Indigenous peoples supportive of LNG raising their voices

Haisla Nation Chief Councillor Crystal Smith. Image: Business In Vancouver

Haisla Nation Chief Councillor Crystal Smith is proud to support LNG development in B.C. and says projects like LNG Canada’s gas terminal are giving her people a chance to escape poverty and have hope for the future.

Smith is a vocal proponent of these projects — adding her voice to a growing number of other Indigenous peoples who believe that, for far too long, they have been kept on the outside of economic development, looking in.

Earlier this year, at the B.C. Natural Resources Forum, she gave a passionate, off-the-cuff defence of LNG development.

Smith said she and her council support the development of the LNG Canada natural gas export terminal in Kitimat and the 670-kilometre Coastal GasLink pipeline which would supply it, because it means economic opportunities for their people, reported the Prince George Citizen (a Glacier Media publication).

“Our nation’s goal is to be an independent, powerful and prosperous nation. We can’t get there without powerful, prosperous, independent people,” said Smith, who is also chair of the First Nations LNG Alliance. (To learn more about how Canada’s First Nations want to be involved as business partners and potential shareholders in LNG projects, read the newly released report, Building Trust: Canadian LNG Developers & First Nations.)

There are 12,000 self-identified Indigenous workers in Canada’s oil and gas industry today, says the National Coalition of Chiefs (NCC), a community of pro-development First Nation chiefs and Metis leaders that advocate for the development of oil and gas resources in their communities.

Energy development in and near their communities — many of which are located in rural and remote areas where few other economic drivers exist — provides much needed jobs and opportunities that help Indigenous members thrive and help defeat on-reserve poverty.

The focus of LNG development for many First Nations is the long-term careers, Smith said. “I’ve seen the impacts firsthand. I’ve felt these impacts firsthand,” she emphasized.

The project is also generating benefits at the First Nation governance level, providing revenue to support projects. “For the first time ever, we’re funding culture and language programs,” she said. “We’re also expanding existing programs. This independence is what we want. This is what we need more of in our community. We need to heal our people. No other government … has been able to heal our people the way they need it.”

Smith said she is also mindful that the project isn’t just an opportunity for them, but for their neighbours and other First Nations in the region.

“At every First Nations table I sit at — or to the other First Nations leaders in the room ... I want to see your people come to Kitimat,” she said. “There is enough opportunity; we’re not going to be able to fill it all. That opportunity is LNG Canada and Coastal GasLink.”

Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs

For much of February, the issue of Coastal GasLink was front and centre across all of Canada.

Hereditary chiefs of the Wet’suwet’en nation in northern B.C. oppose the route the pipeline would take through their traditional territory and their protests sparked solidarity blockades on roads and rail lines across the country for weeks.

Negotiations between these chiefs and the federal and B.C. governments resulted in a tentative deal in early March on land and title rights, which effectively ended the blockades. Details of the draft accord have not been disclosed and the federal government has said it will remain confidential unless it is ratified by the Wet’suwet’en people in their traditional processes, which was expected to take up to two weeks.

Many Wet’suwet’en are in favour of the pipeline, however, and the nation’s elected band is one of the 20 councils along the route that have signed deals with Coastal GasLink.

When asked about the blockade, Smith said she is sympathetic to the Wet’suwet’en people and the difficult political divide in their community.

She’s experienced similar conflicts in her own First Nation.

“These are people’s lives. Our community experienced that, too. There is a political divide, and you have families that don’t talk to each other. It is the hardest thing to go through...,” she said. “What is happening in the territory of the Wet’suwet’en can only be resolved by the Wet’suwet’en. [But] they have the power — forget the titles, the people have the power to decide who leads them.”

Power of voice

More than ever before, Indigenous people who support LNG development are sharing their thoughts about how these types of projects can lead to ‘economic reconciliation.”

Karen Ogen-Toews, former Wet’suwet’en chief and CEO of the First Nations LNG Alliance, says the growing involvement of Canadian First Nations in LNG and other resource development projects is moving them from poverty to the standard of living enjoyed by a majority of Canadians.

“To me, that goes, and must go, hand-in-hand with reconciliation, moving Canada forward in a mutually respectful relationship between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal groups,” Ogen-Toews told an LNG investor conference held late last year in London.

The London event, which provided a special briefing to around 140 European energy investors and stakeholders, was supported by the Government of Alberta, and organized by Glacier Media (the parent company of the Daily Oil Bulletin) and the Canadian Society of Unconventional Resources.

First Nations have moved beyond merely having a say in resource projects and signing impact benefit agreements to investing in natural gas and LNG, said Ogen-Toews.

“From coast to coast to coast, First Nations and their people are becoming known as business leaders and as solid partners to non-Indigenous companies,” she said. “We have become an important player in the development of natural gas, LNG and other resources in Canada.”

Impact benefits agreements

Getting First Nation support for a pipeline or LNG plant typically includes impact benefit agreements. For First Nations that are most directly affected, these agreements can be substantial.

Benefits agreements can be signed with industry or the provincial government, but often include both. In the case of Woodfibre LNG, the Squamish First Nation signed a benefits agreement with Woodfibre LNG, FortisBC and the provincial government valued at $1.1 billion. It includes $225.6 million in cash over 40 years, $872.4 million in contracts, 422 hectares of land, and employment provisions for Squamish members. The agreement also includes an option for the Squamish to take a 5% equity stake in the project.

Benefits agreements often will include provisions for employment, job training and procurement for First Nations contractors.

