Investigation finds no vote occurred in Lax Kw’alaams First Nation supporting Petronas deal, despite B.C. premier’s claim
Six-week investigation found no evidence of meeting in First Nation where B.C. government claims community voted 244 to three in favour of LNG development proposal, and raises questions about whether legal obligation to “free, prior and informed consent”
Despite B.C. Premier Christy Clark’s repeated claim that the Lax Kw’alaams First Nation voted in favour of a proposed liquefied natural gas (LNG) facility on Lelu Island in northern B.C., an investigation by Discourse Media suggests that no vote in favour of the project occurred.
The revelation comes just before a series of meetings the Lax Kw’alaams First Nation has scheduled with its members next week about the proposed $36-billion Pacific NorthWest LNG (PNW LNG) project, majority owned by Malaysian company Petronas. The project will link an LNG pipeline with a plant on Lelu Island, which Lax Kw’alaams claims as part of their traditional territory.
The proposed PNW LNG project is in the final stage of government approval, with a decision from the federal government expected at any time between now and the end of September. Project proponents and the B.C. government are legally obliged to seek “free, prior and informed consent” from five First Nations in the region, including Lax Kw’alaams.
At the Western Premiers’ Conference in early May, Clark said the Lax Kw’alaams leadership “voted overwhelmingly in favour of moving forward into the next stage of this agreement on LNG.”
In an emailed response to Discourse Media about the meeting, the premier’s office stated, “First Nation officials carried out their own internal engagement processes prior to their vote and letter of support to the federal government.” The premier’s office stated that Lax Kw’alaams voted 244 to three in favour of developing Lelu Island.
Discourse Media’s investigation found no evidence of such a meeting. In May 2015, community members in Lax Kw’alaams voted to reject a benefits proposal from PNW LNG. No further band meeting appears to have occurred since a new mayor and council were elected in November 2015.
Neither the premier’s office nor the band council provided any documentation of any band council or community vote. Discourse Media also could not identify a single community member who attended or was aware of such a public meeting.
Political pressure on Lax Kw’alaams, the small community near Prince Rupert at the centre of the controversy, has been immense. Locals describe a community deeply divided over its future, desperate not to miss out on the economic opportunity LNG could provide. However, the majority of community members were opposed to locating the plant on Lelu Island, which sits at the mouth of the Skeena River, because of the location’s impact on salmon.
There are multiple issues at stake that could prove tricky to navigate.
Federally, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised a renewed “nation-to-nation” relationship with Indigenous peoples based on “recognition of rights, respect, co-operation and partnership.” Canada also committed to the U.N. Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in May.
And former Truth and Reconciliation Commission chair Murray Sinclair, now a senator, says projects like PNW LNG are an opportunity for Trudeau to demonstrate his commitment to reconciliation.
Provincially, Clark is jockeying for re-election in 2017, and she has invested considerable political capital on promises of jobs and tax revenue from LNG.
But the biggest stake might be that of the Lax Kw’alaams.
Economically, four of the five First Nations that the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency and the B.C. Environmental Assessment Office required PNW LNG to consult with — Metlakatla, Kitselas, Kitsumkalum and Gitxaala — have signed either impact benefit agreements (securing payouts for their communities along with environmental commitments from PNW LNG) or term sheets, which are often a precursor to impact benefit agreements. Lax Kw’alaams is the lone holdout.
PNW LNG declined multiple interview requests and provided a written statement: “PNW LNG is working collaboratively and constructively with local First Nations. We do not comment on band governance issues.”
Discourse Media will continue to report on the story and will be on the ground in Lax Kw’alaams for Monday’s community meeting.
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