In a wave, row after row, members of the Lax Kw'alaams band rose from their seats last week to vote No to the generational opportunity of liquefied natural gas. The effect of their decision could reach distant shores where investors are poised to decide if they will commit tens of billions of dollars to building an LNG industry in British Columbia.
The 3,600 members of this Tsimshian First Nation in Prince Rupert have been offered more than $1.1-billion in exchange for their consent to the construction of the Pacific NorthWest LNG facility. Their final answer will be determined by the elected band council, but based on initial votes, there is no enthusiasm for the riches on offer.
Other First Nations have already agreed to the plan, which includes a pipeline to bring natural gas from the northeast corner of the province. But this one group, based on a standing vote by a few hundred band members, could toss a wrench into plans for a $36-billion project.
The main objection from Lax Kw'alaams members is the location: The proposed facility would be built on Lelu Island, adjacent to banks of eelgrass beds that nurture young Skeena salmon. But those concerns are developing into a broader sentiment against any LNG development in the region.
The Petronas-led project was on track to be the first major plant in production in B.C., with exports leaving the Port of Prince Rupert by 2019. The provincial government has a massive stake in delivering LNG, and a shovel-turning ceremony in time for the next provincial election campaign would be a coveted event.
The province has promoted a carefully woven narrative that First Nations support LNG, trickling out announcements of the many First Nations who have signed up for benefit agreements.
The outcome of the Lax Kw'alaams decision, by itself, doesn't undo that storyline, but there are other signs that the storyline is fraying at the edges.
The Squamish First Nation is conducting its own environmental assessment of the Woodfibre LNG project that is proposed for its community. They don't trust the federal and provincial governments to assess the project. Chief Ian Campbell said his nation will have a strong say in how any projects will unfold in their traditional territories, and there are deep-seated concerns about the potential damage to the Howe Sound ecosystem.
"It's an exercise in our own self-governance," he said in an interview. "We are going to assess these projects ourselves, not as stakeholders but as decision-makers."
His council expects to make a decision by June on whether it will support Woodfibre LNG, setting the table before the federal and provincial governments arrive with their own assessments.
John Rustad, the B.C. Minister for Aboriginal Relations, played down concern about the outcome of these decisions. He said 28 First Nations have signed benefit-sharing agreements on LNG, seven more are still in negotiations. "I know there is a lot of excitement by many of those nations that want to see the opportunity."
He does let slip, however, that he isn't sure that members of the Lax Kw'alaams have been told of all the efforts to address their concerns. The company has offered to build a suspension bridge and a trestle to reduce dredging. Both Ottawa and Victoria have promised the Lax Kw'alaams will have a role in environmental monitoring and habitat restoration.
"I don't know if that information has been shared with members," he said.
But the process is controlled by the Lax Kw'alaams council and the province must stay on the sidelines. There is one final vote in the coming week, for Vancouver-based band members, and any overt effort to influence that vote would be dangerous.
Proponents of LNG, like those of other resource industries, are grappling with growing demands to share the wealth with First Nations. But as these two examples make clear, expectations around consent are also being tested.
The province doesn't like to see the word "veto" in the same sentence as aboriginal rights. However, it is a genuine prospect with LNG, which is why so much effort has been made to court First Nations. The LNG investment climate is fragile, and the window appears to be closing. Any significant new hurdle or delay could tip the balance.