To the deep beat of drums, hereditary chiefs and elders from coastal and inland First Nations entered the Highlander Hotel and Convention Centre, packed with more than 300 people. They were there for a show of strength and unity against government and the onslaught of gas development in the heart of their traditional lands, the “bread basket” of the Lax Kw’alaams people.
On Saturday January 23 the Lelu Island Declaration was signed by the nine allied tribes of Lax Kw’alaams as well as other hereditary and elected chiefs from neighboring nations, sending a clear message to government and industry that the Skeena watershed will not allow the $11 billion Pacific Northwest Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) project to be built.
The tribes decreed that First Nations have not only rights, but also responsibilities, when it comes to harvesting from and sustaining the environment.
“Our ancestral knowledge, supported by modern science, confirms this area is critical to the future abundance of the wild salmon our communities rely on,” the declaration said. “It is our right and our responsibility as First Nations to protect and defend this place. It is our right to use this area without interference to harvest salmon and marine resources for our sustenance, and commercially in support of our livelihoods.”
Salmon is the link, said Grand Chief Stewart Phillip of the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs (UBCIC) in his remarks closing the weekend summit.
“What binds people together throughout Northwest B.C. is the undeniable fact that wild salmon are at the center of our livelihoods and existence,” Phillip said. “It is essential that the Trudeau government immediately intervene in the fundamentally flawed Canadian Environmental Assessment process to ensure that the indigenous rights of the nations of the Skeena watershed are upheld."
Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs Grand Chief Stewart Phillip signs the Lelu Island Declaration at the Salmon Nation Summit in Prince Rupert British Columbia, Canada. (Photo: Daniel Mesec)
The Salmon Nation Summit brought together hundreds of people over two days to discuss the science and politics regarding the LNG export terminal on Lelu Island proposed by Malaysian-owned Petronas, and what B.C. Premier Christy Clark has touted as the opportunity of a generation. In May of last year the Lax Kw'alaams notoriously turned down an offer of $1 billion for allowing the LNG port.
In August 2015 Hereditary Chief Yahaan (Don Wesley) of the Gitwilgyoots Tribe of the Lax Kw'alaams took the situation into his own hands and started a defense camp on Lelu Island in the mouth of the Skeena River, which is home to one of the worlds largest and most sustainable wild salmon runs. And in November, the Lax Kw’alaams, along with 70 other experts, entreated Trudeau to keep LNG tankers out of B.C. waters entirely.
“The support to stop this LNG project is overwhelming,” Yahaan said during the summit. “Nations are united from the headwaters of the Skeena River to the ocean. Together, we will fight this to the end!"
LNG development has been a contentious issue of late regarding the economic future for British Columbia. With several proposals on the table over the past few years, the province is moving forward by issuing permits for a facility in Kitimat and possibly Flora Banks and Lelu Island.
But a study conducted last year by Jonathan Moore, an associate professor at Simon Fraser University who specializes in ecology and conservation of aquatic systems, suggested that such development could be too risky. Moore conducted an independent assessment of Flora and Agnew banks’ ecology and concluded that a major LNG export terminal would have irreversible consequences for spawning and juvenile salmon that inhabit the Skeena Estuary every season.
Moore’s findings, “Selling First Nations Down the River,” were published as a letter in the journal Science. His results differed from those of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO), a federal government agency that concluded the development of Flora and Agnew banks would not have an impact on wild salmon runs. The DFO’s more benign findings played a significant role in the permitting process that allowed test drilling to begin last August.
Trudeau’s government has been pretty quiet about LNG development in B.C., despite directing his cabinet to formalize a federal crude oil tanker ban for the North Coast. But New Democratic Party (NDP) provincial legislators, as well as Member of Parliament (MP) Nathan Cullen, were all on hand to show their support for the Lelu Island defenders and the Lax Kw'alaams people as they signed the declaration.
“This project isn’t going to happen. This project can’t happen,” Cullen said.
At a political panel during the summit, an audience member asked the politicians whether or not they would be willing to be arrested alongside protesters if Trudeau didn’t shut down the PNW LNG project once and for all.
“I feel like I am with the people,” said North Coast NDP Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA) Jenifer Rice. “I certainly support the folks occupying Lelu Island. But would I be willing to be arrested as the MLA for North Coast? I would not.”
As ‘boos’ rang out, Rice explained that her job as MLA would be better served if she were not behind bars. She reiterated her respect and admiration for those on the frontlines willing to get arrested for the protection of Lelu Island and Flora Bank.
Since August 2015, a handful of Lax Kw'alaams members have been guarding Lelu Island, running daily patrols of Flora Banks. Gwis Hawaal (Ken Lawson) of the Gitwilgyoots tribe said that although they have faced some tough days out on the water, seeing the support generated at the summit has made a huge difference in letting them know they don’t stand alone.
“That support is incredibly huge,” Gwis Hawaal said. “I didn’t expect to see as many strong people—chiefs, hereditary people—coming out. I thought it was just our people that were coming. Everybody that has power packed into this meeting, and it’s astronomical.”