Focus on Fuel Part IV: B.C. LNG and indigenous sovereignty

Features Series

For part three of this series, click here: Focus on Fuel Part III.


This is Part IV in a five-part Martlet investigative series exploring the economic, socio-political, and environmental impacts of the B.C. government’s decision to pursue Liquid Natural Gas initiatives. This instalment focuses on aboriginal engagement with and resistance to LNG development.


The tenuous relationship between indigenous communities and provincial governments regarding liquefied natural gas (LNG) projects made national headlines last month when a protest on Highway 134 near Rexton, New Brunswick culminated in sudden violence after over two weeks of peaceful demonstration. The blockade, maintained largely by members of the Elsipogtog First Nation, was established to protest seismic testing by SWN Resources, a necessary precursor to hydraulic fracturing (‘fracking’) projects in the area.

On Oct. 16, 40 protestors were arrested for firearm and court injunction violations, following the torching of six Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) vehicles and the alleged exchange of Molotov cocktails for rubber bullets between protestors and RCMP officers. Following the arrest of the Rexton 40, police discovered and dismantled several improvised explosive devices and confiscated a copious number of firearms, bullets, knives and bear spray, citing the RCMP use of force as necessary for the maintenance of public safety, in light of these discoveries.

“The RCMP respects the rights and traditions of aboriginal communities and we know that the criminal behaviour of some individuals yesterday is not representative of the greater First Nations community,” said N.B. RCMP Commanding Officer, Assistant Commissioner Roger Brown, in a press-statement subsequent to the arrests. “I met with the Elsipogtog Chief and Council last night and I was reassured to hear them say they don’t condone violence and want peaceful discussions. We urge all those who want to demonstrate to do so peacefully and lawfully and allow things to calm down.”

Others, such as those in the New Brunswick Anti-Shale Gas Alliance, a coalition composed of 28 anti-fracking grassroots organizations, are less assured that recourse to physical action on the part of the N.B. RCMP was necessary.  At a press conference held by the Alliance shortly after the event, Jim Emberger, the spokesperson for the Alliance, said that the provincial government is partly to blame regarding the incident on Route 134 for failing to adequately consult and respect First Nations’ territorial rights.

Regardless of where one’s opinion lies in respect to this continuing drama on Canada’s Eastern seaboard, the event has undoubtedly raised several pressing questions for British Columbian citizens and indigenous communities as the Clark administration ramps up their plans to establish a massive LNG industry in the province. Whether or not indigenous governments truly express the will of their constituencies, how these communities are to make their voices heard in the absence of engagement by provincial governments and how to fairly compensate indigenous communities for the corporate appropriation of vast sections of their territories are but a few of the questions that have been pushed to the fore of the British Columbian public discourse. In light of the recent events in New Brunswick, furnishing adequate answers to these pressing questions has become manifest as the central demand of British Columbian indigenous communities and the fundamental task for several sectors of the Clark administration; whether or not this task will be accomplished remains to be seen.

You don’t represent me!

Despite the fact that it has been heralded as a potential trillion dollar industry by the Clark administration  and several export licenses spanning decades have already been approved, B.C.’s planned LNG industry has received relatively little public criticism, whether from indigenous or colonial communities, as compared with other energy projects such as Enbridge’s Northern Gateway and Keystone XL pipelines. This has largely been attributed to the oxymoronic designation of LNG as the ‘cleanest burning fossil fuel’ (a highly contended assertion in itself; see: Focus on Fuel Pt. III), which seems comparatively harmless in contrast to the Enbridge heavy oil pipelines.

Others, such as Caleb Behn, a Dene warrior and subject of the forthcoming documentary Fractured Land, suggest different explanations for the silence emanating from indigenous communities regarding LNG projects, such as collusion between First Nation and provincial governments. Where corporate conglomerates, such as the Pacific Trails Pipeline Limited Partnership (PTP LP), see “tremendous support for [their] projects”, skeptics such as Behn see only misrepresentation.

“The presumption of homogeneity [in First Nation communities] is erroneous. Indigenous communities who sign [agreements such as those with the PTP LP] are normally indigenous governments that are recognized by Canada as a nation-state,” said Behn. “I think there is an error when you say indigenous ‘community’.  You’re really referring to the government and as all Canadians know, governments are sometimes not responsive, sometimes they’re constructed inappropriately [and] sometimes they’re in collusion with certain entities.”

Behn cites convoluted electoral systems in many First Nations communities, where simple majority votes are often efficacious in transforming indigenous governing structures at a fundamental level, as one of the primary reasons for the discrepancy between First Nations communities and their legal representatives.

Nascent dissent

Although indigenous resistance to the Clark administration’s plans for a massive LNG industry in British Columbia has not manifested itself through violence after the precedent set in New Brunswick, this does not imply that resistance to LNG projects has been entirely absent in BC.

