A Federal Court case has cast the spotlight on a hereditary tribal leader's battle against a liquefied natural gas project in northern British Columbia.
Donnie Wesley argues that he has the rightful claim to be recognized as hereditary head chief of the Gitwilgyoots tribe – one of nine allied tribes of the Lax Kw'alaams First Nation.
Mr. Wesley, a vocal critic of Pacific NorthWest LNG, is asking Federal Court to clear the way for a judicial review into whether Ottawa acted properly last year in approving the proposal to build an $11.4-billion liquefaction terminal on Lelu Island in the Port of Prince Rupert.
He is pitted against elected Lax Kw'alaams officials who support the controversial project, highlighting an internal rift among members of the First Nation.
While Justice Robert Barnes of Federal Court emphasized that he isn't in a position to specifically examine internal divisions, he reserved his decision on whether to allow Mr. Wesley's application to proceed from a legal viewpoint.
If the judge rules in favour of the Indigenous tribal leader, the next step could be judicial reviews this fall into applications by Mr. Wesley and other parties seeking a court order to quash the federal cabinet's approval of Pacific NorthWest LNG.
Mr. Wesley and his supporters began a protest camp on Lelu Island in August, 2015, to raise environmental concerns over Pacific NorthWest LNG's contentious plans to construct its project.
The Gitwilgyoots tribe claims Flora Bank and Lelu Island as part of its traditional territory in the Skeena River estuary. The key concern is the ecological threat to Flora Bank, a sandbar that nurtures juvenile salmon in the location next to Lelu Island.
Pacific NorthWest LNG, led by Malaysia's state-owned Petronas, is seeking to export LNG from British Columbia to markets in Asia.
Mr. Wesley's application in Federal Court names an array of respondents, including the federal cabinet, the federal Environment Minister, the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency (CEAA), Pacific NorthWest LNG, the mayor of Lax Kw'alaams, the Lax Kw'alaams Band, the Metlakatla Band and Carl Sampson Sr.
Mr. Sampson has filed his own documents to assert that he is the head chief of the Gitwilgyoots tribe and not Mr. Wesley.
During a two-day hearing last week in Vancouver into Mr. Wesley's legal standing as an applicant, the judge listened to arguments about the authority of hereditary leaders versus elected band councillors. Lax Kw'alaams has an elected mayor, but there isn't a hereditary grand chief overseeing the First Nation's nine tribes.
Mr. Wesley, SkeenaWild Conservation Trust and hereditary chiefs from the Gitanyow First Nation became the first three applicants last October to seek a court order that would overturn the federal cabinet's approval of Pacific NorthWest LNG.
Mr. Wesley also goes by the title Yahaan. He has been head chief, or sm'oogyit, of the Gitwilgyoots since a feast held in his honour in 2008, according to his lawyer, Richard Overstall.
"Yahaan, as sm'oogyit, is the highest authority under Tsimshian Indigenous law that can represent the interests of the members of the Gitwilgyoots tribe, there being no overarching chieftainship," Mr. Overstall said a recent filing in Federal Court. "The band is not qualified to represent the members of the Gitwilgyoots tribe in this proceeding."
Lelu Island is off-reserve – located 50 kilometres south of the community of Lax Kw'alaams. "There are tribal people in all other of the tribes, you know, that have opinions like myself that believe that band council has no jurisdictions outside the reserve property," Mr. Wesley said in April, responding to cross-examination by Chris Harvey, a lawyer representing the Lax Kw'alaams Band.
Michael Lambert, Pacific NorthWest LNG's head of environmental and regulatory affairs, said Mr. Wesley didn't raise objections about the project to CEAA until April, 2016. The federal regulator's review started in April 2013, but encountered a series of delays as the agency asked the Petronas-led consortium for more information. CEAA approved the LNG proposal last year.
Two key elected officials, Lax Kw'alaams band Mayor John Helin and Metlakatla chief councillor Harold Leighton, were among the audience in the courtroom last week in Vancouver. Both men support Pacific NorthWest LNG.
Mr. Helin and Mr. Leighton are disputing Mr. Wesley's authority.
"The application by Mr. Wesley on behalf of the Gitwilgyoots tribe appears to me to be an attempt to turn the clock back to a time in the distant past," Mr. Helin said in an affidavit in March.
Elected officials of the Lax Kw'alaams and Metlakatla "deal with governments and industry on a day-to-day basis with respect to the Aboriginal rights and title of the Coast Tsimshian people," Mr. Helin said.