The former mayor of the Lax Kw'alaams First Nation is upset that his successor is backing Pacific NorthWest LNG's plans to build an $11.4-billion terminal.
Garry Reece, who lost to John Helin in November's mayoral race, said the new mayor overstepped his authority in declaring the elected Lax Kw'alaams Band Council's conditional support for exporting liquefied natural gas from Lelu Island in northwestern British Columbia.
Mr. Reece and other aboriginal critics of Pacific NorthWest LNG held a news conference in Ottawa on Tuesday, saying the federal government should reject the plans to build the terminal on Lelu Island. The energy consortium, led by Malaysia's state-owned Petronas, is counting on approval from the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency and the federal cabinet.
In the spring of 2015, Mr. Reece oversaw a series a meetings in which members of the Lax Kw'alaams overwhelmingly opposed the project. But in the band election five months ago, he finished in third place in balloting for mayor, trailing Mr. Helin and Carl Sampson Jr.
As the new mayor, Mr. Helin kept a low profile until mid-March, when he sent a letter to federal Environment Minister Catherine McKenna. He informed her that the band council will support the LNG terminal, subject to the creation of an environmental performance committee – a stance that has angered Mr. Reece and leaders of a protest camp on Lelu Island.
"The B.C. government has been saying that we've changed our minds and support the project," Mr. Reece said in a prepared statement. "That's simply not true, and John Helin had no business sending a letter to that effect without consulting his elected council, hereditary chiefs and our community. That letter does not represent the position of the Nine Allied Tribes of Lax Kw'alaams."
Other aboriginals who appeared at the Ottawa news conference included Donnie Wesley and Ken Lawson, who are hereditary leaders of the Gitwilgyoots tribe of the Lax Kw'alaams, and Gerald Amos, a Haisla member who is chairman of Friends of Wild Salmon. They warn that if a bridge and trestle are built near Lelu Island, wave patterns will be disrupted and lead to the destruction of juvenile salmon habitat in Flora Bank, a sandy area with eelgrass beds that nurture young fish.
Energy industry observers say that without votes by secret ballot, it is hard to gauge the extent of opposition to Pacific NorthWest LNG by members of the Lax Kw'alaams and other First Nations.
While Mr. Wesley, Mr. Lawson and several hereditary chiefs of the Lax Kw'alaams have been vocal in their opposition to Pacific NorthWest LNG, other hereditary chiefs have come out in support of the project.
Separately, mayors in northeastern B.C. have been supportive of LNG, too. Fort St. John Mayor Lori Ackerman and Tumbler Ridge Mayor Don McPherson were among the province's political leaders who visited Ottawa this week to promote LNG exports.
Aboriginal backers of LNG include Alex Campbell and Robert Sankey, whose organization is called Nine Tribes of Lax Kw'alaams. The anti-LNG camp complains that the new name is too similar to the Nine Allied Tribes of Lax Kw'alaams, which is the umbrella label for nine communities within the Lax Kw'alaams First Nation.
Tsimshian leaders of the Metlakatla, Kitselas, Gitxaala, Kitsumkalum and Gitga'at say they are open to the idea of LNG exports from Lelu Island.
"We believe that the government of Canada must now turn its attention to negotiating appropriate management conditions that ensure a strong role for First Nations in environmental monitoring, compliance and enforcement," Metlakatla Chief Harold Leighton said in a March 31 letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. "We have balanced these considerations and are ready to move forward with strong environmental conditions."
Mr. Helin didn't return calls for comment on Tuesday. But in his March 15 letter to Ms. McKenna, he said he is well aware of concerns over the fate of salmon in the Skeena River estuary. "We are committed to ensuring that any LNG development in our traditional territory will not harm the environment, especially fish, fish habitat and Flora Bank," he wrote.