Skip to main content

Pacific NorthWest LNG is proposing to build an export terminal on Lelu Island, foreground.

A battle is brewing between vocal opponents of a liquefied natural gas project and five B.C. First Nations that are eager to keep a federal environmental review alive.

A diverse group, led by an array of aboriginals and environmental organizations, argues that it has attracted widespread support to its campaign to urge Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to block Pacific NorthWest LNG's proposed $11.4-billion terminal on Lelu Island. The group, headed by Lax Kw'alaams tribal leader Donnie Wesley, asked Mr. Trudeau in a letter Monday to protect the juvenile salmon habitat in Flora Bank.

The Allied Tribes of Lax Kw'alaams say their traditional territory encompasses Lelu Island and Flora Bank in the Port of Prince Rupert.

But Harold Leighton, chief of the Metlakatla First Nation, said five aboriginal groups in northern B.C. are counting on the newly elected Liberal government to let the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency finish its lengthy review of Pacific NorthWest LNG's plans to export fuel to Asia. The federal regulator is expected to issue its final ruling by the end of February.

"We're looking for a positive end to this somehow," Mr. Leighton said in an interview. "We've put in a lot of hard work with Pacific NorthWest LNG, the province and Canada."

He said the Tsimshian Environmental Stewardship Authority (TESA), formed in July by the Metlakatla and four other native groups, believes there could be an acceptable way to export LNG without harming ecologically sensitive Flora Bank's eelgrass, which nurtures young salmon. The authority's members are the Metlakatla, Kitselas, Gitxaala, Kitsumkalum and Gitga'at.

Two Tsimshian groups, the Metlakatla and Kitselas, signed agreements with Pacific NorthWest LNG last December that would bring them economic benefits. The Lax Kw'alaams, Gitxaala and Kitsumkalum are the other three Tsimshian groups the B.C. Environmental Assessment Office consulted last year.

Nearly 80 individuals and groups endorsed Mr. Wesley's letter, which asks that Mr. Trudeau "not allow" the federal regulator to approve the LNG proposal.

The Gitxaala and Kitsumkalum have not yet announced their decisions on the project led by Malaysia's state-owned Petronas, but four Tsimshian leaders issued a statement Monday to say their aboriginal rights and title in northwestern B.C. must be taken seriously.

"Additional scientific work is near completion and TESA is conducting its own independent review of this work. When we have all the evidence and the answers to our questions, only then will we decide," said the statement signed by Mr. Leighton and three other chiefs – Joe Bevan of the Kitselas, Cliff White of the Gitxaala and Don Roberts of the Kitsumkalum. "We are perplexed that those opposing the project are coming to conclusions before key evidence is heard and finalized."

Mr. Wesley's letter has been backed by individuals such as scientist David Suzuki, author Naomi Klein, Kispiox Fishing Co. owner Jim Allen and Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, president of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs. Organizations supporting the call to halt Pacific NorthWest LNG's plans in the Skeena River estuary include West Coast Environmental Law, Simon Fraser Public Interest Research Group and Northwest Community College Students' Union.

Garry Reece is seeking re-election as mayor of the Lax Kw'alaams Band Council. His rivals in the Nov. 19 Lax Kw'alaams election are John Helin, Carl Sampson Jr. and Robert Moraes. Mr. Reece, Mr. Sampson Jr. and Mr. Moraes endorsed Mr. Wesley's letter.

Mr. Helin couldn't be reached for comment Monday.

Pacific NorthWest LNG said it has been diligently carrying out a science-based environmental assessment of its project, confident that the consortium will be able to construct an export terminal without hurting salmon.