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(David Parkins for The Globe and Mail)
(David Parkins for The Globe and Mail)

British Columbians Who Matter

Art Willms lays a path for co-operation with First Nations Add to ...

Art Willms spent 30 years in the energy sector building pipelines across Canada before he retired. What he learned along the way helped lay the foundations for the Pacific Trails proposal – the one major pipeline project currently in the works in British Columbia that hasn’t triggered a major backlash.

In 1991, Mr. Willms was vice-president of Westcoast Energy when the company was being pilloried for running roughshod over a small, remote and impoverished First Nations community. The company wanted to build a pipeline near Fort Nelson, B.C., and had offered the Prophet River band nothing to compensate for the disruption. He travelled north to meet with the band chief, hoping to find a way around her objections. The chief’s words to Mr. Willms led him to establish a new corporate culture.

“She pointed to seven or eight little kids that were running around. She said, ‘Here are the people I’m really working for. I want to make sure they have opportunities in the future,’” Mr. Willms recalled in a recent interview. “I said to myself, ‘we will put that into our culture at Westcoast Energy. The people we effect must have a chance to benefit.’”

It was an approach that helped him through tough negotiations for a natural-gas pipeline to Vancouver Island a decade later. Mr. Willms was by then Westcoast Energy’s COO. He met with First Nations on the Island, found one community that was prepared to work together, and he sat down with the chief to hammer out a benefit-sharing agreement that would see the Cowichan Tribes gain tens of millions in revenue, as well as construction jobs.

“Opposition generally starts locally. You hit perceived unfairness, people who are not engaged, they think they are being taken advantage of. Unless you address that right up front, in a very honest and open manner … you will ultimately run into big problems,” Mr. Willms said.

“And in B.C in the last 40 years, the most important stakeholder is the First Nations. You have to roll up your sleeves and spend a significant amount of time to explaining what you are doing – and then find ways they can benefit along with you, the proponent.”

Today, the B.C. government is enthusiastically backing the proposed Pacific Trail Pipeline, a $1.3-billion project that will move natural gas from north-central B.C. to Kitimat. It is linked to plans to build a liquefied natural gas plant designed to produce for Asian markets.

Mr. Willms was on the board of Pacific Northern Gas when it developed and promoted that pipeline. He credits the management team with an intensive effort to engage with the First Nations communities along the proposed route. “I was on the board giving my white-haired, fatherly advice based on my past experience,” he said. “The tone from the top helps. As a board, we felt you have to give the people along the route the opportunity to benefit.”

Compared to the backlash against the proposed Northern Gateway heavy oil pipeline proposal, Pacific Trail has been well-received. Earlier this year, Pacific Trail Pipelines signed a $200-million commercial deal with 15 First Nations along the pipeline route.

Mr. Willms retired ten years ago and now devotes his time to the Vancouver Symphony Foundation. But he says these are exciting times in the energy sector – if Canada can step up to the opportunity. Not only do the proponents need to treat their host communities with respect, but they need to help establish Canada as a world leader on environmental protection and cleanup standards.

Talk about the benefits, for sure, he advises, but don’t pretend there aren’t risks.

“Once a pipeline is in the ground, most people can’t even find them. But you dig trenches, cut swaths of trees, and there are, periodically, accidents. You have to be very frank with people, have an open dialogue and tell them what you will do. You don’t try to snow people or sugar-coat the issues,” he said.

“It’s not rocket science, but it is hard work.”

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