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Ellis Ross, chief councilor of the Haisla First Nation, stands for a photograph on the Haisla First Nations reserve in the village of Kitimat, B.C.

Ellis Ross, former chief councilor of the Haisla First Nation, is opposed to the proposed Northern Gateway oil pipeline, but he supports plans to export LNG.

Ben Nelms/Bloomberg

Multi-year benefit agreements have convinced some First Nations to back the project and pipeline, but some indigenous communities are still opposed, report Mark Hume and Brent Jang

By promising hundreds of millions of dollars in benefits, the B.C. government has won wide First Nations support for the Pacific NorthWest LNG project and the pipeline that will supply it.

But federal approval of the $36-billion venture – which includes a natural-gas export terminal at Lelu Island near Prince Rupert and a 900-kilometre pipeline that snakes across British Columbia from close to the Alberta border – has exposed deep divisions within aboriginal communities.

Even with B.C. government promises of $31-million in initial one-time payments, and an ongoing share of $10-million that would be paid out annually over the 40-year life of the project, some aboriginal communities remain resolutely opposed.

Gary Mason: The politics behind the go-ahead for the LNG project in B.C.

Related: Seven things to know about the Pacific NorthWest LNG project

On Friday, members of the Haida Nation took their complaint to an international audience, wearing T-shirts with the words No LNG as they paddled the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge to the village of Skidegate.

Still, the elected councils of most First Nations potentially affected by the project see it as an opportunity to end chronic unemployment and lift their communities out of poverty. Others, often led by hereditary chiefs, argue it is a threat to the environment and to their traditional way of life. Opponents have established three protest camps and have sent numerous delegations to Ottawa, and one to the United Nations in New York. But, at the same time, supporters have signed benefit agreements with both the provincial government and the project proponents.

First Nations in British Columbia often present a broadly unified front opposing development issues, complaining about a lack of consultation and inadequate benefits. Enbridge Inc.'s proposed Northern Gateway oil pipeline, which would transport diluted bitumen across northern B.C., has met with a wall of opposition from First Nations in B.C.

But the Pacific NorthWest LNG project is different.

The Lax Kw'alaams First Nation, for example, has struggled with internal disagreements over a $1-billion benefit-sharing offer. The offer, which would be spread over 40 years, came from Pacific NorthWest LNG, which is led by Malaysia's state-owned Petronas. Winning support from the Lax Kw'alaams is crucial because the First Nation is seen by many experts as having the strongest aboriginal claim over Lelu Island and also Flora Bank, an area for salmon habitat located next to the island.

Like many aboriginal leaders, Ellis Ross is opposed to the Northern Gateway oil pipeline proposal, but he supports plans to export LNG from the West Coast.

He said that while the issue of LNG elicits mixed views, it is difficult to achieve unanimity because First Nations are complex social structures, not corporate entities.

"There is a big leadership problem within First Nations in B.C. – elected and hereditary chiefs, you name it. Everybody wants to be in charge," said Mr. Ross, who voluntarily stepped down this week as Haisla Nation chief councillor to focus on his campaign as the B.C. Liberal candidate in the Skeena riding. "There are clear lines of jurisdiction within the non-native community with councils in charge of municipalities, but most First Nations don't have that structure or even if they do, it's not codified."

He said elected Haisla councillors have been fortunate because community members have largely backed council's support for exporting LNG, though no projects have been built yet in the Haisla's traditional territory near Kitimat.

Handmade anti-pipeline signs are seen on the side of a road in the First Nations village of Old Massett, B.C.

Handmade anti-pipeline signs are seen on the side of a road in the First Nations village of Old Massett, B.C.

Ben Nelms/Bloomberg

Mr. Ross worries about how non-natives perceive disputes such as those in the Lax Kw'alaams First Nation, saying infighting sends a message that it is difficult for companies to deal with natives.

In May, 2015, members of the Lax Kw'alaams overwhelmingly rejected Pacific NorthWest LNG's $1-billion offer. Some members, however, complained that the voting process was flawed. Since then, there have been growing rifts within the Lax Kw'alaams over whether to support plans to build an $11.4-billion export terminal on Lelu Island.

A conflicted community

Conflicting views from leaders within one First Nation underscore the challenges facing companies hoping to embark on resource development in British Columbia.

Donnie Wesley, a Lax Kw’alaams hereditary tribal chief, began a protest camp on Lelu Island in August, 2015, to draw attention to concerns over Pacific NorthWest LNG’s plans to build an export terminal on the island.

