When I was first elected to Haisla Nation council, I was generally opposed to industry.
It didn’t take long before I was confronted with the harsh reality of what our communities have been facing — poverty, suicides, and the hopelessness.
Government handouts from Ottawa were not helping our people. There had to be a better way, and we had to help ourselves.
We had to find a way to dig ourselves out of grinding poverty.
A gas company came knocking at our door in 2004 with an opportunity that we saw as something new that just might make a difference to the families in my community.
We could get our people off welfare and into good-paying jobs. It was a risk, and I was as big a skeptic as there was but I also knew it was something we had a duty to consider.
We have studied the LNG industry and its proposals for the last ten years. We have seen that natural gas is the cleanest of all fossil fuels, and that it can improve the global environment by offsetting dirtier fuels in Asia — after breathing the air in Beijing, Seoul and Tokyo I can appreciate the desire of those countries for cleaner energy.
This last decade of careful research has convinced our community of the stringent environmental safeguards that are in place, as well as the safety and environmental records of natural gas pipelines and LNG transportation.
We have also made some important gains.
During the preparation activities anybody in Kitamaat Village who wanted to work was hired.
This is a positive step, but believe me, there is much more work to be done.
That’s because most of the jobs that are available consist of short-term labour or service jobs connected to nearby construction camps.
For us to be truly successful, we need to see our people among the first in line for the permanent skilled jobs — pipefitters, electricians, millwrights — that will come if LNG projects move ahead.
In Kitimat’s boom and bust economy, that will be the only way for us to make good on the promises we’ve been making to our youth – that if they get an education, they will get good jobs and build fulfilling careers.
Doing this is not easy. It means negotiating with governments and major multinational corporations on everything from environmental protection to economic benefits.
On this, First Nations across B.C. have taken different approaches. One that I have been watching recently is the Squamish Nation, which conducted its own environmental assessment on a proposal by Woodfibre LNG to build a modest sized export terminal near Squamish.
Squamish has yet to make a final decision on that project, but it has already issued 25 tough conditions that would hold the project to account in key areas of environmental and cultural protection.
If Woodfibre LNG does goes ahead, these conditions will make for a better project, and I think embody the kind of creative thinking we all need if we are to strike that key balance between economic benefits and stringent environmental protections.
Other nations are also finding that balance, like those involved in the Pacific Trail Pipeline (PTP) from Summit Lake to Kitimat, where an unprecedented 16 First Nations – all of the nations along the proposed route – have joined a First Nations Limited Partnership to support the project.
Other nations have concerns about the impacts of fracking or pipelines or LNG carriers.
I understand these concerns and I believe every First Nation must satisfy themselves about environmental and safety considerations before they turn to the economic benefits that can come their way.
We have done this work, and are keen to share it with those nations which do not have the benefit of our ten years of experience.
As I discovered more than a decade ago, we have a duty to take these opportunities seriously.
We must look at them carefully to understand if the benefits can outweigh the risks.
Because services like healthcare, highways, water and sewer – ones enjoyed by First Nations and non-First Nations alike – come with a price tag. Without reliable revenues, cutbacks are inevitable.
I began this journey as an opponent, but today I am firm in my conviction that we must work together to ensure these projects proceed while also protecting the environment. Too much is at stake.
(Editor’s note: Ellis Ross is also chair of the Aboriginal Business and Investment Council which, according to its website, “helps improve aboriginal participation in the economy and promote economic certainty in the province by encouraging economic growth in aboriginal communities.”)