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No Wealth, No Justice in $1 Billion LNG Offer to First Nation Band

Here's why Lax Kw'alaams still side with the salmon.

By Ian Gill 9 May 2015 |

Ian Gill's Tyee column, The Poor Mouth, appears every two weeks or so. Gill lives and writes in Vancouver and works on social innovation initiatives. Find his previous pieces in The Tyee here, and find him on Twitter @gillwave.

Leonardo Boff, a Brazilian theologian and writer known for his work among the poor and the excluded, is credited with coining a phrase that is as true as any you'll ever hear: ''The opposite of poverty is not wealth -- it is justice.''

It is a phrase that has also been attributed to Bryan Stevenson, founder of America's Equal Justice Initiative and a man Archbishop Desmond Tutu has called, without qualification, ''America's Nelson Mandela.''

Regardless of the provenance of the expression, it is the potency of the underlying idea that should be freighted into the unseemly scramble to unlock northern British Columbia's dangerously exaggerated liquefied natural gas (LNG) bonanza, especially now that some coastal First Nations are bellying up to the pipe to get their overdue share of Canada's resource riches.

To read reports emanating from the mouth of the Skeena River, the energy sector thinks it has finally cracked the nut on how to successfully partner with First Nations people who, inconveniently, stand afore a variety of proposed LNG plants and pipeline deals. These aboriginal people have rights along the planned pipeline routes, and also at tidewater, where Canada is trying to unstopper our oil and gas supplies so the Chinese can drain off our energy sovereignty like so much bilge water.

Industry's latest poster child is the Lax Kw'alaams Band, whose main village at Port Simpson is situated on the coast north of Prince Rupert, where the waters of the Skeena and the Nass rivers mingle and nurse some of the finest wild salmon populations left on the planet.

For months, newspaper headlines have been full of dark portent for LNG's true believers. ''Energy giant plays hard ball with B.C.,'' said one, a reference to Malaysia's state energy company, Petronas. ''B.C. lowers expectations for LNG windfall,'' said another. ''NorthWest LNG plant faces big hurdle.'' And, with 2015 barely two days old, a warning that time was a wastin': ''For B.C. LNG, a make-or-break year.''

And then, suddenly, it looked like industry might be on the make after all. About a week ago, readers of the Globe and Mail awoke to this, on the front page: '''Game changer': Gas company offers $1-billion to First Nations band in B.C.'' If you happen to share Premier Christy Clark's delusion that LNG is going to silver the seams of the provincial purse for generations to come, then there was delirium to be drawn from this news.

The story itself read as follows:

''The proponent of a liquefied natural gas plant on British Columbia's north coast is offering more than $1-billion to obtain the consent of a First Nations community, a ground-breaking proposal that could establish the new price for natural resource development in traditional aboriginal territories.

''In a province where resource projects have stalled and sometimes foundered over aboriginal opposition, the tentative deal between the Prince Rupert-based Lax Kw'alaams band and a joint venture led by Malaysia's state-owned Petronas sets a new benchmark for sharing the wealth from energy extraction. If approved by band members, the agreement will transfer roughly $1-billion in cash to the Lax Kw'alaams band over the span of the 40-year deal, while the B.C. government is putting more than $100-million worth of Crown lands on the table. For the 3,600 members of the Lax Kw'alaams community, the total package works out to a value of roughly $320,000 per person.''

My first thought upon reading this was to divide 320,000 by 40. Try as I might, I couldn't make the number come out higher than 8,000. So that's $8,000 a year, assuming the thing gets built, and assuming that the plant achieves ''production based on company plans.'' This latter language I got from an LNG ''Benefits Summary'' labelled ''For Members Only'' and stamped ''Confidential'' and posted on that highly secure and eminently confidential site that goes by the name of Facebook.

Suspend, for a moment, your disbelief. If Leonard Boff and Bryan Stevenson are wrong, and in fact the opposite of poverty is not justice, but wealth, then the 3,600 members of the Lax Kw'alaams community are on the cusp of cashing in (8,000 ÷ 365) to the tune of $22 a day. Talk about ''a new benchmark for sharing the wealth from energy extraction.''

