Haisla chief to Sierra Club, Andrew Weaver: LNG has wide support from B.C. First Nations

Haisla Chief Crystal Smith says her people want the jobs and economic development an LNG industry would bring to Kitimat. Image: Business in Vancouver

When it comes to oil, anti-pipeline activists from Canada and the U.S. have found some strong allies among First Nations in B.C. in their fight to kill pipeline projects.

But when it comes to natural gas and LNG, it’s a different story.

There is generally strong support for an LNG industry among B.C. First Nations, and some take exception to the anti-fossil fuel coalition – the BC Green Party and environmental groups like the Sierra Club – opposing a $40 billion project like LNG Canada, which would generate an estimated 10,000 jobs at peak construction and 950 permanent jobs, from Dawson Creek to Kitimat.

One First Nation leader has even politely told the Sierra Club to back off.

In response to a letter to the Times Colonist editor in January from Sierra Club campaigner Caitlyn Vernon, who warned of negative impacts of an LNG industry on tourism, Haisla Nation Chief Coun. Crystal Smith fired back: “Before the Sierra Club writes any more about LNG in B.C., I invite them to spend time with the many First Nations who support LNG development.”

She also plans to meet with BC Green Party Leader Andrew Weaver in Victoria in April to talk about his opposition to the LNG industry.

“I’d also invite him to come here to Kitimat,” she told Business in Vancouver.

Along the route of the Coastal GasLink pipeline that would bring natural gas from northeastern B.C. to Kitimat to supply the LNG Canada project,most First Nations have signed benefits agreements. Last year, the provincial government reported 64 agreements had been signed with 29 First Nations along pipeline routes for various LNG projects – about 90%.

The agreements typically include opportunities for First Nation businesses and contractors along the pipeline route to bid on contracts for things like site clearing and supplying work camps, said Karen Ogen-Toews, former chief of the Wet’suwet’en First Nation and current CEO of the First Nations LNG Alliance.

For the Wet’suwet’en, LNG provides economic development opportunities – skills training, new business development and new revenue streams – in a region where few other economic opportunities exist.

“When we’re able to do those things, then we’re able to say, ‘This is our own-source revenue,’” she said. “We’re able to build more houses. We’re able to increase the quality of life in terms of education and training. We’re able to look after the health and wellness of our community.”

LNG Canada enjoys particularly strong support from the Haisla, and Smith said her people take exception when people who don’t live in Kitimat chime in about a project that could transform the lives of her people.

“We are the ones that have to live here,” she said. “We are the ones that have to live with our people’s social issues.”

She said the Haisla’s support for the LNG industry stems in part from the benefits her people have already experienced from the $6 billion Rio Tinto Alcan smelter expansion project.

“We’ve already had a taste of an economic boom within our territory,” Smith said. “Back then we experienced very low unemployment rates. A lot of our members gained meaningful, well-paying jobs. We saw a huge boost in terms of our members – as young as 20 to 25 – gaining mortgages and having their own vehicles and going on vacations around the world.”

The Haisla not only have been strong supporters and beneficiaries of a nascent LNG industry, but also were partners in projects that have since been cancelled.

Smith is therefore cheering recent tax changes by the BC NDP government that could see an LNG project finally built in Kitimat.

So is the City of Terrace, which is just a 40-minute drive from Kitimat and a major service centre for the region.

About 25% of the regional workforce employed on Rio Tinto’s smelter upgrade and LNG prep work lived in Terrace, which is a major service centre for the region. During that period, Terrace experienced high employment, vacancy rates near zero and construction of three new hotels. An $18 million upgrade to the city’s airport is still underway.

But in 2016, economic activity began to tail off, after the smelter upgrade was completed and major oil and gas companies shelved or cancelled LNG projects.

Mining in the region continues to provide some jobs and economic activity, but the LNG Canada project would spark an unprecedented economic boom in the region.

Danielle Myles, manager of economic development for Terrace, said there are roughly 1,100 contractors and businesses in Terrace that supply the region with workers, services and supplies.

“We expect that our businesses will be thriving as this project develops,” she said. “And it will give us an opportunity to make some investments in other industries that are already established here.”

— Business in Vancouver

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