Ottawa and Victoria have struck what they are calling an historic agreement with two key First Nations on the Petronas Pacific Northwest LNG project in Prince Rupert.
In a joint agreement between federal and provincial environmental ministries, the Lax Kw'alaams and Metlakatla First Nations are being given a more active role in environmental monitoring of the $36 billion liquefied natural gas project to gain their support for the project.
"This is a first,” said John Rustad, B.C.'s minister ofAboriginal Relations and Reconciliation. “We’ve never done this type of process before with having the First Nations part of monitoring conditions that have been brought forward by the environmental assessment.”
The Lax Kw'alaams originally rejected the project over concerns about the impact it would have on sensitive salmon rearing habitat off Flora Bank. It rejected on offer of land and cash worth $1.2 billion for their approval and participation in the project.
But a band election in November 2015 that installed John Helin as the Lax Kw’alaams’ elected leader resulted in a change of heart.
Helin wrote to the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency stating that, if the project were to be approved, the band could support it, with conditions. It appears the federal and provincial environment ministers may have met those conditions.
"We have always maintained the view that the environment is most important to us and with this agreement in place, it will help protect the fish, waters and lands in our traditional territory,” Helin said in a press release. “Any development can only take place if the necessary environmental protections are in place and this is an important step in that direction."
"Working together, we can ensure the safeguards are in place and LNG development respects the environmental values that are a priority for the Metlakatla First Nation,” said Metlakatla Chief Harold Leighton.
The provincial and federal governments may not necessarily have won over the whole Lax Kw’alaams community, however.
There is a division within the Lax Kw’alaams between the elected band council and hereditary chiefs, who say the elected council’s authority to negotiate on behalf of its members only extends to reserve lands, not Lelu Island, where the LNG plant would be built and which is not reserve land.
Rustad points out, however, that nine hereditary chiefs with the Tsimshian group of tribes have written in support of the project. The Lax Kw’alaams and Metlakatla are among the 15 tribes making up the Tsimshian people.
Asked if the original offer of $1.2 billion in land and cash is back on the table, Rustad said: “Stay tuned. We will have some news around that in the coming weeks.”