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Haisla Chief Councillor Crystal Smith at Kitamaat village, B.C., on Oct. 5, 2018.Amber Bracken/The Globe and Mail

For Haisla Chief Councillor Crystal Smith, it’s long past due for elected First Nations to raise what she calls the unheard voices in Indigenous communities located along a pipeline route in northern British Columbia.

Ms. Smith said she is disturbed by protests and blockades that have escalated and spread across Canada in solidarity with Wet’suwet’en Nation hereditary chiefs, who are battling the $6.6-billion Coastal GasLink project that would pipe natural gas from northeastern B.C. to Kitimat on the coast.

‘It’s the people who decide’: Who’s leading the pro-Wet’suwet’en blockades, and who’s not

All 20 elected First Nation councils along the route support the project, including the Haisla. “The stopping of the railways and the blocking of the ports – that comes with repercussions for First Nations people in this country,” Ms. Smith said in an interview. “I fear a backlash against First Nations in our everyday lives.”

She said there are deep divisions within the Wet’suwet’en Nation, and some Indigenous people who oppose the pipeline project have labelled her as a sell-out. “They call me a colonizer and an oppressor,” said Ms. Smith, who lives in Kitamaat Village, located near the end of Coastal GasLink’s route. “The sad thing is that the protests are affecting the possibility in future of lifting our people out of poverty.”

Coastal GasLink is seeking to transport natural gas to LNG Canada’s $18-billion export terminal, under construction in Kitimat, a community that is situated on the Haisla’s traditional territory. Royal Dutch Shell PLC leads the LNG Canada consortium, which aims to begin exports of liquefied natural gas to Asia in 2025.

The deeper reason behind Indigenous resistance to pipelines

At the peak of construction, from 2021 through 2024, LNG Canada will need nearly 7,500 workers. Coastal GasLink expects that it will require up to 2,500 workers to build the pipeline.

But a group of Wet’suwet’en hereditary house chiefs has led a vocal campaign to oppose the pipeline’s construction, saying hereditary leaders have jurisdiction over their unceded traditional territory located outside of federal reserves, not elected band councillors. About 190 kilometres of the 670-kilometre pipeline route cross the Wet’suwet’en’s territory.

Indigenous leaders who back the pipeline say the hereditary chiefs have been turbocharged by climate change activists, who have been able to rally like-minded people at an exceptionally fast pace, drowning out pro-pipeline forces.

Over the past two weeks, protests have sprung up across Canada, after RCMP began enforcing a court injunction against opponents of the pipeline project and arrested 28 people along a logging road near Houston, B.C.

Nine of 13 Wet’suwet’en hereditary house chief positions are filled while four of the spots are vacant. Eight of the nine men have said they oppose Coastal GasLink. One of the house chiefs has taken a neutral position.

In sharp contrast, the B.C. and federal governments support the pipeline, and five of the 20 elected band councils along the pipeline route that signed project agreements with Coastal GasLink belong to the Wet’suwet’en Nation: Wet’suwet’en First Nation (formerly known as the Broman Lake Indian Band), Burns Lake, Nee Tahi Buhn, Skin Tyee and Witset.

“More of the Wet’suwet’en Nation people are starting to speak out because they are getting employment and training on the pipeline,” said Karen Ogen-Toews, an elected councillor with the Wet’suwet’en First Nation and chief executive officer of the First Nations LNG Alliance.

LNG Canada has been working closely with the Haisla, Kitselas and five other Indigenous communities along the shipping route on the West Coast, where vessels would begin their journey to transport the fuel to Asian markets. The Haisla and Kitselas stand to benefit from both the LNG export terminal and Coastal GasLink.

Kitselas Chief Judy Gerow said the pipeline’s stretch of just 10 kilometres over the Kitselas First Nation’s territory near Terrace, B.C., means it was an easier decision for her community to accept an agreement with Coastal GasLink.

The proposed route will cut through one member’s trap line, but Ms. Gerow said her elected band council is trying to negotiate with the company to compensate the trapper. Otherwise, most of its 700 members, about 300 of whom live on reserves book-ending Terrace, support a partnership that promises to bring more employment to their community, she said.

“You can’t ignore the fact that there’s this industry in our backyard, and to not capitalize on it would be a mistake,” Ms. Gerow said. “We’ve seen the logging industry die around us. We’ve seen the fishing industry die around us, and our people were typically employed in those industries. It was really hard on the communities and on the families when these jobs disappear.”

Now, roughly 50 members have gone through trades courses with the First Nation’s training office in anticipation of working in the LNG sector, she said.

The Kitselas previously rejected an agreement over the mothballed Northern Gateway oil pipeline through Alberta and B.C. because they felt – and still do – that bitumen is more detrimental to the environment than natural gas. They are upset that oil is now rolling through their community by rail.

Wet’suwet’en Nation hereditary chiefs had enjoyed widespread support for years from elected First Nation councillors who vehemently opposed Enbridge Inc.’s plans for the Northern Gateway pipeline from northern Alberta to Kitimat, at the head of Douglas Channel. Hereditary chiefs and elected councillors feared oil leaks along the proposed pipeline route and oil spills from tankers in the coastal waters.

But the co-operative relationship between hereditary chiefs and elected First Nation leaders eroded in 2015 as band councils embraced a natural gas pipeline route as an acceptable environmental risk. That pipeline project turned out to be TC Energy Corp.’s Coastal GasLink, which gathered momentum as a separate proposal, Pacific Trail Pipeline, faltered.

Trevor Makadahay, elected Chief of the Doig River First Nation in northeastern B.C., said the majority of the several thousand oil and gas wells piercing his Indigenous group’s territory were placed there without consultation.

Oil and gas exploration began in the region in the 1950s, but it wasn’t until 1991 that the Doig River first signed a partnership agreement with one of the companies operating there, he said. “That’s when industry finally started really engaging with First Nations,” Mr. Makadahay said. Over the years, his First Nation has signed several project agreements, including one with Coastal GasLink.

The Doig River initially opposed the natural gas pipeline project because of a minimal level of provincial consultation. After complaining to the province, the First Nation was brought in for more discussions and ended up agreeing to the pipeline on its land as long as the disruption of wildlife sites, such as bear dens, was mitigated.

Mr. Makadahay said these agreements with companies are living documents that allow his band councillors to voice their concerns, such as ensuring compressor stations that were slated to be temporary don’t get put there permanently by the company.

He said First Nations know they have a duty to protect as much of their territories as possible for future generations, both for their members and non-Indigenous people alike. “That’s why it gets so emotional, because of that attachment to that piece of land,” Mr. Makadahay said.

Bonnie George, a Wet’suwet’en member who formerly worked on contract for Coastal GasLink, said she expects the voices of Indigenous people in favour of the pipeline will be amplified in the weeks and months ahead. “Watch for the floodgates to start opening, and more elders and matriarchs are going to speak up. I really hope so,” said Ms. George, who is a member of House on a Flat Rock, which has one of the four vacant Wet’suwet’en hereditary house chief positions.

Hagwilget, which has the sixth elected band council within the Wet’suwet’en Nation, is a reserve that includes Gitxsan members. B.C.’s environmental regulator excluded Hagwilget from its list of Indigenous groups primarily affected by the pipeline project and Coastal GasLink did not sign an agreement with Hagwilget, saying the regulator’s review process focused on the 20 reserves located along the pipeline corridor.

“The Wet’suwet’en people need to resolve the issues on their own before they can reconcile with any level of government,” the Haisla’s Ms. Smith said.

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