When thousands of American troops flooded into British Columbia to create the Alaska Highway during World War I, First Nations leaders say their culture and livelihoods faced unequivocal change.
It brought industrial activity, residential schools and greater Federal control to First Nations communities in Northeast B.C., but the worst impact of all was when the reserve was moved away from the river and next to the highway.
"It happened too fast and it happened to us - it was not something we asked for," said Lana Lowe, director of the Department of Land & Resources for Fort Nelson First Nation (FNFN).
First Nations adapted, but things were never the same. What concerns them now is that LNG could be just as detrimental to their way of life as the Alaska Highway.
They're not opposed to the natural gas industry per se, but First Nations want a say in how it is advanced.
"Everything is at stake for First Nations," said Lowe. "In Fort Nelson First Nation territory, the shale gas-LNG industry is a game changer like we haven't seen since 1942, when 20,000 U.S Army troops came in and built the Alaska Highway, opening our territory to the world."
To that end, every First Nation connected to the downstream, midstream and upstream gas development industry was present in Fort Nelson this week for the First Nation Shale Gas/LNG Summit, where they discussed impacts, both direct and cumulative, stemming from natural gas development, transportation and export.
On the first day of the summit the government said it would begin exempting sweet gas processing plants from automatic environmental assessments.
That would have major implications for upstream gas producing operations, especially in the area of Northeast B.C. where the First Nations summit was being held.
FNFN Chief Sharleen Gale asked government officials to leave the conference.
On the final day, a declaration was produced that put "B.C.'s LNG Strategy on hold. No shale gas development will proceed in FNFN territory until our nation and our treaty is respected," it read.
The declaration also put all agreements with the province "under review."
Rich Coleman, British Columbia's Minister of Energy and Mines, and John Rustad, Minister of Aboriginal Relations, then addressed the summit via teleconference. They apologized for the "mistake," pledged to reverse the sweet gas order and requested a meeting with Gale.
She rejected the overture, demanding a face-to-face meeting with the premier instead.
It was the fourth in a series of natural gas summits hosted by First Nations across the province.
The conference, hosted by FNFN from April 14 to 16, brought together more than 350 leaders from First Nations communities, provincial and Federal government representatives, natural gas industry players, and other energy leaders.
FNFN Chief Sharleen Gale said their message is simple: "Our message to government and industry is the FNFN will be governing our territory and managing our lands," she said. "The FNFN will be directly involved in all decisions for any development in our territory. Our people will decide when and where and if development will occur."
The goal of the summit was to to share information and discuss the risks and opportunities that come from shale gas development and LNG shipping.
The FNFN is a community of about 800 Dene and Cree members who live both on and off reserve. They are concerned about the impact natural gas development will have on their territory, which covers approximately 14 million hectares.
"Our whole livelihood is at stake," said Gale. "Our elders always tell us care to for the land and the land will take of us. The FNFN is working towards this goal in a professional and proactive way. We are gathering baseline info so we can monitor the cumulative effects that the shale gas industry brings.
"We have a lot of pre work to do with government and industry before any projects can move ahead. The FNFN is looks forward to working government to government to set the highest environmental standards for our territory. This is the only way we can feel comfortable making decisions going forward."
Summit attendees went to seminars and took helicopter tours of the Horn River Basin to get a first-person account of the impacts that British Columbia's LNG strategy will have on the Dene and Cree people.
Of the four major gas plays active in British Columbia, three are in the territory of the Fort Nelson First Nation: the Horn River, Cordova and Liard Basins.
Gale said that they are using scientific tools to understand what is happening to the land, water and air, and will continue to monitor and collect data up to 25 years.
"Shale gas extraction creates a huge footprint on our land," Gale said. "People need to see what we are talking about, so they can visibly understand our concerns."
Lowe said the summit is important for everyone involved in the natural gas industry, because it puts land, water and air protection on par with economic growth.
"First Nations are often on the front lines of land, air and water protection in a world hungry for oil and gas," she said. "Through public dialogues such as this Shale Gas-LNG Summit, we are leveraging our Aboriginal Title and Treaty Rights for the benefit of all Canadians by forcing B.C., Canada and industry to put land, water and air protection on par with economic growth and to consider resource extraction activities in the context of legacy and future generations outside of individual wealth creation."
First Nations also want to ensure that the communities most impacted by the natural gas industry have a commensurate share of the economic benefits. Lowe said the conference aims to strike the balance between the impacts and the benefits of the natural gas industry in B.C.
"Our members, as always, are seeking to strike the balance that will allow us to enjoy the economic benefits of the latest natural resource boom in our territory with the need to protect our land and culture for the survival of future generations," reads a statement on the conference's website.
Lowe also said First Nations need a say in how and whether or not natural gas development takes place, unlike when the decisions were being made to build the Alaska Highway. (The FNFN has been a signatory to Treaty 8 since 1910.)
"These decisions were made for us in Washington D.C., Ottawa and Victoria, and we were powerless to stop them. These decisions made in far away places changed our economies, how we live on the land and how we view ourselves as human beings," she said.
"Shale gas is the new Alaska Highway. Everything is at stake."