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Haisla Chief Crystal Smith at Kitamaat village, B.C. says the pipeline project will help the community become less reliant on meagre federal funding.

Amber Bracken/The Globe and Mail

A pipeline at the centre of a conflict between hereditary chiefs and a natural gas company in northern British Columbia is creating jobs for Indigenous people and lifting communities from poverty, says an elected chief of a band that supports the project.

All 20 elected band councils along the Coastal GasLink pipeline route have signed benefits agreements with the company. The Haisla Nation in Kitimat is among them and Chief Coun. Crystal Smith said the project will help the community become less reliant on meagre federal funding.

“Our governance system has been managing poverty. It’s a similar situation in every First Nation in this province, in this country, of managing limited funds to be able to assist our people,” Smith said.

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“In order to achieve independent nations, we need independent members. The opportunities that are available for today’s generation and future generations of First Nations people that participate in these projects are life changing. They’re nation changing.”

The 670-kilometre pipeline will deliver natural gas from the Dawson Creek area to a liquefaction facility in Kitimat as part of the $40-billion LNG Canada project.

However, five Wet’suwet’en hereditary clan chiefs say the pipeline cannot proceed without their consent. Their supporters at a camp near Smithers have been blocking construction in violation of a court injunction.

The elected band council of the Wet’suwet’en, on the other hand, has signed a benefits deal to support the pipeline.

The dispute has highlighted a debate over whether hereditary chiefs should have more power under Canadian law. The Indian Act established band councils, made up of elected chiefs and councillors, who have authority over reserve lands. Hereditary chiefs are part of a traditional form of Indigenous governance that courts have grappled with how to recognize.

Wet’suwet’en hereditary chief Na’moks, who also goes by John Ridsdale, said he wishes pipeline supporters would consider the dangers of the project.

“These man camps are dangerous places. They fly in and fly out, they have no social responsibility to where they are. They get to go home. We are home,” he said.

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Smith said many of those employed on the pipeline are Indigenous or B.C. residents.

The Haisla Nation is also in discussions for equity stakes in the project, which would create revenue that the community could decide to invest in housing, health or education, in contrast with federal money that comes with restrictions on how it can be used, she said.

Smith said her band council signed benefits agreements with both Coastal GasLink and LNG Canada. The details of the deals are confidential but Smith said they contain clauses that ensure environmental protection and remediation of the First Nation’s territories.

“Our territories aren’t new to development or industry: forestry, aluminum smelters. Back when those developments were occurring, our nation wasn’t a part of the development. We had no say. We had no share,” she said.

“Within these projects, we have a seat at the table in terms of how they’re developed, how they’re built and the impacts on our community and our territory.”

Smith said it’s concerning that the pipeline blockade is impeding the progress of the project and she believes chiefs, whether hereditary or elected, should put the interests of their people first in decision making.

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She added that she “feels” for the Wet’suwet’en community.

“Issues like this divide communities. They tear families apart. They ruin lifelong friendships,” she said.

Na’moks questioned how Smith could feel for the Wet’suwet’en when she is not a member herself.

“We look after our nation,” he said.

Mike Robertson, a policy adviser with the Cheslatta Carrier Nation, said the pipeline is located north of his community so it has not signed a benefits agreement, but it has a more minimal deal known as a community agreement.

Robertson said his community is wary of some of the negative impacts of a work camp setting up in the area. But he said it has equipment and will do right-of-way clearing and other work as the project progresses, and it hopes to play a bigger role in construction.

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“We definitely support the project,” he said. “This economic development coming through our community is positive.”

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