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For some First Nations, the choice between economic self-sufficiency and environmental and climate concerns has arrived at a crossroads as the Coastal GasLink pipeline nears operation, critics say.

Coastal GasLink, the disputed pipeline opposed by Wet’suwet’en hereditary leadership, reached mechanical completion in November. It will soon carry millions of dollars worth of liquified natural gas (LNG) to floating facilities on the northern coast of British Columbia for exports to Asia. First Nations are emerging as key players in the West Coast gas boom lauded by Ottawa and Victoria. Floating LNG facilities are already proposed by the Nisga’a and Haisla Nations, while other nations are sitting on major prospective gas fields.

The coastal nations are counting on LNG to uplift their communities after 150 years of impoverishment and degraded social conditions unleashed by colonial policies and land dispossession. However, they face criticism from environmentalists and other regional First Nations for the climate and environmental consequences of a massive expansion of new gas infrastructure.

A Cedar LNG team member speaks with Haisla environmental manager Candice Wilson. Photo via Cedar LNG media kit

On Monday, Shell Eastern Trading (Pte) Ltd., agreed to become the first purchaser of natural gas from Ksi Lisims LNG, a proposed project led by the Nisga’a Nation in northern British Columbia. The Singapore-based company hopes to purchase two million tonnes of LNG annually from Ksi Lisims, or one-sixth of its production. Ksi Lisims plans to begin exports in 2028.

Nisga’a joins the Haisla Nation, which is further along with its Cedar LNG facility that is being co-developed with Pembina Pipeline, a Canadian oil and gas company.

It's essentially about becoming self-sufficient, Candice Wilson, environmental manager for Haisla First Nation, said in an interview. “We can be self-governing, provide services on our own and not have the limitations of policy and regulation that the federal government implements.”

Millions of dollars of gas revenue carry the promise of independence for the First Nations, which have long been dependent on colonial governments in Victoria and Ottawa. Often, relationships with provinces and Ottawa can be fickle for First Nations since they can change with each passing budget or government. Economic independence could also give First Nations more power and influence with government officials.

Artist rendering of Cedar LNG. Cedar LNG Media Kit
An artist rendering of Cedar LNG. Photo via Cedar LNG media kit

Wilson said the “economic benefit would be very far-reaching.”

Coastal First Nations aim to balance investment in fossil fuels with environmental improvements. But critics are poking holes in the plan, arguing they put climate targets at risk by expanding fossil fuels.

She sees the goal of the LNG facilities as economic reconciliation, a phrase gaining more traction in First Nations, provinces and Ottawa.

The definition is broad and encompassing and can span from inclusion in Canada’s resource economy to more ancestral economic activities and ecosystem revitalization.

Wilson’s definition includes all three through the First Nations Climate Initiative (FNCI), led by the Nisga’a, Haisla and three other First Nations. The initiative seeks to alleviate climate change and poverty, according to the organization’s website.

Part of the initiative’s climate plan is based on nature-based solutions, an umbrella term for funding ecosystem conservation and restoration through carbon credits. Haisla has already restored five streams in their territory and hopes salmon numbers will increase when the streams are fully rehabilitated, Wilson said.

The credits are purchased by the First-Nations-led LNG facilities, ostensibly to make them carbon neutral. The theory goes that carbon emitted by fossil fuel development can be mitigated by purchasing carbon credits in other projects that restore the environment’s carbon-storing capacity.

But carbon credits are often criticized as a way to extend the life of fossil fuels beyond the timeline that climate scientists warn will result in catastrophic tipping points.

Cedar LNG graphic outlining the project's positions. Graphic via Cedar LNG media kit

Environmentalists and other regional First Nations poke holes in the initiative's plan on the grounds that massively expanding gas infrastructure in the region will lead to a net increase in global heating and harm the local environment.

Glen Williams, president of the Gitanyow Hereditary Chiefs, whose nation is currently in a land dispute with Nisga’a, questions how LNG facilities can claim to be carbon neutral, citing that “there’s no real basis for that.”

“[Ksi Lisims] is going to contribute to global warming, and it's gonna be disastrous in the drought conditions that we're experiencing now,” Williams said.

“It's unfortunate that an alternative could not be found for the economic stability in their communities,” he added.

To the south, marine harvesters in Haida Gwaii told Canada’s National Observer last year that they feared the potential impact of a boom in tanker traffic on the coastal environment they depend on for harvesting and tourism.

