Former Haisla First Nation chief councillor Ellis Ross, a proponent for LNG development, says that by running for the B.C. Liberals in the next election, he is busting out of the silo that has classed the First Nations community as leaning to the left.
He delivered that message Friday at the opening of the the party's final convention before the May, 2017, election, bringing hundreds of delegates to their feet applauding.
About 1,300 Liberals gathered in Vancouver to consider policy and strategy ahead of a bid to win a fifth term in office.
Mr. Ross will be part of that effort as the party's candidate in the northern riding of Skeena, which the New Democrats have won in the past three elections. The Liberals last won the riding in 2001, but lost it in 2005. In 2013, the NDP's Robin Austin won the riding with 48 per cent of the vote compared with 43 per cent for the Liberal candidate. Mr. Austin is not seeking re-election.
Mr. Ross told a story about recently door-knocking in Terrace when a man across the street began yelling at Mr. Ross. In telling the tale, Mr. Ross seemed miffed at the message. "[He] was saying I should be ashamed as an aboriginal leader, not supporting the NDP, and [he] wouldn't allow me the opportunity to respond," said Mr. Ross, 51.
"This is the 21st century for aboriginals, too. There's no law that says I have to support the NDP. I have the freedom to join any party I want or support any party I want because I have got objectives for my people, but he wouldn't allow me to respond in that."
Mr. Ross says he and his council came around to a view, several years ago, to stop trying to block the province on certain issues with court action, and trying to work with what the government has to offer.
Members of Mr. Ross's community have largely backed their council's support for exporting LNG in the traditional Haisla territory near Kitimat in northern B.C., though no projects have yet been built in the region. Other first nations, however, have expressed concerns about LNG development.
The B.C. Liberals once promised economic prosperity from LNG by 2020, but shifts in the natural-gas market have ruled out such progress. On Friday, however, the B.C. government announced that the Woodfibre LNG project near Squamish had decided to proceed on its $1.6-billion project, making it the first to do so in the province.
Mr. Ross said he met with Premier Christy Clark over the years, and was impressed by her commitment to try and advance policy away from the treaty table. He said he expects his riding could get more done on economic development with a Liberal MLA. "That's why I want to take back the Skeena riding," he said. "I really feel I fit in good here."
After the speech, Mr. Ross said he could never get a straight answer from members of his community about why they voted NDP, beyond suggestions the NDP stands up for aboriginal rights and title – a responsibility he said should be the role of native leaders.
Frank Calder, in 1949, was the first status Indian elected to the B.C. legislature. He was initially a member of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation, then a New Democrat and finally a member of Social Credit. Other First Nations members of the legislature have included Ed John, who was appointed to an NDP cabinet, but failed to win a seat, and Melanie Mark, who was elected MLA for Vancouver-Mount Pleasant earlier this year, becoming the first woman from a First Nation in the assembly.
Mr. Ross is no longer councillor and is now focused on winning the riding. For now, he said, he is spending a lot of time reading and getting up to speed on policy.
New Democrat David Eby, the MLA for Vancouver-Point Grey, said he was impressed with Mr. Ross's "heartfelt" speech, though he thought the Liberal candidate's experience was not necessarily consistent with those of other First Nations' people. He said it was "interesting" to hear about Ms. Clark's private conversations on the treaty process with Mr. Ross.
"I think it would be a mistake to think that that incredibly diverse community, whether on reserve or off reserve or rural or urban, all share one particular perspective or party," said Mr. Eby, who was in the room for Mr. Ross's speech as part of an observer role at the convention.
"Frankly, I think it's good that First Nations communities are engaging in politics this way on both sides of the aisle," said Mr. Eby. "It can only lead to better outcomes for First Nations people generally. Of course, I think there will be better outcomes for First Nations' people if the NDP candidate in Skeena is elected, but that's my perspective."
New Democrats plan to nominate a candidate in Skeena in January.