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B.C. child welfare program offer to First Nation backfires over LNG ties

File photo of the Kitimat LNG site.

John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

A ham-fisted attempt to win First Nations support for the province's liquefied natural gas ambitions has backfired, threatening support for the Pacific Trail pipeline needed to bring natural gas to Kitimat for a proposed LNG plant.

The Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs have returned a cheque to the province and have backed away from a proposed agreement on the pipeline after the B.C. Ministry of Aboriginal Relations and Reconciliation linked its LNG offer to continued funding for vulnerable children in the northern coastal community.

"When we saw that they had rolled up our child welfare program in the LNG offer, we were dismayed. This is an absolute proof of the sharp dealings across this province to get this LNG initiative," said Debbie Pierre, executive director for the Office of the Wet'suwet'en.

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The provincial government has reached agreements with 15 of the 16 First Nations communities needed to move ahead with the gas pipeline, but the Moricetown Indian Band – one of the six Indian Act bands within the Wet'suwet'en territories – has yet to sign on. In an Aug. 1 document presented in Moricetown, titled "B.C.'s offer with respect to proposed natural gas pipelines," the ministry outlined "what B.C. has done so far" for the Wet'suwet'en. That list includes $250,000 for the Office of the Wet'suwet'en and "continued funding" for the child welfare programs. The offer included a framework agreement and a $25,000 cheque that was a down payment for pipeline capacity funding. Ms. Pierre sent the cheque back.

"LNG is not the springboard to opening discussions around child welfare," she said in an interview.

A failure to get First Nations onside would be another setback for the Kitimat LNG venture, long considered one of the leading candidates among the 15 proposals for LNG in B.C. Chevron Corp. is looking for a new partner after Apache Corp. pulled out of the project. The Pacific Trail pipeline is a key part of the infrastructure, and the province has provided funding so that First Nations can buy in as limited partners in the project.

The Wet'suwet'en are set to meet with the province's LNG negotiating team on Wednesday in Smithers, and John Rustad, the Minister of Aboriginal Relations and Reconciliation, was on his way to meet with the elected council of the Moricetown band on Tuesday night.

Despite the contents of his ministry's presentation, Mr. Rustad said there was no intent to imply that ongoing support for the First Nation's funding for child welfare programs hinged on support for the gas pipeline and LNG.

"The initiative on their wellness program was important work, it was not linked to support for liquefied natural gas," he said in an interview Tuesday. "If that is the impression they have, it's not what we were trying to do."

Mr. Rustad said his dealings with the Wet'suwet'en have been complicated because the First Nation community has both elected and hereditary chiefs, and while he is seeking an agreement with the Moricetown Indian Band – an elected council and chief – the hereditary chiefs have raised objections. "Internally, the Wet'suwet'en people need to work through those divisions of authority and power," he said.

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But the region's MLA, Doug Donaldson, said it is the government that has mired negotiations when it referenced social program funding in its pipeline offer.

"For me, it's akin to blackmail that you are linking existing funding from one ministry that is supposed to be for services to vulnerable children, to the Wet'suwet'en's approval of LNG development," the NDP MLA for Stikine said.

The B.C. government won the last election with a campaign that promised to eliminate the provincial debt by creating a new LNG industry. Mr. Donaldson said the government is leaning heavily on First Nations because that industry won't be built without that support. "It is a sign of extreme desperation – the Premier has made over-the-top promises and now the government is pulling out all the stops to get their way."

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