Northwest B.C. NDP MLA at odds with First Nations over LNG site

Impact on salmon habitat central to debate regarding Pacific NorthWest LNG proposal

SKEENA NDP MLA Robin Austin finds himself at odds with First Nations in his own riding in his criticism of a large liquefied natural gas project planned for Lelu Island in the Skeena River estuary.

Austin and two other northwestern NDP MLAs signed a letter supporting opposition to the Pacific NorthWest LNG project location, a move criticized in turn by the elected chief councillors of five Tsimshian First Nations, including the Kitselas and Kitsumkalum in his riding, who said not enough facts are known about the impact on salmon from the project to condemn its location.

The letter from Austin, North Coast NDP MLA Jennifer Rice and Bulkley-Nechako MLA Doug Donaldson came out of a gathering last weekend in Prince Rupert called the Salmon Summit in which a number of hereditary chiefs from the north coast and along the Skeena River signed a declaration to protect Lelu Island and adjacent locations.

“This was specifically around that particular location,” said Austin of his stance towards the Pacific Northwest LNG proposal. “We want LNG to happen. We want it to happen in a way that both respects aboriginal rights and title and is done in a sustainable way.”

The Kitsumkalum and Kitselas First Nations are part of the Tsimshian Environmental Stewardship Authority (TESA), the other three First Nations are the Gitxaala, Metlakatla and Gitga’at, which is conducting its own review of Pacific NorthWest LNG at the same time as the project is being studied by the federal Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency.

Within this group the Kitselas, for example, have signed an agreement with Pacific NorthWest LNG which would lead to a further benefits agreement based on traditional use of the marine area around Lelu Island.

At the same time, however, another Tsimshian First Nation, the Lax Kw’alaams, is not a part of the stewardship authority and community members have set up a protest camp on Lelu Island which is within its traditional territory.

Lax Kw’alaams members last year rejected a $1 billion multi-year benefits deal offered up by Pacific NorthWest LNG.

The stewardship authority called the Salmon Summit declaration “a political action that is an attack on the rights and title interest of Tsimshian Nations.”

“The meeting that took place in Prince Rupert last weekend did not present complete information regarding the proposed project,” it stated in a release.

“The Chiefs are extremely disappointed that the local Member of Parliament [Skeena NDP MP Nathan Cullen who also attended the summit] and provincial NDP MLAs would choose to sign and comment on a project without any prior consultation or involvement with Tsimshian communities.”

But Austin said that by putting his name in to oppose the project on Lelu, he is seeking to defend the salmon that is so central First Nations traditions.

He said protecting Flora Bank, which is a large eelgrass bed adjacent to the island vital to young salmon populations, would be similar to a previous ban on fish farms in the Skeena watershed which he helped craft some years back.

“There are so many other locations that are better locations than that one. That’s why I joined with my colleagues in writing that letter,” said Austin.

Overall he said he wants to stay out of the First Nations debate.

“I realize that when you get into First Nations politics, that there are several projects which might be supported by one First Nation or not another. I will let them hash that out amongst themselves.”

The Kitsumkalum held a community meeting about the LNG industry in general Jan. 23 at which information was presented on what an impact benefits agreement might provide.

“This could be a monetary agreement, land, training, employment, community infrastructure or a number of other items. Habitat improvements, revenue sharing agreements, compensation, infrastructure, education, training, community improvements are all examples of things that could be included in an Impact Benefit Agreement (IBA),” read part of the information.