“The impacts are cumulative, and each additional ship that crosses this region increases the pressure on Haida Gwaii,” Council of the Haida Nation President Gaagwiis (Jason Alsop) told Canada’s National Observer at the time.

John Young is a B.C. transition analyst for the David Suzuki Foundation. Photo submitted

John Young, B.C. transition analyst for the David Suzuki Foundation, said as a settler, it is inappropriate for him to suggest “how Indigenous Peoples should proceed — on LNG or anything else.”

However, from a climate science perspective, he worries gas development in the province will slow progress on Canada’s transition. He describes the situation using three L’s: gas locks in emissions, locks out renewables and locks up capital needed for a truly clean economy.

If all five proposed LNG projects on the West Coast are developed, they will produce around 30.3 megatonnes per year, blowing through the province's 9.3-megatonne oil and gas industry emission target, Young said.

Then, there is the Montney Play, which sits on the territory of Blueberry River First Nation in B.C. The gas field is one of the largest in North America and one of the biggest carbon bombs in the world, meaning it would become Canada’s largest source of greenhouse gases and among the highest-emitting places globally.

A diagram from the First Nations Climate Initiative's Climate Action Plan. Screenshot

Gas will eventually become a stranded asset in an electrified world, devaluing the LNG facilities operated by First Nations, Young warns.

Beyond markets, Young says the climate crisis is the biggest existential threat to humanity and must be curtailed, particularly by sidestepping a major gas boom.

But for some First Nations, who have survived the existential threat of colonialism since contact, the opportunity of gas promises the road to prosperity, wealth and influence, irrespective of Ottawa or Victoria.

“Beating climate change is all about having real dialogue and figuring out what the solutions are,” Alex Grzybowski, the facilitator of the First Nation Climate Initiative, said. “We don't have all solutions, but we have some. We're promoting them and trying to develop them.”

With files from John Woodside

Matteo Cimellaro / Canada’s National Observer / Local Journalism Initiative

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Good article, Matteo, and very - perhaps even past - timely. But "a truly clean economy"? Proponents of electrifying everything, particularly the mining, manufacturing and tech that comes with that, need to start thinking more carefully about the consequences, and they are not clean or green.

And yet they are much cleaner and greener than not doing it, even if climate change wasn't happening. Really, it's not even close.

Some people who talk about mining for battery materials etc. act like an electricity-oriented economy would suddenly have environmental destruction from mining where none existed before. But this is deeply wrong. Hello, coal mining, fracking, tar sands, oil spills! The amount of mining you need for things that last years to decades like batteries and solar panels is a pittance compared to the amount of mining you need for things you BURN and need to get more of every day so you can burn some more. And the infrastructure for transporting electrons--big power lines--is way less of a problem than the infrastructure for transporting oil and gas and coal--mazes of pipelines, fleets of huge trucks, farms of massive tanks to hold toxic gunk, endless trains, supertankers, all of them leaking and spilling. All things, incidentally, that you need to do mining to get the materials to make. Electrification is a huge win before you even get to the air pollution, let alone climate change.

I suppose everyone becoming organic farming peasants and retreating from technology would be cleaner and greener, but I sure ain't going for that.

i would make a small change to your last remark to say "you sure ain't going for that voluntarily". One way or the other, you (we) may well not have any choice when the chickens REALLY start coming home to roost. i hope and pray that your optimistic analysis is correct; i fear very much that it is not. love, mg

"Economic reconciliation" is a deliberate, utterly cynical strategy adopted by the O&G industry to perpetuate itself, shield itself from criticism, and disarm the opposition.
The same old "divide and conquer" tactics industry has used for decades. Pitting community against community. And splitting communities internally.

Co-opting indigenous communities to participate in the industry that has exploited them and their lands without genuine consultation, much less permission, for decades.
No better example than Fort McKay and Fort Chipewyan in Alberta's oilsands region. These communities obtain jobs and new wealth at the cost of their health, environment, wildlife, and culture. Would you trade your family's health for a job?

Lots of jobs for indigenous people in the oilsands sacrifice zone. Also free healthcare. Free funerals courtesy of Suncor.
Oilsands companies or government can truck bottled water into communities. Since they can no longer drink their own.
Hunting and trapping are going or gone. Wildlife contaminated. Fish deformed with lesions and tumours. But, that's progress.
With all the new cash in their pockets, indigenous people can upgrade to oak coffins. Maybe even buy an independent health study.
On the bright side, chemotherapy, funerals, and obituaries all boost GDP.