Mr. Wesley belongs to the Allied Tsimshian Tribes of Lax Kw’alaams, which opposes the project that would export liquefied natural gas to Asia. The clan leader of the Gitwilgyoots tribe warns there will be a devastating impact on juvenile salmon habitat on Flora Bank, a sandbar located next to the proposed terminal site on Lelu Island.

But a rival group of hereditary chiefs, the Nine Tribes of Lax Kw’alaams, declared its support earlier this year for the controversial venture.

John Helin, who won election as Lax Kw’alaams mayor last November, has said the band council is open to backing the project. By contrast, former mayor Garry Reece is opposed. While he served as mayor, Mr. Reece presided over meetings in May, 2015, in which members declined to provide aboriginal consent by overwhelmingly rejecting Pacific NorthWest LNG’s $1-billion cash offer over 40 years. Rifts within the community have grown since those meetings.

The Lax Kw’alaams have yet to reach a deal with Pacific NorthWest LNG. Four other groups within the Tsimshian First Nations – the Metlakatla, Kitselas, Gitxaala, and Kitsumkalum – have signed term sheets, which are intended to lead to impact benefit agreements with the LNG consortium led by Malaysia’s state-owned Petronas. A sixth Tsimshian group, the Giga’at, is undecided.

Sixteen First Nations support TransCanada Corp.’s Prince Rupert Gas Transmission pipeline proposal to move natural gas from northeast B.C. to Lelu Island, according to the B.C. government. Eleven of those pipeline supporters have been publicly announced: Gitanyow, Lake Babine, Doig River, Halfway River, McLeod Lake, Nisga’a, Yekooche, Tl’azt’en, Metlakatla, Kitselas and Gitxaala.

The Gitanyow and Lake Babine, however, are opposed to the Lelu Island site.

—Brent Jang

Pacific NorthWest LNG said it has consulted with five Tsimshian First Nations – the Metlakatla, Kitselas, Gitxaala, Kitsumkalum and Lax Kw'alaams. The first four of those groups have signed term sheets, which are intended to lead to impact benefit agreements. The Lax Kw'alaams First Nation remains the holdout.

Despite the opposition of the powerful Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs, and hereditary chiefs with the Wet'suwet'en and Gitxsan, most bands affected by the project have quietly expressed their support by negotiating benefit agreements with the province.

Of the 19 First Nations along the pipeline route, 16 have signed agreements with the province, said Lisa Leslie, a spokeswoman for the B.C. Ministry of Aboriginal Relations and Reconciliation.

She said in an e-mail that only 11 of those deals have been publicly announced, but "another five First Nations have signed agreements that will be made public as they take effect."

The agreements haven't been easy to attain – and they didn't come cheap.

A review of the benefit agreements related to the pipeline shows First Nations have been offered initial payments totalling about $31-million, with another $10-million to be shared among them through annual payments over the 40-year life of the project.

In addition, the government has promised $30-million to support aboriginal skills training.

Eleven bands have also signed separate project agreements with TransCanada Corp., the company that is building the $5-billion pipeline, which is known as the Prince Rupert Gas Transmission project. The specifics of those agreements have not been released, but they include opportunities for employment and initial and annual payments.

In addition to being offered financial benefits, First Nations have also been promised greater project oversight. In one of more than 190 conditions attached to the federal Liberal government's approval this week of Pacific NorthWest LNG's export terminal, the company has agreed to invite the Lax Kw'alaams and Metlakatla to join a monitoring committee, whose duties will include keeping tabs on the health of juvenile salmon habitat in the Skeena River estuary.

"Indigenous communities near the project site will participate with Canada and the province in environmental monitoring, a new innovative approach," federal Environment Minister Catherine McKenna said this week.

But opposing native leaders see the benefit agreements as a way for government to silence critics.

"The money being thrown around by LNG companies and the provincial government to garner support from indigenous nations is nothing but hush money," Peter Lantin, president of the Haida Nation, said earlier this year.

When the federal government announced approval of the project this week, a beaming Premier Christy Clark was on hand to voice her support.

Ms. Clark said for First Nations the project is "an unprecedented opportunity to take part in the growth of our economy."

Many First Nations appear to agree.

"This is a great example of what can happen when First Nations, industry and government work together and is a process many other nations can look to for guidance," Chief Joseph Bevan of the Kitselas First Nation said in a statement.