The Northwest being primarily a resource-based economy, resource development figures prominently in the upcoming federal election in Skeena-Bulkley Valley.
Resource development projects tend to be controversial to varying degrees, none more so than Coastal GasLink’s (CGL) Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) pipeline.
The B.C. government has fully permitted the pipeline and the company is in the pre-construction phase clearing the 670-km route from the Dawson Creek area to Kitimat.
While elected First Nations leadership along the pipeline’s route have signed on to the project, the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs remain opposed.
The local Green Party candidate, Michael Sawyer, recently challenged British Columbia’s jurisdiction over the project in front of the National Energy Board (NEB), which ruled in favour of the province and company.
Given the ongoing and high profile nature of this issue, The Interior News asked the candidates to state their position on LNG in general, Coastal GasLink specifically and the opposition of the Wet’suwet’en hereditary leadership.
Sawyer said he will not be appealing the NEB decision, but remains opposed to both LNG and CGL.
“I’ve been one of very few people who have been opposing that project,” Sawyer said. “My concern is that when you build large projects like this, at the end of the day they should be in the public interest. The problem is that in order to establish that they’re in the public interest we have to consider the environmental, the social, the legal [and] the economic impacts, and we have to do that honestly.
“My big concern with this project is that the decision to go ahead with Coastal GasLink and with LNG in general has been a highly politicized project, we have the previous provincial government and now the current NDP government, as well as, the federal government cheering these projects on not because they necessarily are in the public interest … but because they are an economic driver and many of the other considerations get brushed aside”
NDP candidate Taylor Bachrach took a more tentative approach to the issue.
“There are concerns related to the LNG Canada project,” he said. “However it’s a permitted project that is rapidly moving ahead and I believe our responsibility is to work together as communities to ensure that the benefits are maximized and the risks are minimized.”
Bachrach outlined three concerns he said he has been hearing from constituents, the first being rights and titles of the hereditary leadership of the Wet’suwet’en.
The second, he said, is the impact of greenhouse gas emissions from the project on the province’s ability to meet climate targets.
And finally, he said, is the fact the main source of the gas that will be transported by CGL comes from fracking.
NDP leader Jagmeet Singh is on the record as saying he supports Coastal GasLink, but is opposed to fracking.
“I can’t speak for the leader, but I can say that the NDP federally envisions a future in which we have transitioned off of fossil fuels and no longer require fracking to extract those fields from the ground,” Bachrach said. “So, as a community leader and as a father and as someone who has worked for decades on sustainability issues, that’s a future that I am committed to working towards.”
Claire Rattée, who is campaigning under the Conservative Party banner, believes the benefits far outweigh the risks.
“I am very supportive of both projects and I spent the better part of the four years I was on [Kitimat] council supporting this project and helping it reach a positive final investment decision,” she said. “This project will create enormous benefits for our region through investment potential, job creation, educational opportunities, and all of the spin offs that are created in our economy.
“This project also has huge benefits for our environment since LNG is widely known to be far safer than coal and oil and when we can get Asian markets off of coal burning and transitioned to liquified natural gas the impacts will be enormous, addressing the environment at a global scale.”
Also unequivocal in support of the project was People’s Party candidate Jody Craven.
“I strongly support all resource developments that go through the proper channels of approval and will provide jobs for our brothers and sisters across our province and our great country,” Craven said.
“We’re open for business, bring on the jobs.”
Liberal candidate Dave Birdi is also primarily concerned with jobs.
“The issue of construction of gas pipelines for the two major LNG projects are tied closely to the issue of jobs and economic development in Skeena-Bulkley Valley,” he said.
“Unemployment is unacceptably high in First Nations reserves. Every Canadian, but especially First Nations governance, must, in my opinion, keep this issue front and centre. We must give solutions to unemployment a very high priority. Once we come to grip with unemployment, in a long-term, sustainable way, a very large number of social issues get taken care of.”
Rod Taylor of the Christian Heritage Party said LNG is a positive step.
“I think most people agree LNG is preferable, it’s one of the cleaner fuels out there, so for those who are concerned about the use of fossil fuels and emissions and so on, it’s a good choice compared to many others,” he said.
“It’s also, obviously, a source of revenue for Canada on the whole as well as for the companies engaged in it, so I’m basically a supporter of LNG projects.
“Of course, every company engaged in those types of resource development and transportation projects has to be very careful how they approach the communities through which they pass and to ensure environmental protections are in place and those things are very important, but generally I’m in favour of LNG projects.”
Turning to the outstanding issue of buy-in from the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs, Taylor said basically the ship has sailed for the issue on this particular project, but that it is symptomatic of a larger problem that needs to be solved.
“They speak for a certain percentage of the population and I certainly have the utmost respect for the chiefs,” he said. “There are other citizens within their communities that feel different.
“There was a governance structure in place before [European] contact and now there are two governance structures in place and it is troubling and disturbing that the hereditary chiefs and the band councils, that there is this conflict between them.
“I think it’s tragic that white policies in the Indian Act and other policies that have made Indians wards of the state have divided the people as they have and the sooner that not only Indigenous peoples within their communities but Indigenous peoples and non-indigenous people together can make more comprehensive and cohesive decisions without this splitting of communities, which certainly causes hard feelings and undermines the efforts to improve living conditions for all people and Indigenous people in particular.”
Birdi suggested the CGL project actually goes a long way to addressing that very question.
“The pipeline construction also addresses the issue of First Nations ownership and management of natural resources, he said. “This round of pipeline construction addresses, for the first time in Canadian history, the pertinent issue of First Nations ownership share of natural resources. This conversation, in my view is a very healthy one and at the same time is very timely.”
For her part, Rattée also pointed to the participation of First Nations bands.
“This project also has unprecedented levels of support from our local First Nations communities. To have so much widespread support for a project throughout our region is remarkable and it shows that the companies have really done their due diligence in consulting with the communities and putting together a project that has widespread benefits across the region,” she said.
“While it is essential to consult with the Wet’suwet’en and accommodate any impacts that the project may have on their Indigenous rights, their opposition to the project should not be able to hold up an investment that will have such a positive impact on our region and that is supported by so many other First Nations.”
Conservative party leader Andrew Scheer courted controversy during a Maclean’s/CityTV debate last week when he expressed a similar sentiment, but phrased it in terms to which many people took objection.
“We cannot create a system in this country where one group of individuals, one Indigenous community, can hold hostage large projects that employ so many Indigenous Canadians,” he said.
But Rattée believes Scheer was on the right track.
“I stand by our leader’s comments, this project is too vital to our communities to be stopped by one group of people that don’t reflect the feelings of our riding as a whole.”
Bachrach is still hoping for a resolution.
“Although the company has secured agreements with—it’s my understanding—all of the elected bands along the route, they haven’t yet secured consent from the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs and that is an important issue and one that needs to be resolved honourably.”
Nevertheless, Bachrach acknowledged the project is moving forward.
“That’s a reality that as communities we need to grapple with and my commitment as the next member of Parliament is to do right by the communities of the Northwest by working alongside them to make sure that we’re addressing those concerns and ensuring that the benefits from the project are maximized, that we have as many local jobs as possible and that there’s as much of a positive legacy as possible that remains behind after the project is over.”
Sawyer supports a resolution with the hereditary leadership, but even that would not bring him onside with the project.
“Resolving the conflict with the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs would be a significant step forward,” he said. “I think that resolving the issues around land claims and jurisdiction is a very important step but it’s not enough.
“If it could be demonstrated that LNG was in the public interest, I would support it,” he said. “I don’t support it because I don’t believe it is in the public interest and no one’s demonstrated to me that it is.”