Skip to main content

Ellis Ross, Chief of the Haisla First Nation, says if the aim of the disclosure requirement is transparency to band members, then releasing compensation figures to the wider population serves to provoke those with racist views.Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

The chief councillor of the Haisla Nation says aboriginal people who have an array of concerns about the Northern Gateway oil pipeline project have been vindicated by a Federal Court of Appeal ruling.

"You can't come in with a cookie-cutter approach to First Nations," Ellis Ross said.

He made the comment after the court overturned Ottawa's approval of Northern Gateway, saying the federal government failed in its duty to consult with aboriginal people along the route.

The National Energy Board's joint review panel approved Enbridge Inc.'s bitumen pipeline proposal in late 2013, subject to 209 conditions for the route from Bruderheim, Alta., to the Kitimat area in northwestern B.C.

"The consultation process was too generic: Canada and the joint review panel looked at First Nations as a whole and failed to address adequately the specific concerns of particular First Nations," the court said in its 153-page judgment.

Northern Gateway's planned export terminal site is on B.C. Crown land designated "neutral map reserve" near the community of Kitimat. The Haisla's traditional home is on the east side of Douglas Channel in Kitamaat Village, located across the waters from the proposed terminal site.

"You have to consider the First Nations' point of view. Consultation is supposed to be a two-way street," Mr. Ross said in an interview Thursday from Kitimat. "Most of what we said just fell of deaf ears."

For instance, the Haisla are worried that signs of traditional culture will be lost, notably from damage to culturally significant trees, such as ones partly stripped of bark by aboriginal people over the decades.

The court said those concerns over trees were ignored. "During the consultation meetings, Canada's representative agreed that hundreds of culturally modified trees exist at the proposed terminal site, notwithstanding that the Report of the Joint Review Panel stated that there were none. He agreed that many culturally modified trees would be destroyed by the project and that this would have an impact on the Haisla," according to the judgment. "Canada then offered no suggestion as to how the impacts to the Haisla's culturally modified trees could be avoided or accommodated."

B.C. aboriginal leaders and environmentalists who were among the court applicants also praised the judgment.

"I think that every time we see a victory like this, it solidifies in the Canadian psyche the importance of indigenous consent and indigenous leadership on issues of resource extraction and on other issues," said Jessie Housty, a councillor with the Heiltsuk Nation. "It feels like a beautiful moment in this community. I'm so glad to have good news to report to people that have been fighting so hard for so long."

Peter Lantin, president of the Council of the Haida Nation, struggled to cram his community's concerns into a three-hour meeting – which he felt wasn't an adequate effort in consultation.

"I think for us, if you would have taken the steps for meaningful consultation, you would understand why we are so opposed to the project," Mr. Lantin said. "That is what meaningful consultation is for us, to give us a proper environment to share our concerns and then lead to a different decision – because we believe that if we had an opportunity to present our feelings in a proper manner, there would be no consideration for approval."

Gavin Smith, staff counsel with West Coast Environmental Law, celebrated the court's decision. "What it means is that the federal government isn't going to be able to look at First Nations issues in a generic way. It is going to have to specifically respond to the issues raised by individual First Nations," said Mr. Smith, whose group represented the Nak'azdli and Nadleh Whut'en First Nations.