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British Columbia Lax Kw’alaams first nation demands BC Hydro project stop until compensation deal is reached

A native band in northern B.C. has thrown a wrench into work on the first stage of the $400-million Northwest Transmission Line, saying BC Hydro must reach a deal on compensation before the project can continue.

Members of the Lax Kw'alaams were travelling a narrow logging road north of Terrace that leads to a section of the proposed line on the weekend when they came across a crew unloading equipment to begin geotechnical drilling work.

The band members, working as "cultural monitors," ordered the contractors to stop work. The Lax Kw'alaams argue that BC Hydro should not be doing preliminary work in their traditional territories until they reach an agreement.

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The crew stopped work and packed up their equipment, but a BC Hydro official said the crew was working in another band's territory and will be back at work shortly.

"We understood we were working in Kitsumkalum territory," said Greg Reimer, B.C. Hydro's executive vice-president for transmission and distribution. "We're going to mobilize the crew and get them back to work in the area in the next few days. We are anticipating we won't have any more difficulties, and we are hoping we can get on with negotiations with the Lax Kw'alaams."

The Northwest Transmission Line will cross 344 kilometres from a point near Terrace to a new substation near Bob Quinn Lake, passing through lands claimed by eight separate first nations. BC Hydro has reached agreements with five of those communities.

Overlapping land claims are not uncommon in B.C., where few treaties have been settled with natives.

The first 28 kilometres of the line would pass through land claimed as traditional territory by the Lax Kw'alaams.

The B.C. government announced the transmission project in 2009 after the federal government promised a $130-million contribution from its green infrastructure funds.

Running roughly parallel to Highway 37, the transmission line is to provide electricity to communities that currently rely on diesel generators. But the project's main objective is to open up mining development for some of the region's large mineral deposits.

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The Lax Kw'alaams, with about 3,200 members, are not opposed to the transmission line, band administrator Wayne Drury said.

"Everyone knows this is a great project, under the right circumstances," he said.

The band has a strong pro-development bent: The Lax Kw'alaams are the only B.C. first nation with a trade office in Beijing, marketing its forestry products. The band also has a joint venture loading freight at the port of Prince Rupert and is currently negotiating with Chinese investors to open a specialty sawmill.

"We drive part of the economy, benefiting everyone, in the northwest," he said. He estimated the band's business revenues will reach $100-million this year, in large part because of its China trade.

"We are not against negotiating an impact-benefit agreement with BC Hydro, but we have told them, don't try and do this with beads."

He said the band would have been very interested in bidding on contract work, but wasn't given the opportunity. Mr. Reimer said BC Hydro is providing employment opportunities as part of other agreements with native bands, and that the crew working on the weekend included members of the Kitsumkalum.

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Earlier this year, the B.C. government granted an environmental assessment certificate for the project, stating that "the province is satisfied the Crown's duties to consult and accommodate First Nations interests and the Nisga'a Nation's treaty interests have been discharged."

But Lax Kw'alaams councillor Bob Moraes, who is responsible for negotiations with BC Hydro, said that work has not been completed.

Mr. Moraes would not say how much money BC Hydro has put on the table – the Crown corporation has made its individual negotiations with native bands confidential. But he said it is not enough.

"We have got a ways to go," he said.

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