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An artist’s rendering shows Pacific NorthWest LNG’s proposed liquefied natural gas export terminal on Lelu Island, B.C.

A senior aboriginal leader in British Columbia says First Nations will continue to oppose oil and gas developments in the province even if it means rejecting billion-dollar payouts – as long as environmental protections are not guaranteed.

Setting a high – if not impossible – bar for corporations such as Pacific NorthWest LNG, which is trying to move ahead with a liquefied natural gas terminal, Grand Chief Stewart Phillip said a community vote to reject the development was a clear sign that both business and government must reject their "gold rush mentality" for a more sustainable approach.

"Our elders remind us that money is like so much dust that is quickly blown away in the wind," said Chief Phillip, "but the land is forever."

Last week, the Lax Kw'alaams First Nation released the final tally of three votes in which members overwhelmingly rejected a more than $1-billion offer in money and Crown land in exchange for supporting a natural gas terminal. The First Nation has argued that the project is not environmentally sound and, in particular, would endanger the habitat of juvenile salmon in Flora Bank, which falls on their traditional territory. The package, which included $1-billion in cash delivered over 40 years, and $108-million in land would have amounted to roughly $320,000 for each member.

"The traditional way of life of the Lax Kw'alaams people and, most importantly, the delicate marine ecosystem that upholds, and has upheld their culture for thousands of years, is not for sale," he said.

He called the vote a "proud moment," an informed decision that came about only after the members sought expert advice on the environmental risks. He stressed that "this is not merely an indigenous issue." The First Nations are also speaking, he said, for "British Columbians who are not willing to accept any unnecessary risks for the interests of transnational corporations and their profits."

The Lax Kw'alaams are concerned that construction of the LNG project would harm salmon habitat that has become central to the band's culture and economic identity – and even the promise of so much money could not offset the potential of permanent damage to the resource. "There is no reparation after the fact," Chief Phillip said, citing the irreparable harm from other disasters such as the Exxon Valdez tanker spill.

He also criticized the federal government for cuts to environmental agencies and an erosion of environmental standards, and accused Ottawa of silencing its own scientists. "At the end of the day, it is a battle that has pitted the economy against the environment, and oil against water."

Following last week's vote, Pacific Northwest LNG said project leader Petronas and its five Asian partners are willing to consider changes to the proposal.

The band has said it is open to LNG, but only under the right conditions. Asked what would be required to win approval for these kinds of projects, Chief Phillip said governments and businesses need to be more democratic in their approach, and more environmental in their priorities. Until then, he said, "the answer will continue to be no."

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