“What happened in Elsipogtog did not come out of nowhere. The movement to oppose fracking has been building in Atlantic Canada and there has been resistance to fracking in BC,” said a spokesperson with Rising Tide, a grassroots environmental group. “BC is very large and there is a bit of a north-south divide as far as sharing the stories of what is happening. “

These disparate resistance movements have assumed several wildly different, yet oddly complementary, forms with varying degrees of efficacy in exacting change to the Clark government’s proposed LNG regime, and all have been first and foremost peaceful acts of civil disobedience. Most recently, activists with Rising Tide Vancouver Coast Salish Territories set up a mock fracking rig on the front lawn of Christy Clark’s house to voice their indignation at the lack of indigenous consultation involved in planning these LNG projects. Despite the highly symbolic nature of the act, the rig was dismantled within minutes by area police and the activists dispersed without being able to affect any real change with regards to the proposed LNG industry.

Other anti-fracking activists in British Columbia have opted for a more hardline approach to the issue, however. The Unist’ot’en camp, located in the unceded Wet’suwet’en lands in Northern British Columbia, was founded in response to a perceived lack of consultation regarding the plans for the Pacific Trails Pipeline, which runs through this territory. Construction on the log cabin which serves as the Unist’ot’en camp headquarters began in 2010 and was finished in July of 2012; the cabin was strategically placed on the centerline of the corridor for the proposed pipelines running through Wet’suwet’en territory, effectively blocking all construction. Coextensive with this construction project, activists in the area have taken initiative to physically escort contractors off of Wet’suwet’en territory in order to express their unwillingness to capitulate to industry plans for pipeline projects. In January of 2012, Unist’ot’en activists issued an ultimatum during a meeting between the Carrier Sekani Tribal Council (CSTC), a governing body legitimized by the Indian Act yet not recognized by a number of indigenous communities, and industry contractors.

“No Pipelines will be constructed through unceded Wet’suwet’en Lands. The Delgamuukw Supreme Court Case of 1997, which the Wet’suwet’en had won, does not make any reference to Indian Act Tribal Council’s or Bands,” reads the Unis’ot’en ultimatum. “The plaintiffs in the case are clearly the Hereditary Chiefs and their members. 50 per cent of your proposed pipelines are planned to be constructed through our unceded lands and you are attempting to avoid meaningful consultation with the true title owners. You will be stopped!”

According to members of the Unist’ot’en camp, the Office of the Wet’suwet’en (OW), the ‘official’ representative of the Wet’suwet’en, had failed to represent its membership during pipeline negotiations. The group cites an Interest and Use study conducted in 2007 for the Pacific Trails Pipeline, which “outright expressed the Wet’suwet’en people’s will to prevent all pipelines from entering unceded lands.”  Essentially, the Unist’ot’en resistance camp is a forceful answer to backhanded deals between unfaithful indigenous representatives and industry, whether perceived or actual.

The events surrounding the Unis’ot’en camp clearly point to a metacrisis within indigenous communities in B.C., namely a crisis of authority such as that alluded to by Behn. Due to legal measures such as the Indian Act, the ability of certain entities to ‘legally’ (in the sense that they are recognized by the provincial and national governments) speak on behalf of their assigned constituency has given birth to a whole new host of problems. In the first instance, the governments legally recognized by provincial and national governments were created by those very governments. For this reason, large factions of the British Columbian indigenous community view the very existence of these native governments (such as the CSTC) as illegitimate. In so doing, dissenters ultimately refuse to recognize the terms of agreement reached by these entities with corporate and provincial interests, which in extreme cases can manifest itself in events such as those recently witnessed in New Brunswick.

The Clark government hopes that LNG development in British Columbia won’t have to go the route of New Brunswick, however.

“We recognize the public’s right to engage in peaceful protests and lawful assembly. We encourage resolution of issues through dialogue in all cases,” said a spokesperson for the ministry. “We believe negotiation, not confrontation, is the best way to resolve issues that concern asserted Aboriginal rights and title, [however] we do not condone civil disobedience or blockades as acceptable tactics to change public policy.”

This may present problems for the Clark government in the near future, which “continue[s] to engage with the Wet’suwet’en regarding their concerns and other areas of mutual interest,” yet this is an ‘engagement’ that is not recognized as legitimate by some members of the Wet’suwet’en nation and as such, the Unis’ot’en camp could become a central site of struggle for those resisting British Columbian LNG development in the near future.

 Why so serious?

The indignation at the Clark government’s plans for a BC LNG industry is present in the British Columbian indigenous communities, and some, such as those at the Unis’ot’en camp even contend that this outrage is proliferating within these very communities. But just what are these indigenes so angry about, anyway? Besides the obvious ecological dilemmas inherent in developing a LNG industry (which is more fully addressed in my previous instalment, which can be found here) and the rampant failure to adequately consult indigenous communities on these issues, there is a more fundamental dispute which provides the missing link between these two sites of legal contention. As Francisco d’Anconia once remarked in Ayn Rand’s magnum opus Atlas Shrugged, “Money is the barometer of a society’s virtue” and this seems to be the guiding principle of many of the parties to the offense that is developing an LNG industry.

