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Indigenous leaders feel the heat for supporting LNG industry

First Nations LNG Alliance Society CEO Karen Ogen-Toews speaks at an LNG job fair in Prince George Thursday. Bill Phillips photo
First Nations LNG Alliance Society CEO Karen Ogen-Toews speaks at an LNG job fair in Prince George Thursday. Bill Phillips photo

BY BILL PHILLIPS

bill@pgdailynews.ca

Indigenous leaders who support a liquefied natural gas industry in B.C. are feeling the heat for choices.

“To promote LNG, it’s a tough job,” said Karen Ogen-Toews, CEO of the First Nations LNG Alliance during an all-day conference and job fair at the Civic Centre Thursday. “It’s not about me, it’s about our people. We just want a better quality of life for our people.”

She said it has been hard over the last few months since a blockade, supported by some Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs, was removed south of Houston. The blockade was an attempt to halt Coastal GasLink’s construction of a natural gas pipeline from Dawson Creek to Kitimat.

“We’ve had some pretty tough times, especially the elected (Wet’suwet’en) chiefs (who signed a benefit agreement with Coastal GasLink),” she said. “I just want to commend them … that’s a tough job.”

She said the elected leaders, some of whom are also hereditary chiefs, get pulled from all directions. She said there are a lot misconceptions about LNG and why some Indigenous leaders support the LNG industry, which is why they First Nations LNG Alliance was formed.

“When I was chief and we signed our first benefit agreement with the province, we received a huge backlash on social media, just like we did we did in January,” she said. “It’s like you’re being the most misunderstood leader.”

Haisla Chief Crystal Smith
Haisla Chief Crystal Smith

In January, shortly after the blockade was removed, Haisla Chief Crystal Smith held a press conference at the Natural Resources Forum in Prince George, voicing Indigenous support for the LNG industry and telling the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs, which supported the Unist’ot’en blockade, to back off. Criticism has come fast and furious since then.

“Since January, the challenges went up another level in terms of adversity that we, as a nation, have seen and faced,” said Smith Thursday. “Personally, seeing a lot of negative comments on Facebook, where there is a lot of misinformation that is being sensationalized across the province about these projects and their impacts.”

She said one of the missing pieces in the larger discourse is the Indigenous participation in the processes that have led to the construction of the pipeline. There are 20 Indigenous communities along the pipeline route that have signed benefit agreements are are supportive of the project.

“From Haisla’s perspective, we spent four to six years working on the environmental impacts of the projects,” she said. “We have the pipeline, and we have tanker (traffic). In terms of its environmental impacts and the work that we’ve done to mitigate and, to a certain extent, enhance the environment … we spent a lot of time.”

She said no permit went before a regulatory body without the participation of the Haisla, and to get to that point, sometimes upwards of 80 meetings could be held for one permit.

“We worked through the issues of those permit applications before it went to the regulatory body,” she said.

After all that, it was a bitter pill to swallow to see criticism that the band is selling out the environment for a dollar figure.

“It’s difficult to read those because there are lot of important facts that happened, in terms of our participation,” she said. “Our land and our attachment to is it our identity. Those decisions didn’t come lightly … It’s easy to say ‘no.’ It’s much hard to make change and to progress to that change against a mindset that’s not willing to understand.”

Ogen-Toews praised Smith for being one of those leaders who have stood up for what they believe in and faced the criticism.

“It takes a lot of strength to take the heat that she has taken, and is still taking,” Ogen said of Smith. “And she’s still standing … I think it’s important to first seek to understand and then to seek to be understood.”

She said the First Nations LNG Alliance is a “misunderstood” organization.

“We are for our people,” she said. “We understand aboriginal rights and title, we understand that concept of un-ceded territories, we understand some of the issues with treaties. But our people need help today.”

She said Indigenous communities have high rates of unemployment, high rates of incarceration, high rates of children in care and more.

“We have more needs than we have money,” she said.