For another Indigenous group, the Haisla, fairly significant business developments have resulted from benefits agreements.

One of them is HaiSea Marine — a joint venture between the Haisla and Seaspan ULC, which was awarded a $500-million contract from LNG Canada to provide tug services for LNG carriers. It will employ 70 mariners and six onshore staff, and the agreement provides the Haisla access to employment, training and procurement opportunities.

In another agreement, the Gitga’at First Nation and LNG Canada announced last December that the Gitga’at will construct and operate a new Marine Emergency Response and Research Facility in Hartley Bay, having finalized the terms of a financial agreement with LNG Canada.

The facility, which will support marine safety, research and monitoring in Gitga’at territory, as well as the protection of the coastal environment, will be staffed by trained Gitga’at employees. These staff will work in collaboration with federal and provincial agencies to provide front-line support for marine emergencies, and will undertake research and monitoring programs in Gitga’at territory. Gitga’at will design and construct the facility, and will be responsible for its ongoing operations and maintenance.

Having a stake means having a say

The benefit agreements that First Nations sign aren’t just about economic opportunities, however. Being active participants in projects also gives them more say in those projects, which is especially important when it comes to addressing environmental impacts.

In at least one case, it resulted in a significant design change to address environmental concerns. In what was described as unprecedented, the Squamish First Nation conducted its own environmental assessment for the Woodfibre LNG project, located on Howe Sound in Squamish, B.C., and came up with 25 conditions — all of which the proponent agreed to.

Moreover, Woodfibre LNG signed a legally binding agreement giving force to the Squamish document and conditions.

One of those conditions included a significant design change. Chilling natural gas to -160 C involves heat exchange, and Woodfibre LNG initially proposed to use seawater drawn from Howe Sound to remove waste heat. But that would have meant warm water flowing into Howe Sound. Although seawater cooling was the cheapest option, the company agreed to change the plant’s design to use aircooling. It negatively affected the project’s economics, but it addressed what, for the Squamish, was a serious environmental concern.

Rewriting the playbook

First Nations themselves have re-written the playbook for how to deal with LNG project proponents.

The clearest example is the First Nations Limited Partnership (FNLP), a $500-million-plus commercial partnership arrangement between 16 First Nations in B.C. and the Pacific Trails Pipeline, which would supply natural gas to the proposed Kitimat LNG project.

The FNLP is unique in that it brought together all First Nations that had a potential stake in the Pacific Trails Pipeline to act as a kind of collective bargaining and investment group. It was formed to avoid what had typically happened in the past with other large industrial projects, wherein industry and government would bargain one-on-one with individual First Nations, some of whom may have had real concerns about things such as territorial overlap.

“In many cases there’s a divide-and-conquer mentality by companies who will come in and try to hive off one community to the next to try to get what they’re after,” said FNLP chairman Mark Podlasly.

But First Nations are now starting to understand that they fare better when they work together as a unified entity, rather than in competition with each other, and Podlasly said that is ultimately good for the industry.

“You have multiple First Nations now starting to understand that our interests need to come together first, and then approach the company,” he said. “It is in the interest of a corporate partner to have that internal cohesion at the First Nations level — devised by the First Nations.”

The partnership differs from the way benefits agreements have been negotiated in the past with individual First Nations. The partnership is a commercial entity that acts on behalf of all the First Nations members. One benefit of this approach is that the commercial entity, to a large extent, will assume the task of getting social licence from the member nations.

“The communities will take care of the social issues,” Podlasly said. “The government or the proponent doesn’t have to do that, then — it will be the communities.”

Ultimately, First Nations say the next step in the partnerships between them and industry will be taking equity positions.

For the Coastal GasLink project, TC Energy Corporation said in December 2019 that it is committed to working with the 20 First Nations along the route to provide an option for them to acquire a 10% equity interest in the pipeline.

Podlasly pointed out that the equity investments that some First Nations are now seeking are not industry grants. “They would have to source their own capital,” he said. “It’s not a free ride.”

Jobs and hope

A recent edition of the Haisla Nation’s Dootilh publication tells the story of four community members who work for Kentron Construction, which provides paving, aggregate supply, ready-mix concrete supply, and road building in Kitimat and the surrounding areas for commercial, industrial, and residential clients.

One of the four, Dan Paul, is a concrete mixer driver and has worked with Kentron for about five years.

A big part of his job is delivering concrete to the LNG Canada worksite. He says he loves that he’s able to see the development of the project as it progresses. The job at Kentron, and the steady income, has made a huge difference in his life, Paul said, bringing more stability and security to his family.

The life-changing effects of LNG development have also been felt by Mike Gouchie, a construction monitoring and community liaison co-ordinator for Coastal GasLink. He described experiencing a profound emotional response after spending a night at Little Rock Lake Lodge, one of several lodges being constructed and operated in partnership with Indigenous communities along the 670-kilometre project route to house people working on the pipeline.

Little Rock Lake Lodge is located on land that carries both a rich and painful history; it is the former site of Lejac residential school.

“My father went here,” Gouchie said. “That’s where my siblings and I, we lost our culture, my father lost his culture. And through that, the language. All of that trauma and everything else just sort of fell over on top of me,” said Gouchie. “To recognize it, and for people to understand that, I think is a huge opportunity for everyone to move forward in a positive direction.”

Indigenous people finally have a seat at the table, said Gouchie. “And now we actually get those opportunities. People are talking to us, people are engaging us, … we’re finally getting on track.”

with files from Prince George Citizen; The Canadian Press