A hereditary chief says Lax Kw'alaams members are poised in the final round of voting to reject a $1-billion cash offer dangled by a major liquefied natural gas project, posing a setback for the venture led by Malaysia's Petronas.
Donnie Wesley of the Gitwilgyoots, one of nine allied tribes of the Lax Kw'alaams, said the tribes are united in their opposition to the Pacific NorthWest LNG project near Prince Rupert, B.C.
Pacific NorthWest LNG offered the cash over a 40-year period in its quest to secure aboriginal consent for the $36-billion project that is seeking to export natural gas in liquid form to Asia.
In the first two of three rounds of voting, eligible Lax Kw'alaams voters unanimously spurned Pacific NorthWest LNG's offer. Mr. Wesley said the stage has been set for the final vote in Vancouver on Tuesday to make it three rejections in a row.
He has been advising Lax Kw'alaams voters living in the Vancouver area to remember the importance of Flora Bank – in the estuary near the proposed site of the terminal – for nurturing young salmon in the estuary of the Skeena River. "Keep your heads intact and think with your heart. Make sure that you're putting this vote for the future of your children," the Gitwilgyoots hereditary chief said in an interview in Lax Kw'alaams, a remote community accessible by ferry or float plane.
The Vancouver vote follows meetings last week in Lax Kw'alaams and Prince Rupert.
Mr. Wesley said Malaysia's state-owned Petronas thinks that it might sway some voters in the Vancouver region who haven't visited Lax Kw'alaams for years, so he isn't taking anything for granted. But members who weren't able attend the first two voting sessions have been phoning and e-mailing band officials in droves to express their anger at Pacific NorthWest LNG, he said.
Flora Bank, in the estuary of the Skeena River, is at risk because it is an ecologically sensitive area where juvenile salmon seek sanctuary in eelgrass to hide from predators, environmentalists say. It's feared that construction would disturb the habitat that's crucial for the salmon to survive.
Lelu Island, the site of the proposed $11.4-billion export terminal, is located on the traditional land of the Gitwilgyoots while Flora Bank is on the traditional territory of the nine allied tribes of the 3,600-member Lax Kw'alaams band.
Gerald Amos, a former chief councillor of the Haisla First Nation and watcher of native politics, said the die has been cast for a third consecutive round of voting to reject Pacific NorthWest LNG.
"I don't think there is going to be any change in direction," Mr. Amos said in an interview. "People in Lax Kw'alaams and Prince Rupert have relatives in Vancouver. The off-reserve voters in Vancouver will stay the course and won't vary too much from what went on before."
Mr. Amos, who is chairman of Friends of Wild Salmon, said Pacific NorthWest LNG selected a site that carries deep emotional and economic significance for the Lax Kw'alaams. "Flora Bank is the central nervous system for the Skeena River. It's critical for juvenile salmon habitat," he said.
Mr. Amos said the Lax Kw'alaams don't have power legally to single-handedly block the LNG venture, but the band will have considerable influence in prompting several other First Nations groups to raise concerns about Flora Bank. "It amounts to a huge issue for obtaining a social licence," he said.
The Wet'suwet'en, Gitanyow, Lake Babine and Gitxsan have warned that Pacific NorthWest LNG's plan to build a suspension bridge over the western fringe of Flora Bank doesn't sufficiently reduce the project's potential harm to salmon habitat.
The combined length of the planned bridge and a trestle from Lelu Island to a deep berth location in Chatham Sound would be 2.7 kilometres, Pacific NorthWest LNG said in a project backgrounder distributed in Prince Rupert.
"Results to date suggest no significant adverse impacts on Flora Bank or eelgrass from the proposed marine infrastructure," according to the backgrounder.
The Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency is expected to rule on Pacific NorthWest LNG by October.
In the first vote in Lax Kw'alaams, more than 180 eligible voters unanimously stood up to indicate their opposition to the LNG proposal. In the second vote in Prince Rupert, the pattern continued as more than 255 eligible voters declined to give aboriginal consent.
Lax Kw'alaams Mayor Garry Reece and 12 elected councillors will make the final decision on behalf of the band.