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Ellis Ross, chief councillor of the Haisla First Nation, on the shores of Douglas Channel with the Kitamaat Village dock in the background, Kitamaat Village, B.C. (Robin Rowland for The Globe and Mail)
Ellis Ross, chief councillor of the Haisla First Nation, on the shores of Douglas Channel with the Kitamaat Village dock in the background, Kitamaat Village, B.C. (Robin Rowland for The Globe and Mail)

FIRST NATIONS

Haisla gain control of valuable B.C. land Add to ...

This article is part of Next, The Globe's five-day series examining the people, places, things and ideas that will shape 2013.

Ellis Ross is skinny. He has striking green eyes, and an East European complexion. As an aboriginal kid growing up in a first nations community on the British Columbia coast, his size and his colour and his funny first name made him easy pickings.

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Others, he remembers, would say: “‘He’s white. He’s weak. He’s skinny.’ It was open territory for taunting and teasing.”

Mr. Ross, 47, now serves as Chief Councillor of the Haisla First Nation. He stands at the crossroads of some of Canada’s biggest energy and international commerce ambitions. Tens of billions of dollars in oil and gas export projects stand poised for construction on lands claimed by the Haisla. If those projects are built, they will constitute the single-largest investment British Columbia has ever seen. And the Haisla have, quietly, gained control or ownership of much of the land that those companies will need.

If development proceeds, the Haisla stand to become one of Canada’s wealthiest first nations – and they stand to enable connections with Asia that could boost the fortunes of great swaths of the country’s energy industry. Which means that Mr. Ross stands directly inside a tangle of outsized ambitions.

“How he decides to address these things, and the guidance he provides and the leadership on that front, will dictate the national energy policy for the next 30 years,” says Roger Harris, a Vancouver-based consultant who considers Mr. Ross a personal friend.

It is a tremendous weight on the shoulders of a man who, until he was 10, spent a lot of time crying, caught between his own inadequacies and the expectations of others. It was an experience that, in some ways, mirrors the development of Canada’s first nations, who are taking an increasingly assertive role in the corporate world. For Mr. Ross, it formed a leader who now sits across from Canada’s most powerful business and political figures – one who, from an early age, was urged not to give in to his own frailties.

As a boy, Mr. Ross’s father made him carry the same large blocks of wood as his larger brothers. “My dad never cut me any slack, really. He basically said, ‘You have to fend for yourself.’” As a teenager, his pride stepped in. Like many West Coast first nations’ youth, he played basketball. At first, he wasn’t particularly good – a fact noticed by an opposing team member, who, following a humiliating defeat, told Mr. Ross that vanquishing him was a “piece of cake.”

“I got so offended by that that I promised myself I would get better.”

He began to run, doing lengths of “Suicide Hill” on the outskirts of Kitamaat Village, the Haisla town near Kitimat, B.C. His father once saw him climbing the hill backward. He offered one further word of counsel: “Faster.”

Mr. Ross became one of the top basketball players in northwestern B.C.

He is also, years later, among the top aboriginal leaders in the country. Some 20 industrial projects have been proposed on Haisla land. Mr. Ross regularly sits with executives at corporations on the scale of Royal Dutch Shell PLC. He has been courted by the country’s political leadership, including Joe Oliver, the Natural Resources Minister. Top figures at Canadian banks are eager for a slice of the spending coming into Haisla territory. China Investment Corp. has made similar overtures.

Mr. Ross’s response: “CIC has just got to get in line.”

It is difficult to overstate the degree of change for the Haisla. Less than a decade ago, the band headquarters, without computers, was in a mouldy office that had been condemned many times. Haisla finances were bad enough that they were nearly placed into third-party management.

Today, the Haisla take in more than $4-million per year from Kitimat LNG, backed by Apache Corp. and others with plans for an export terminal on a Haisla reserve. If that terminal is built – the outlook has grown cloudy in recent months – it could generate $15-million to $20-million a year. Royal Dutch Shell, and several Asian partners, also envision a multibillion-dollar LNG terminal in the area. And the Haisla have a 50-per-cent ownership interest in a smaller project, called BCLNG, which is set to expand in the new year.

Their participation with those projects has allowed the Haisla to assert dominance over the area. Several years ago, the band sold an ownership option in Kitimat LNG for $58-million. Such industrial proceeds has been put toward dividends to band members – $3,000 each in one, more in another – but also to extend their reach over nearby land. Through negotiations with both the province of British Columbia and Rio Tinto Alcan, which runs a smelter in the area, the Haisla have gained a legal say over much of the land along the west shore of Douglas Channel. It’s an area where Enbridge Inc. has sought to build Northern Gateway, and numerous other companies are contemplating LNG projects.

The Haisla have grown powerful, and have established an underpinning for future wealth, assuming industrial plans don’t shift, as they have in the past.

Yet with that power has come tremendous complexity. Mr. Ross now finds himself seeking to balance the interests of his own community – some now want a swimming pool, for example – with those of Canada and of other first nations in the area, many of whom will need to be persuaded to allow pipelines to cross their land so gas can move to the coast.

Then there are the big-picture issues. With natural gas, the U.S. market is diminishing; Asia may be the only real option for future growth. Oil companies have made similar arguments in favour of West Coast exports. The country’s ability to fund health care and highways – dependent in large measure on resource revenues – is one of the very real consequences of how the Haisla choose to proceed, Mr. Ross says.

It is, to say the least, a delicate balancing act.

Mr. Ross, Mr. Harris says, “knows that if everyone doesn’t feel the benefit from these things, no one is going to feel the benefit.”

On paper, Mr. Ross has few of the qualifications one might expect of a man who sits at the table to discuss billion-dollar investments. He spent a year at college. He has battled alcoholism – though he’s now been sober for over a decade. His work history involves hand-logging, driving small worker ferry boats and beachcombing. But he learned he could rely on himself, a fact that was underscored when he once mistakenly drove a 10-metre boat into a wicked storm, with two passengers on board, and waves that reached over six metres.

“There’s nobody out there to help you,” he says.

It is a philosophy he has taken seriously since joining the Haisla leadership, first as a band councillor in 2003 and then, in 2011, as chief councillor. Early in his political career, was determined to learn more about first nations’ rights. So he sat down to read every important legal case concerning first nations’ consultation and accommodation. He also consumed a highly technical, two-binder engineering report on an early LNG project proposed for the area. “Didn’t understand a word. But I read it,” he says.

Why? “I wanted to know how to do my job.”

With virtually no formal training, Mr. Ross has developed, his peers say, an expertise in first nations’ rights not matched by many in the legal community.

But perhaps his most daunting task will be to employ that knowledge in service of his own people, as the Haisla look to manage the coming development deluge. It is a process that is already beginning.

With aboriginal rights on their side, the Haisla have moved toward becoming the master developer for their entire region. They are claiming their land not through the courts or treaties, but through commercial transactions. Many first nations fear industrial development. The Haisla have used that development as a tool to gain control of their own destiny – one in which it is they who determine what is economically, and environmentally, acceptable.

“Before white contact, we were the owners. We were the decision-makers. We made all our wealth off the territory,” Mr. Ross says. He adds: “My dream, really, and my vision, is for my people to take back their rightful place in this territory.”

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