Rachel Idzerda for The Globe and Mail
The consensus builder
Ellis Ross, chief councillor of the Haisla Nation, is playing the long game on LNG
Ellis Ross has overcome personal adversity before. He isn't fazed by gloomy forecasts that have quelled the excitement over planned exports of liquefied natural gas from British Columbia.
For Mr. Ross, LNG still represents the Haisla Nation's ticket to prosperity in northwestern British Columbia. The chief councillor of the aboriginal group has been waiting a long time for his LNG dreams to come true. "We've been looking into LNG since 2004," he says, sipping cranberry soda during our lunch in downtown Vancouver.
All 20 proposals to build LNG processing facilities in British Columbia have stalled amid the uncertainty hanging over the global industry, which is suffering from a worldwide glut of fuel, depressing prices. Five of the B.C. proposals are envisaged for the Kitimat region, where the Haisla's traditional territory is located. Only two of those Kitimat-area projects are seen by analysts as having any chance – one led by Royal Dutch Shell PLC and the other proposed by Chevron Corp. and Woodside Petroleum Ltd. The numbers just don't add up for the other three, experts say.
While he has scaled back his expectations, Mr. Ross believes it's not a matter of if but when there will be LNG exports from Canada to Asian countries, which are trying to shift away from dirty fuels, such as coal. LNG exports would generate financial benefits for the Haisla through job creation, revenue from land leases, and other economic spinoffs.
He is thankful that some Haisla members found jobs during Rio Tinto Group's recent $4.8-billion (U.S.) modernization project at its aluminum smelter in Kitimat. The smelter is near Kitamaat Village – the Haisla's traditional home on the east side of Douglas Channel. More than 1,150 Haisla live off-reserve, while almost 700 reside in Kitamaat Village. Hunting for moose and deer and fishing for salmon and halibut remain a way of life.
Last year, the Lax Kw'alaams band council opposed the Pacific NorthWest LNG project near Prince Rupert, citing concerns about the risks to juvenile salmon habitat in the Skeena River estuary. Since then, many Lax Kw'alaams hereditary chiefs have declared their support for Pacific NorthWest LNG, creating a rift in the First Nation.
While there are critics of LNG in Kitimat, there is community support for the fledgling industry, says Mr. Ross, who points to Kitimat's industrial history. He is satisfied that there would be strict environmental monitoring over LNG projects in Kitimat, located roughly 200 kilometres by car east of Prince Rupert.
Darryl Dyck for The Globe and Mail
Mr. Ross strives to build consensus by sharing information and delegating council duties. And although he has heard the Haisla labelled as pro-LNG, he is quick to add that his fellow band members are far from pushovers when it comes to considering whether to support energy projects.
Mr. Ross emphasizes the Haisla's opposition to the Northern Gateway oil pipeline proposal, which would ship diluted bitumen. He argues that the risks of a spill along Douglas Channel far outweigh any of the project's potential benefits for the residents of Kitamaat Village.
He cautions that it is premature to write about the demise of the fledgling LNG industry in British Columbia. He has learned to keep LNG setbacks in perspective and stay calm, having overcome his own personal demons.
Mr. Ross entered political life in his late 30s, after years of battling alcoholism. As the server refills his glass with cranberry soda, he points out the hundreds of bottles of wine on display along a nearby wall. He says he is no longer tempted by alcohol.
"Seventeen years ago, I decided one morning I'm not going to drink any more. I haven't touched a drop since then," he says, before digging into his lettuce, tomato and avocado sandwich. Tucked inside is a runny egg yolk, which drips onto his plate as he takes a big bite. He removes the thick slices of bacon from the rosemary bread to make it easier to chew the sandwich at the bustling Yew Seafood restaurant, on the second floor of the Four Seasons Hotel.
"I don't mind going to receptions or events where alcohol is being served. But I decided, nope, I'm not doing that any more. I'm done," says Mr. Ross, 50, who recalls booze binges in his early 20s. They were merely a prelude to his early 30s, when he would go on benders, including an 18-month haze fuelled by alcohol.
