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Toward Reconciliation

‘It’s like writing a blank cheque’: poll raises questions about First Nations consultation

Red flags are being raised about an energy development opinion poll being conducted by the Lax Kw’alaams band council.

UPDATE — Aug. 25, 2016: The Lax Kw'alaams band council says they received 812 responses (1 spoiled) with 65.5 per cent (or 532 people) voting YES and 279 voting NO.

The mayor of Lax Kw'alaams, John Helin, wrote a message that says: "This is just another step in a process that could lead to the proposed Petronas project becoming a reality. We will have meetings with the appropriate parties (Petronas, Province, Federal Government) to see what the next steps are for this proposed project."


By Wednesday, members of the Lax Kw’alaams First Nation in northwest B.C. need to respond to an opinion poll that asks if they support energy development in their territory.

The polling follows a series of four information sessions held by the band council in June, focused on plans for liquified natural gas (LNG) development. At the information sessions, band members were presented with a proposed package of benefits that hinge on them voicing their support for the contentious Pacific NorthWest LNG (PNW LNG) project at the mouth of the Skeena River.

Community members are concerned because the current polling question does not explicitly reference the PNW LNG proposal, which includes plans to develop the company’s LNG terminal on Lelu Island, near Prince Rupert. Other concerns about the poll that have been flagged by band members include missing forms in packages mailed to them and misinformation included in the proposed agreements package.

Screenshot of polling question being asked of Lax Kw’alaams members.
Screenshot of polling question being asked of Lax Kw’alaams members.

Biased process

The question is framed and composed in a way that is likely to push respondents toward answering a particular way, says David Moscrop, a political scientist and PhD candidate at the University of British Columbia. “The implication is, ‘Don’t worry about the environmental impact; assume it will be fine . . . Are you okay with [development]?”

Moscrop says the structure of the question makes him suspicious of the intent behind the poll. “If you’re not going to do it properly, why are you doing it? Is it because you want to legitimize something you intend to do either way?” he asks.

The question itself, the timeline of the poll and location of the polling stations were all decided by the band council, according to Lawrence Lewis, an independent electoral officer hired by the Lax Kw’alaams band to oversee the process.

Ballots have been mailed to all community members both within Lax Kw’alaams and living outside of the village, says Lewis. Members will also have the chance to vote in person at polling stations in Lax Kw’alaams and Prince Rupert.

Christine Smith-Martin (Li’dytsm’Lax’nee’ga Neexl), foreground, along with Murray Smith (Algmxaa), both representing the Gitwilgyoots Tribe of Lax Kw’alaams at the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues in June. They told the UN that Petronas’s plans for an LNG project in their territory do not have their free, prior and informed consent.Ian Gill
Christine Smith-Martin (Li’dytsm’Lax’nee’ga Neexl), foreground, along with Murray Smith (Algmxaa), both representing the Gitwilgyoots Tribe of Lax Kw’alaams at the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues in June. They told the UN that Petronas’s plans for an LNG project in their territory do not have their free, prior and informed consent.

Misleading information

Discourse Media obtained the proposed benefits package that was presented at four community information sessions in June. It includes misinformation about the nature of an infrastructure project granted to the community last year, as previously reported.

The $22-million paving of Tuck Inlet Road, the only road into Lax Kw’alaams, is presented as an incentive for the community to support LNG on Lelu Island. But the project was negotiated by the band’s previous mayor, Garry Reece, who says paving Tuck Inlet Road was never tied to any LNG proposal. In the proposed benefits package it is referred to as “work started by Provincial Government as an inducement for good faith negotiations on LNG.”

While Moscrop calls into question the intent of the poll, community member and activist Christine Smith-Martin says the question is too vague and should simply ask members to say yes or no to development on Lelu Island. “It’s like writing a blank cheque. They want us to sign a blank cheque that allows them to do whatever it is they want to do,” she says.

Smith-Martin also raised concerns about the execution of the poll. She says members of her family received their ballots without the necessary First Nation Declaration Form.

In order for a ballot to be counted, it must be returned with a signed First Nation Declaration Form which states: “I solemnly affirm that I am an eligible Elector of the Lax Kw'alaams Nation at the address listed below and that I am at least 18 years of age.”

Lewis acknowledges the initial mistake but says all members have now received the declaration form. When asked about concerns regarding the short timeframe of the poll, the framing of the question and the lack of polling stations in Vancouver or Terrace — where many Lax Kw’alaams members reside — Lewis deferred to the band council, saying he could only speak to the process, not how these decisions were made by the Lax Kw’alaams band.

Discourse Media reached out to Lax Kw’alaams mayor John Helin and the band administrator for comment on this story. No response was provided.

Community left feeling confused, angry

Other concerns include the information sessions that preceded the polling. The main point of contention relayed by people who attended those meetings was the highly technical nature of the presentation, which many saw as one-sided and biased in favour of supporting PNW LNG.

Community member Sandra Dudoward says the current poll is not being handled as well as a previous canvassing of community views about the project. Dudoward is referring to a series of votes that drew international headlines in May 2015. Lax Kw’alaams voted against supporting PNW LNG in exchange for a $1.2-billion benefits agreement offered by Petronas, the Malaysian-based energy company behind the project.

Mail-in ballots have been sent to all addresses on file with the Lax Kw’alaams band, according to electoral officer Lawrence Lewis. Ballots must be received before Aug. 24, 2016. Polling stations will be opened to members from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. in Lax Kw’alaams and Prince Rupert on Aug. 22, 23 and 24.Dudoward says she was given a month’s notice to prepare for that vote. This time around, she’s been given about a week. She found out about the vote on Aug. 16, and had to call to request an emailed ballot. The current poll requires that all ballots be received by mail before Aug. 24 or delivered in person at one of the polling stations in Lax Kw’alaams or Prince Rupert.

Dudoward worries that the timeframe of the current poll is too short and might affect voter turnout. She also wonders why the band has hired an electoral officer to oversee process given that the polling seems informal and the question is vague.

It is unclear how the results of this poll will be used by Lax Kw’alaams’ government.

Against autonomy

For political scientist David Moscrop, the issue is bigger than just the poll and its outcome. He sees it as a larger affront to the democratic process that works against the movement towards Indigenous autonomy.

“If we’re saying that there is a legacy of colonialism and exploitation and stripping people of their power and their right to self-determination, then we should be even more sensitive that there are groups that might be doing that again,” he says.