What will be left for First Nations — and the rest of us — when the oilsands industry collapses? No jobs, a contaminated landscape bereft of wildlife, and chronic illness.
By committing to this sunset industry, are they investing in their children's future — or selling them out?

Impoverished communities feel they have no choice but to sign on for benefits. The projects will go ahead with or without them. They can either sign on and get something, or stand back and get nothing. Fort McKay and Fort Chipewyan can co-operate in their own destruction or protest to no avail.

We have already seen the inevitable outcome for First Nations communities who sign on. When oil and gas prices crash, these communities must look to Ottawa for bailouts.
First Nations dependent on up-and-down oil revenues are subject to the same rollercoaster ride that Alberta is on.

A glimpse of the bleak future that await First Nations who hitch their carts to the O&G industry:
"First Nations losing oil revenue amid fall in consumption, drilling" (CBC, 2020)
"Bottom fell out of oil and gas for First Nations too, but Ottawa's silence deafening" (CP, 2020)
"Oil revenues plunge for many Indigenous communities in Western Canada" (CBC, 2020)

"How a conservative US network undermined Indigenous energy rights in Canada" (The Guardian, 2022)
"The Atlas Network, which has deep ties to conservative politicians and oil and gas producers, partnered with an Ottawa-based thinktank – the Macdonald-Laurier Institute (MLI) – which enlisted pro-industry Indigenous representatives in its campaign to provide 'a shield against opponents'.
"… Meanwhile, Indigenous groups linked to MLI’s campaign – including the Indian Resource Council – continue to appear at conferences, testify to federal committees and get quoted in major media outlets to push the view that Indigenous prosperity is virtually impossible without oil and gas.
"Hayden King, executive director of a Toronto-based Indigenous public policy thinktank called the Yellowhead Institute, called the campaign 'a contemporary expression of the type of imperialism that Indigenous peoples have been dealing with here for many, many years'.
"… MLI is one of roughly a dozen Atlas Network partner organizations in Canada. It’s a relatively new organization, formed only in 2010, but its board members and advisors come from some of the top lobbying, legal and financial firms in the country.
"… In 2018, the Atlas Network created a 13-page 'thinktank impact case study' report about a campaign being led by MLI called the 'Aboriginal Canada and the Natural Resource Economy Project'.
"… The report claims that this project was started 'at the behest of the Assembly of First Nations', a national advocacy group for Canada’s Indigenous peoples, which 'saw potential in the natural resource economy as a major driver of transformation in Indigenous opportunity'.
"… The Atlas report notes that a prime objective of this collaboration was removing barriers to the production of fossil fuels.
"… MLI with the support of Atlas embarked on 'a sophisticated communications and outreach strategy to persuade the government, businesses, and Aboriginal communities on the dangers involved with fully adopting UNDRIP,' the report says.
"… 'MLI’s experts are always in regular communication with MPs, Ministers, and government officials.'
"… MLI wanted to apply what it has learned in Canada globally. 'The goal of the project would be to promote Indigenous economic development across the world.'

"How Canada Uses ‘Redwashing’ To Crack Down On Indigenous Pipeline Protesters" (Drilled, August 28, 2023)

