‘Our Salmon Will Not Survive’: Gitxsan Nation Raising Funds to Fight Pacific Northwest LNG in Court

Between the Site C dam, Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain pipeline and the Pacific NorthWest liquefied natural gas (LNG) export facility, it’s hard to keep track of all the projects that have been approved in B.C. But for First Nations that will be affected by the Pacific NorthWest LNG terminal and pipelines, the environmental and cultural impacts are impossible to escape.

In what is now the fourth federal lawsuit filed against the federal government’s approval of the $36 billion LNG project, two Gitxsan Nation hereditary chiefs have filed a judicial review arguing that Pacific NorthWest LNG infringes on their Aboriginal fishing rights.

In October of last year, judicial reviews were also filed in federal court by the Gitanyow and Gitwilgyoots First Nations, as well as the SkeenaWild Conservation Trust.

The main concern? Salmon. Specifically, salmon stocks in the Skeena watershed, which supports Canada's second-largest salmon run. The LNG export terminal is planned for Lelu Island, near Prince Rupert, a site the federal government studied 40 years ago and found unsuitable or port development.  

“Lelu Island is an area that is very, very unique,” explained Yvonne Lattie, hereditary chief of the Gwininitxw house group in the Gitxsan First Nation and one of the plaintiffs in the judicial review.

“It has a pre-glacial shelf where the eelgrass grow, which is vital for the survival of the little smolts (a smolt is a salmon that is getting ready to go out to sea).”

Salmon need to get used to the salt water before they make their way out to sea, in a process that can take up to six weeks. This means they’re susceptible to changes on the Flora Bank, where Petronas — a Malaysian based company that holds a 62-per-cent interest in Pacific NorthWest LNG — is hoping to build off-loading terminals.

“If we do not have Lelu island, if we do not have the eelgrass, our salmon will not survive. Tweet: “Lelu Island is vital in the survival of salmon & the survival of the aboriginal people that live on the #Skeena.” http://bit.ly/2nfqMIzLelu island is vital in the survival of the salmon and in the survival of the aboriginal people that live on the Skeena,” Lattie added.

The Gitxsan First Nation has fished salmon on the Skeena for generations, but Lattie explained that since Lelu Island is not technically their territory, the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency decided the Gitxsan wouldn’t be impacted by the LNG terminal. Studies conducted by both the Gwininitxw house and Simon Fraser University contradict that assessment.

A study conducted by Simon Fraser University professor Jonathan Moore found that salmon on the Skeena River originate from 40 different populations, spanning more First Nations territories than those consulted by the government.

The First Nations have partnered with RAVEN Trust to raise funds to see the lawsuits through. Last week they held a fundraiser in East Vancouver where hereditary chiefs and environmental activists were joined onstage by Grand Chief Stewart Philip from the Union of BC Indian Chiefs.

Communities Divided by 'Secretive Deals'

Richard Wright, spokesperson for uncle Charlie Wright — hereditary chief of the Luutkudziiwus house group and second plaintiff in the federal lawsuit against Ottawa and Petronas — says the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency chose to consult with the Gitxsan Development Corporation, who Wright said have no aboriginal land rights or a mandate to represent the Gitxsan First Nation.

“Premier Clark’s secretive deals foster corruption and divide our communities but it will not avail her when our case gets to court,” Wright said.

The tensions sown within the Gitxsan Nation by the B.C. government’s push for LNG have been well documented by Discourse Media.

“They (CEAA) stopped talking to us and continued negotiating with this corporation,” explained Wright. “Afterwards [CEAA] says their study says that there will be little to no impact on the salmon, therefore little to no impacts on our rights. And that the depth of consultation will be very shallow. I said that was inadequate and that it was not up to them to determine to what extent the consultation process will go to.”

That’s when Wright decided to “shut down” his territory. He placed a large industrial gate on the only road coming in and out of the Suskwa valley, and built a large permanent camp.

“Since we've done that, we've been running youth programs out there, primarily focused on cultural revitalization and connecting youth to the land,” added Wright. He says he also started kicking surveyors out.

When contacted about these claims, the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency (CEAA) reiterated that the Government of Canada stands behind its decision on the Pacific NorthWest LNG Project. They added that the decision to approve the project “was made following a rigorous federal environmental assessment with over 190 conditions in place to protect the environment.”

The CEAA also maintained that it consulted with Indigenous groups “based on the project’s potential impact on their potential or established Aboriginal rights or title.” Meanwhile, Pacific NorthWest LNG also says that it consulted with First Nations who are located closest to Lelu Island.

Wright and the rest of the plaintiffs hope that the judicial review will reverse the order of approval on the LNG project, and grant them the right to be properly consulted.

“We have the right and ability to manage our own rights and resources, and they're going to have to recognize that,” said Wright.

B.C. Subsidizing LNG Industry

Besides the potential harm to the Skeena watershed, some critics of the Pacific NorthWest LNG project think the project makes no sense economically.

“B.C. was late to the LNG race, renewables are cheaper now. But B.C. is subsidizing these companies as our hydro bills go up,” explained Caitlyn Vernon, a campaigner for the Sierra Club BC.

Even though the Sierra Club is not involved with the lawsuit, the environmental non-for-profit has been working to raise awareness about the Petronas project. The organization is about to publish a report about the B.C. government’s reduction of corporate tax rates for LNG.

“Industry is paying less than the cost of producing the power. And then it's hydro rate payers that are making up the difference,” explained Vernon.

“We don't need the Site C dam for existing power needs in British Columbia. We have enough power for our needs, so the only reason that we would build this would be to provide electricity to fracking and LNG facilities or for the tar sands. That's going to take 70 years to pay off and that's gonna mean increases in hydro rates for all B.C. So we're going to be paying for it.”

With a B.C. election coming up on May 9, Vernon thinks these issues will play an important role.

“This is an issue for all British Columbians, not just because of salmon or climate impact but also because we are going to be paying for these industries for generations through our taxes and our hydro rates.”

Photo: Freshwaters Illustrated

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