At the root of many of the issues surrounding Clark’s plans for an LNG industry in British Columbia is deciding how wealth will be derived from the industry and just how these spoils will be distributed. This is of central importance to the First Nation communities which are implicated in the Clark administration’s push for a British Columbian LNG industry and their battle for a significant share of this gaseous gold has been waged largely on two fronts. In the first instance, First Nation communities throughout British Columbia are looking to cash in on the increased energy production which will be necessitated to power the proposed LNG projects. Currently, 125 of B.C.’s 203 First Nations are involved in Independent Power Production (IPP) in some capacity and many were expecting to be involved as IPPs in the construction of an LNG industry in B.C.

At the recent Clean Energy Association of B.C.’s annual conference, UVic professor and chair of the association’s First Nations committee, Judith Sayer expressed her concern that over 100 First Nations could be excluded from nearly 9,500 spinoff jobs and some $2.5-million in revenue should the LNG facilities develop energy capacities in accordance with B.C. Hydro’s predictions, which posits the majority of these facilities as driven by gas compressors rather than IPPs. Sayer contends that, without a commitment from the B.C. administration, at least one quarter of all energy necessitated by the LNG plants will be met through indigenous IPPs. It is entirely possible that indigenous communities will be cut out of energy production in this industry completely. Not only is this an ecologically callous plan for development, but through the exclusion of indigenous communities from power production, the Clark administration is effectively undermining these communities’ main source of revenue from the LNG projects.

The fears of First Nation communities in this respect could have been dismissed out of hand as idle speculation, had it not been for the recent announcement from Bill Bennett, the Minister of Energy and Mining, that B.C. Hydro will be canceling up to ten clean energy contracts and deferring another nine in the interests of containing rising Hydro energy costs .  Some, such as Joe Foy, the National Campaign Director for the non-profit organization The Wilderness Committee, hail this as a step in the right direction, because it does in fact cut down on costs for Hydro’s already strained budget and also averts unnecessary ecological destruction. Yet if First Nation communities will not be benefiting fiscally from power production for LNG projects, just how are they to be remunerated for the uninvited intrusion on their land?

This is precisely the question levied by the Sharlene Gale and Lana Lowe, the chief and lands manager of Fort Nelson First Nation (FNFN) respectively. In a recent contribution to the Daily Globe and Mail, these two women take a page from Christy Clark’s notebook and demand a share of royalties from the proposed LNG projects.

In September of 2012, Christy Clark published an open letter to Alberta’s premier Alison Redford, in which she cited five conditions that must be met prior to B.C. allowing heavy oil pipelines (such as those proposed by Enbridge) to run from Alberta to the coast. Among these demands was a share in the royalties derived from this pipeline, “that reflect [the] level and nature of the risk borne by the province, the environment and taxpayers.” Just as British Columbia would be bearing the bulk of the (non-fiscal) cost associated with developing such a pipeline from Alberta, so too would the FNFN bear a disproportionate amount of the cost of developing LNG in British Columbia. FNFN territory is home to three of the four shale reserves that are crucial to developing B.C.’s LNG industry and as such their consent to develop these projects is crucial; yet as Lowe and Gale have made clear, there will be no consent without adequate recompense.

The Clark government continues to assure its Canadian constituency and the aboriginal communities within its jurisdiction that “First Nations will continue to have a role to play” in power production for LNG facilities. Just how significant that role will be is to be determined following the release of B.C. Hydro’s 20-year Integrated Resource Plan, which is expected to be released in the near future and will detail the exact capacity in which aboriginal communities will be involved in generating power for the myriad of LNG projects planned in B.C.

What is more, the Clark government claims to be taking active steps to engage First Nation communities as labor-for-hire for the emerging LNG industries, investing some $3.9-million in “Aboriginal trades training programs” through the Industry Training Authority. This funds programs such as BladeRunners, an annual provincial investment of $6-million to help at-risk-youth (the majority of whom are aboriginal) secure employment in technical industries through job training.

“[The Clark] government is committed to building a skilled workforce for the LNG sector and that is why we are continuing to make investments in trades training and skills development so British Columbians are first in line for jobs in the LNG sector,” said a spokesperson for the ministry. “First Nations have an important and direct role in the development of B.C. natural gas export potential. [We] will continue to work with First Nations, local communities and industry to advance LNG planning and benefits and we expect to see more business and/or commercial arrangements signed with First Nations.”

In light of the recent events along Route 134 in New Brunswick, the question of how to adequately address First Nation concerns regarding LNG in B.C. is more pressing than ever. There are no simple solutions to the issues raised by the province, industry or indigenous communities, and it is exceedingly likely that it will be entirely impossible to satisfy all parties in this venture. As the British Columbian LNG industry continues to unfurl, the results of these latent structural contradictions will become manifest, and one can only hope that the result is less violent than the Rexton debacle.

For part five of this series, click here: Focus on Fuel Part V.