''This will be a real game-changer for many First Nations in terms of how they can build their future,'' B.C. Aboriginal Relations and Reconciliation Minister John Rustad told the Globe in an interview. The minister, according to an as-yet-unaudited accounting of pay for Members of the Legislative Assembly of British Columbia, earned at least $107,440 in nine months (275 days) from April 1 to Dec. 31, 2014, or $390.70 a day (107,440 ÷ 275). That works out to 17.75 times what a Lax Kw'alaams Band member's LNG payout will be, but then again every Lax Kw'alaams person will have 40 years to build their future on $22 a day. John Rustad will have, well, less time than that before he lands on the cushion of his MLA's pension.

''It's a significant deal, a serious deal,'' Mr. Rustad said. LNG projects have the prospect to be transformative for communities where LNG is being developed on B.C.'s coast, he told the Globe. ''There is no question liquefied natural gas sets the stage for an incredible opportunity for all of British Columbia and especially the First Nations involved in it.''

Well, an incredible opportunity, maybe. But certainly not an opportunity to get wealthy.

Fishy benefits

So if not wealth, where is the justice in this deal? Well, that's actually harder to follow than the money.

In the bulletin to its members, the Lax Kw'alaams Band said voting will take place on the proposed deal this month, after the risks and benefits are presented at a series of six membership meetings in the village, in Prince Rupert, and in Vancouver (the membership is widely dispersed, as is the case with most First Nations, and it is common practice to have multiple hearings in sites where band memberships are most concentrated). ''Membership will be asked to vote by a show of hands after the presentations,'' the bulletin said. After that, Lax Kw'alaams mayor Garry Reece and his 12-member council will decide whether or not the LNG developments will proceed with the band's support.

Regardless of the marginal benefits being dangled in front of band members -- not just cash, but land, a paved road, training, employment opportunities, ''capacity funding,'' and scholarships -- the Petronas LNG play risks playing havoc with the only resource that communities on the Skeena have historically, not to mention culturally, been able to rely upon: wild salmon.

Of course there is the usual corporate blather from Petronas about sustainability and the extraordinary care that will be taken with the environment, and, of course, there is an environmental assessment underway, which will, of course, end up favouring the proponents, who have, after all, sweetened the benefits package by offering $2.5 million for ''fisheries compensation and monitoring.'' Compensation… for what, exactly?

Well, the Lax Kw'alaams are said to have ''lingering worries about salmon habitat in Flora Bank, located close to the proposed LNG site near Prince Rupert." And so they should. In order to get gas to tidewater, a 900-kilometre pipeline from the gas fields in northeastern B.C. is proposed by Prince Rupert Gas Transmission, a subsidiary of TransCanada Corp. To distance itself from the much-reviled Enbridge Northern Gateway project, this one will take a more northerly route (away from the contested Skeena River corridor), reaching Pacific waters via the Nass River. It poses its own threats to the Babine, Sustut, and Kispiox rivers among others, and the routing doesn't relieve it of fierce opposition, especially among some Gitksan Nation members, and at least some members of the Nisga'a Nation, whose government has voted in favour of allowing 85 kilometres of the pipeline to cross Nisga'a lands. Incredibly, they favour opening up a 12-kilometre swath through Anhluut'ukwsim Laxmihl Angwinga'asanskwhl Nisga'a, or the Nisga'a Memorial Lava Bed Park -- a provincial park, and a hugely significant cultural site where as many as 2,000 Nisga'a people were entombed after a volcanic eruption about 250 years ago. Notably, Nisga'a lore has it that the volcano exploded in reaction to children having dishonoured life-giving salmon.

582px version of baby-fish-610.jpg
'Flora Bank is one of the best quality habitats for juvenile salmon,' writes ecologist Michael Price. Photo by Tavish Campbell.

After crossing the lava beds, plans call for the pipeline to complete its route under water in the lower Nass River, wrapping around the west coast past the village of Lax Kw'alaams, past Prince Rupert, and hooking around into the mouth of the Skeena. The pipeline is far from a done deal, but even if all the up-line First Nations were to eventually sign on, the very idea of building a massive processing and shipping facility near Flora Bank is offensive to people who have fought for generations to keep the Skeena wild. As far back as the West Coast Oil Ports Inquiry, the Fisheries Service (precursor to the Department of Fisheries and Oceans) did a study in 1972 that said, ''The present data indicate that Flora Bank is the most important shallow water area of the Skeena River estuary in terms of rearing juvenile fishes. The proposed port development would completely destroy the complex Flora Bank ecosystem and damage to the fisheries resource of the Skeena River and its estuary would be immense.''

