Crystal Smith knows all the indigenous stereotypes intimately. Changing those stereotypes is what drives the Haisla Chief Councillor to fight for a better community for her people.
“Poverty? Been there. Suicide? Been there. Not getting an adequate educational background? Been there,” she said in a deeply personal speech to delegates at the Natural Resources Forum that didn’t leave a dry eye in the house. “I don’t want our people to continue living that life.”
That is why the Haisla Nation is one of the 20 which have signed agreements with Coastal GasLink, which is building a natural gas pipeline from Dawson Creek to Kitimat.
“I’ve seen the impacts (of the benefit agreements) firsthand,” she said, telling of how she asked her daughter if she has hope. Her daughter, who will likely head to college next year, said ‘yes’ and that her son, Smith’s grandson, will taken care of.
“Hearing my 17-year-old daughter say that … our nation is not doing the wrong thing,” she said. “We are doing everything right. I support projects and I’m not afraid, by any means, to say that. We have seen the positive impacts … This independence is what we want.”
She said Canada ranks ninth in the world when it comes to living standards, but on reserve, that standard drops to 63rd.
“That’s a 54-point gap,” she said. “That gap is what we’re closing. We have programs and services that are answering our people’s needs … It’s through economic development, economic reconciliation, that we’re going to find a path back to our true identities and revitalize our culture as indigenous people.”
She grew up not knowing that she was living a disadvantaged life.
“I never thought that I grew up in poverty. My life was made so amazing by my grandparents,” she said, choking back tears. “My grandfather was a victim of residential school but he made me and my twin sister’s life the most memorable. I didn’t think we were poor. We had traditional food every day … But I grew up poor.”
She went to a First Nations elementary school and was affected by the prejudice that she wasn’t getting a good education.
“I came out of that school thinking that,” she said. “I was so fortunate to have my twin sister because we gave each other strength to get through that.”
She went on to community college where she dropped out. Eventually she became the assistant to Haisla Chief Ellis Ross and, eventually, moved into politics and became chief. She helped found the First Nations LNG Alliance and been an outspoken supporter of the pipeline project that is now a divisive issue in the neighbouring Wet’suwet’en community with hereditary leadership opposing the pipeline and elected leadership signing on to the benefit agreement. Smith says she empathizes with the Wet’suwet’en community and said the solution lies within that community.
“What is happening in the territory of the Wet’suwet’en can only be solved by the Wet’suwet’en people,” she said. “The outside sensationalism that’s provided is not providing any solutions. At a personal level, this isn’t doing their community any good.”
She stressed that outside influences are driving many of the issues and the impact will be felt in the Wet’suwet’en community for a long time.
“These are people’s lives,” she said. “I speak so passionately and empathetically to that community because our community experienced that too.”
She said the divisions in a small community can pit people, who have known and liked each other all their lives, against each other.
“You have families who choose sides and don’t talk to each other anymore,” she said. “It is the hardest thing to go through.”
She knows, firsthand, what it’s like to have friends and neighbours not talk to her because of political divides in the community. She knows, firsthand, what it’s like to have people literally turn their back on her. It prompted her to make a decision:
“Politics will not affect my kids,” she said. “Politics will not affect my family. We’re not going to take sides. I don’t care who’s right, who’s wrong.”
When people would turn their backs, she said she would tap them on the shoulder and say: “Hey, how’s it going?”
Much of that division between families is going on now in the Wet’suwet’en community and only the community can resolve it.
“That have the power, the people, forget the titles, the people have the power to decide their future,” she said. “They need to be empowered.”