"Near the end of it, I was getting really bad. I was getting to the point where I was drinking almost every day; a functioning alcoholic, basically, having really big drunks on the weekends," he says matter-of-factly. "I could really see the pattern. I could see the effect that it was having on my family. I didn't want to be that guy who screws up his family."
Mr. Ross shows me his iPhone 6. There is a photo of his wife, Tracey, on the lock screen. On his home screen, there is a wallpaper photo of his younger daughter, Miranda. She is posing with his three-year-old granddaughter, Elise, who was born to Megan, his elder daughter. In 2010, he coached Miranda and her teammates to a zone championship in high-school basketball. He plays basketball for a men's team at the annual all-native tournament in Prince Rupert.
The discipline in basketball has influenced him off the court. He makes a point of wearing a suit and tie during business meetings. He recalls his high-school coaches instilling a sense of pride in First Nation players – wear ties before and after games. During our lunch, he has a suit on but no tie – this is a time to relax after finishing a morning meeting.
In Kitamaat Village, where I met him in 2014, a casually dressed Mr. Ross drove me around in a pickup truck. He parked and looked across the waters of Douglas Channel, eyeing the site of Enbridge Inc.'s proposed marine terminal for the Northern Gateway oil pipeline project. That is an area where the Haisla themselves hope to eventually develop their own LNG project.
He is well-acquainted with Douglas Channel from his 11 years working as a water-taxi driver. Over the years, he has done everything from construction work to hand-logging jobs. Wanting to give back to his community, he successfully ran to become a full-time Haisla councillor in 2003. He was elected chief councillor in 2011 and won by acclamation in 2013 – the first to serve under a new four-year term.
He doesn't like to be labelled as pro-LNG or anti-oil. He is mulling over a pitch from newspaper publisher David Black, who is proposing an oil refinery on a site that is partly on the traditional territory of the Haisla. Northern Gateway's plan would result in tankers carrying tar-like bitumen, rather than Mr. Black's vision to process the bitumen and export the value-added products in tankers.
Should there be a spill in the waters near Kitimat, Mr. Ross says, refined products, such as diesel and gasoline, would be much easier to clean up than bitumen. He warns that a bitumen spill would devastate Douglas Channel.
Mr. Black says he is encouraged by Mr. Ross's openness to the refinery plan. "The Haisla focus on the environment to begin with, and everything else comes after that – jobs to compensation to training. I respect that."
The Haisla have been collecting revenue from leasing a site in Bish Cove near Kitimat to the LNG proponents Chevron and Woodside. But Mr. Ross believes the best hope for the Haisla to prosper from economic spinoffs now rests largely with the plans of Shell-led LNG Canada to a build a facility on the site of a former methanol plant in Kitimat.
Shell and its partners in the LNG Canada venture are expected to make their final investment decision by the end of 2016.
Mr. Ross touts the global benefits of LNG. "This is the kind of product that we need, to get Asia off dirty fuel," he says.
In recent years, concerns have increased about the impact in northeast B.C. of hydraulic fracturing, known as fracking. In such operations, large amounts of water are mixed with chemicals and then pumped into the ground to extract natural gas.
"There's a lot of spin doctors out there who can twist information to their own use," he says. "Who do you believe?"
Mr. Ross, who won't seek re-election in July, 2017, says he is proud to have helped make the Haisla more independent and self-reliant. They aren't affluent, but they aren't poor either, he says, adding: "We don't have it as bad as other First Nations do."
Mr. Ross sees residents with disposal income. He recently counted 20 pickup trucks parked outside the Haisla Recreation Centre in Kitamaat Village. While many reserves in Canada have dirt roads, Kitamaat Village has paved streets. And many Haisla members have obtained their own mortgages under an arrangement with local banks instead of relying on housing subsidized by the band council.
"What gets through me the day and through life is you do have to give up your ego," he says. "I've mused about the idea about going back to being a nobody and blend into the background. But if I had it my way, I would like to be in a position where I could help aboriginals, not just the Haisla, bring up their standard of living."