B.C. Premier Christy Clark has travelled to Lax Kw'alaams for the first time, visiting the remote aboriginal community that is deeply divided over a controversial liquefied natural gas project.
Pacific NorthWest LNG is expected to make its final investment decision this summer about whether to build an $11.4-billion export terminal on Lelu Island in the Port of Prince Rupert – after this May's B.C. election.
Still, during Ms. Clark's visit to Lax Kw'alaams on Wednesday, she said economic benefits could be on the horizon.
She announced provincial funding for finishing two residential ventures, notably $2.6-million for a 10-unit building to house families and $2.1-million for a complex with eight rooms for seniors. Construction is slated for completion in 2018.
"This is just the beginning of the benefits that we will see. And I promise you this. This might be the first time I've been to visit Lax Kw'alaams. It will not be the last," Ms. Clark said at the Coast Tsimshian Academy, a local school for students from kindergarten to Grade 12.
Ms. Clark toured the Northern B.C. school along with Rich Coleman, B.C.'s Natural Gas Development Minister.
"I take great pride in inviting our guests into the community today," said John Helin, who was elected Lax Kw'alaams mayor in November, 2015.
Last September, the federal cabinet approved Pacific NorthWest LNG's proposal, subject to meeting a wide range of environmental conditions. But court challenges, shaky economics and infighting among some hereditary chiefs have complicated matters for the consortium led by Malaysia's state-owned Petronas.
Mr. Helin has been supportive of a process that allows the band council to participate in an environmental-performance committee scrutinizing plans to build the export terminal on Lelu Island. The island has forested areas spread over bog deposits, located roughly 50 kilometres south of the community of Lax Kw'alaams, formerly known as Port Simpson.
His position contrasts sharply with that of former mayor Garry Reece, who campaigned against the Petronas-led project.
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. Mr. Helin has said that during a new poll of Lax Kw'alaams members, 532 of 812 votes cast in August, 2016, were in favour of continuing talks with Pacific NorthWest LNG and the federal and provincial governments.
The Skeena Watershed Conservation Coalition, SkeenaWild Conservation Trust and a group of scientists have warned that the project will have a devastating impact on salmon habitat on Flora Bank, a sandbar located next to Lelu Island – on the traditional territory of the Lax Kw'alaams.
On Wednesday, Mr. Helin said he is keeping an open mind, though the band has yet to sign a deal to approve the export terminal.
"It's about getting those benefits when we can get them," he said. "You got to accept working with people, going along a route and looking at every opportunity, like I said, to benefit our members."
Ms. Clark's B.C. Liberals campaigned hard to promote LNG in the 2013 provincial election, boasting that the fuel would transform the provincial economy, with natural gas piped from fields in northeastern British Columbia to LNG export terminals on the coast.
New LNG exports from the United States and overseas are forecast over the next three years, adding to the global glut of supplies that have depressed prices for the fuel in Asia.