More than four decades later, the only thing that has changed is that Flora Bank is arguably even more precious, given the insults to the Skeena system that logging and other industrial developments have inflicted. It remains a site of crucial importance to salmon rearing. Juvenile salmon populations rely on eelgrass meadows for food and shelter. Flora Bank, located between Lelu and Kitson islands, hosts one of the largest eelgrass meadows in British Columbia and supports up to 60 per cent of the total Skeena estuary eelgrass, according to ecologist Michael Price. In a report prepared for Skeena Wild he writes, ''All Skeena salmon use the estuary as a nursery, and approximately 331 million (88 per cent) of Skeena juvenile salmon migrate over Flora Bank each year. Furthermore, Flora Bank is one of the best quality habitats for juvenile salmon; thus, size, location, and habitat quality make Flora Bank an extremely important juvenile salmon rearing area.'' The idea that you can build an industrial site anywhere near such habitat, and then ''compensate'' for that by stumping up some cash and agreeing to monitor the effects after the fact, is so staggeringly stupid as to beggar belief. No wonder the Lax Kw'alaams have ''lingering worries,'' and upriver nations feel their constitutional rights to healthy fish populations are just as endangered as the eelgrass on Flora Bank.

Hands down

Those concerns have dominated the public meetings that have taken place so far. Repeatedly, news reports have said that voting on the Petronas offer will be judged ''by a show of hands.'' It seems remarkable that, on one hand, we are locked into an expensive weeks-long plebiscite about whether to hoik the sales tax by half a percent and raise $7.7 billion for new transit in Metro Vancouver, but, on the other hand, the fate of a $36-billion industrial project might swing on how people who turn out to six public meetings cast their very public, albeit non-binding votes in order to provide feedback to their mayor and council. In the act of taking the Petronas offer to their membership, the Lax Kw'alaams were feted as having had a ''history of (making) savvy deals'' and, in this instance, showing that ''even long-stalled energy projects have a glimmer of hope to win over opponents.''

Or, maybe not.

In Lax Kw'alaams on Tuesday night, those savvy band members sided with the salmon. ''I will never, ever give up the Skeena River for money,'' one participant said. ''There is far too much at stake.'' I spoke with one elder who didn't want to be named yet out of respect for not wanting to influence the votes yet to come. But she said she was relieved that such an ''outlandish proposal'' was voted down on Tuesday night. The vote: 181 opposed, zero in favour. In Prince Rupert on Thursday night, there was another emphatic rejection of the proposal by the Lax Kw'alaams there after what one observer told me was a ''wild night.'' The vote: 257 opposed, zero in favour. Voting will wrap up in Vancouver on Tuesday. Far from this current exercise being a breakthrough that shows how to get the job done with testy aboriginal communities, it might yet turn out to be a textbook example of how not to. Sadly though, even if the Lax Kw'alaams vote to a person to reject the proposal, it won't go away. They never do. Industry and the government are lockstep in search of a way to industrialize the Skeena, and much of the rest of the north, too.

It clearly confounds companies that they can't just buy a social licence in the same way they can get a business licence or an export licence, but that won't stop them from trying. And, as we are witnessing with the Site C dam development, eventually the government will just invoke what it considers to be the superior interests of the Crown over the constitutionally enshrined and court-confirmed rights of Canada's First Nations. This matters very much, not just in the Peace River or the Skeena River, but around the world. To return to Leonardo Boff for a moment, ''the Earth has arrived at the limits of its sustainability. Our task is not to create sustainable development, but a sustainable society.'' Social justice, Boff writes, ''represents one of the most serious challenges to the conscience of the world. The abyss between those who are within the world 'order' and those who are excluded is widening day by day.'' Wealth, he says, is ''unjustly distributed,'' a fact that ''creates a dangerous imbalance in the movement of history.''

That dangerous imbalance persists in projects like the Petronas plan for northern B.C. and, indeed, in industrial projects all over this land of ours. But the stern resolve of the people of Lax Kw'alaams is of a piece with their ancient history, and in standing up for their rights, they're making modern history too. There's more than a glimmer of justice in that.  [Tyee]

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