"In an attempt to neutralize pipeline protests from First Nations groups, Canadian industry organizations and think tanks have devised a strategy to court First Nations pipeline allies, a tactic known as 'redwashing.'
"… Indigenous land defenders and climate activists say this is part of a years-long industry strategy to silence protest against massive new oil and gas infrastructure in Canada: loudly proclaiming support for Indigenous self-determination while deploying militarized force against protesters who don’t want polluting projects on their territories.
"Kris Statnyk, a Gwich’in First Nation lawyer who’s been closely following the Coastal GasLink standoff, refers to this fossil fuel industry strategy as 'redwashing.'
"… The origins of this strategy can arguably be traced back to 2012, when four First Nations women helped launch Idle No More, a national protest movement calling for greater recognition of rights and sovereignty for Indigenous peoples and rejecting tar sands expansion on their traditional territories.
"… The oil and gas industry (and its political supporters) would not stand by quietly in the face of this escalating threat to its business model.
"A national conservative group called the Macdonald Laurier Institute (MLI) responded by launching a yearslong research project dedicated to neutralizing First Nations opposition to resource projects. 'The country faces the prospect of hundreds of billions of dollars of investment in the resource sector being held up by Aboriginal protests,' reads one paper from the think tank in 2013.
"The Macdonald Laurier Institute has strong ties to the oil and gas industry. …
"… The institute’s strategy for dealing with Indigenous opposition to oil and gas expansion appeared to have two distinct prongs. The first involved urging companies and governments to make First Nations 'equity partners' in natural resources projects on their territories, allowing communities, some with high rates of poverty, to have partial ownership and enjoy a greater share of revenues. The second prong, as detailed in a 2013 MLI paper written by a former Lieutenant Colonel in the Canadian Armed Forces, called for security forces to employ counterinsurgency tactics against Indigenous protesters
"… The Macdonald-Laurier Institute claims this research was conducted on behalf of pro-industry First Nations leaders, reflecting a long-standing debate within Indigenous communities about the benefits and negatives of oil and gas expansion. Making these leaders the face of industrial projects had clear political advantages, providing 'a shield against opponents that is hard to undermine,' according to 2018 strategy documents from the Atlas Network and MLI.
"Five years after this initiative had started, the Macdonald-Laurier Institute was claiming victory for transforming the national conversation. 'Previously, the focus surrounding Indigenous groups highlighted their protests over pipelines and other major resource projects,' according to the documents. 'Today, the conversation has shifted to show that Indigenous peoples are active across the natural resources sector.'
"But whether all this actually benefited First Nations is debatable. As part of this strategy, MLI worked with its partners to delay and obstruct legislation designed to bolster energy rights on the traditional territories of Indigenous peoples–while claiming to be acting in those communities’ best interest. Nevertheless, the think tank had become an essential political bridge-builder. 'Many elected officials now depend on the relationship that MLI has built with the Aboriginal community,' read the 2018 documents. 'This connection provides credibility and support needed to battle opponents.'
"One of the first major tests of this strategy took place in British Columbia, where for years oil and gas producers had been unlocking vast volumes of natural gas …
"… As TC Energy sent teams throughout the 2010s to convince First Nations communities along the route to support the pipeline, the B.C. government began making six-figure financial contributions to a new group called the First Nations LNG Alliance, composed of Indigenous leaders in favor of gas expansion. That group in turn formed a research partnership with the Macdonald Laurier Institute and the University of British Columbia
"… Making Indigenous communities the public face of new gas projects could help win over foreign investors. 'First Nations leaders should be in front of proponents to communicate this support because overseas proponents are paying attention to opposition groups.'
"… Around that time, the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers and a major oil and gas producer known as Cenovus helped launch a new group called the Indigenous Resource Network, which began making the case in national newspaper op-eds, resource conferences and presentations to the federal Canadian government that Indigenous prosperity is impossible without oil and gas projects such as Coastal GasLink.
"All this has resulted in confusing parallel realities, where oil and gas companies and their First Nations allies loudly proclaim that gas expansion is healing the injustices of colonialism, while TC Energy relies on the RCMP, a police force created at the height of Canadian colonialism to assert dominance over Indigenous communities, to violently suppress pipeline opponents, many of whom are also First Nations.
"These warring narratives have helped create 'division and conflicts within communities, and all of that is very much in the interests of the oil and gas corporations and the government itself. It just helps to exhaust and wear down the resistance.'"

It was educational to read thru your posts on this. i agree with your analysis; i think we must continue to oppose these OG projects alongside our native allies regardless, the only other choices seem to be acceptance or Divine intervention. At some point this strategy of the OG industry will backfire i believe, but who will be caught in the blast? i hope (pray) it is directed at the parties responsible. Keep up the good work sir, you are having an impact! love, mg

Well, I guess First Nations people can be greedy hypocrites too, just like the rest of us. Fair enough, but I'm not going to support LNG.

John Young is correct about we colonial settlers. If things proceed as planned with these projects, the blame for the disasters to follow should land squarely on US, who have done the work to "successfully" bring first Nations to this stark and dangerous choice. Shame on us, then and now. So what does reconciliation look like? Business as usual with a different face. Good luck in deliberations and decisions my indigenous friends. We will all need it.