyee. "We're interested in talking to them about resolving it." 

'They weren't there to listen'

For Haisla leaders, the tree destruction incident had become emblematic of everything Enbridge failed to understand about their way of life -- their peoples' deep spiritual connection to the land, and living sense of tradition and history.

They weren't the only ones who'd witnessed this disconnect. 

Earlier that year, in May, Enbridge officials made far from a good impression during a community feast hosted by the Gitxaala First Nation.

They'd arrived by floatplane to the remote coastal village of Lach Klan around the same time as an RCMP detachment. Whether the company actually requested a police escort didn't much matter, for many native participants simply assumed it had.

And Enbridge officials further undermined the village's trust by leaving the feast before several hereditary chiefs could present concerns about Northern Gateway, explaining they needed to fly out before the weather got bad, even though accommodations in the village were available.

Company spokesperson Stanway said he's "not familiar" with the incident.

"They were looking to get out of the community at any opportunity," Chief Councillor Elmer Moody told The Tyee. "They weren't there to listen. It was like, 'OK, here's our checkmark, we've done our consultation.'" 

As the months passed, it became obvious that local cultural clashes were being felt on a provincial scale.  

At a packed Vancouver press conference in December 2011, native leaders told a phalanx of microphones and cameras that 130 First Nations across B.C. and Alberta now opposed the pipeline, many of whom wouldn't even be directly impacted by it.

"We will be the wall that Enbridge cannot break through," declared Chief Jackie Thomas of the Saik'uz First Nation, a member of the Carrier-Sekani Tribal Council.

Court ruling sets bar for First Nations consultation

Then, five days before public hearings on Northern Gateway began in the small Haisla community of Kitimaat Village, a legal decision handed down halfway across the country appeared to make that wall stronger than ever. 

An Ontario Superior Court deemed Solid Gold Resource's consultation process with the Wahgoshig First Nation a failure, and demanded the firm cease drilling on native land for at least 120 days. 

"There are many other cases like that," National Centre for First Nations Governance President Herb George told The Tyee. 

Enbridge has maintained that its consultation process meets all the obligations laid out by Canada's constitution. 

But George believes that, like Solid Gold Resources, the company's First Nations engagement has been anything but sufficient, and absent the meaningful involvement of the B.C. or federal government, leaves the company wide open to litigation. 

"If you look at the consultation process Enbridge has conducted, I think they got off on the wrong foot, and never got righted to this day," he said.

How these issues play out remains to be seen, as public hearings on Northern Gateway continue for more than a year across B.C. and Alberta. 

[Tags: Energy, Rights and Justice.]  [Tyee]

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