Skip to content

Going slow to go fast – Part 2

Industrial projects must be cooked over the Indigenous campfire before serving to the public.

Read Part 1 here.

Lyndsay Thompson is the Director of Indigenous Relations for BC Hydro, arguably the company most steeped in conflict with Aboriginal peoples in this province going back through the years. She says BC Hydro has no choice but to own the wrongs done in the past, and be better today.

“BC Hydro built its major heritage assets in a time when Indigenous consultation was not required and didn’t really exist. The impacts of our big-build era had devastating and ongoing impacts on Indigenous territories and land, and continue to do so,” says Thompson.

“BC Hydro has been very open and public about what those impacts are and has apologized for them. And that’s not to take away any of the impacts that the company has had. The reality and the nature of our work is that we still continue to have impacts on the land.

“We are still continuing to build, we are still continuing to provide electricity for customers all across the province, and we are building off of those heritage assets in order to do that.”

Providing power to a provincial population comes with immense challenges, from both engineering and social license standpoints. A huge victory BC Hydro can point to is the construction of the Northwest Transmission Line, which required the consent of a number of First Nations. The Tahltan people held a referendum, with 85 per cent in favour of the project, thanks to the benefits BC Hydro and the Province provided.

It was not a consensus. But it was a large majority and gave the Tahltan community a clear internal mandate.

“I believe you can be completely opposed to a project and still have a relationship,” said Thompson. “To me, those are not mutually exclusive. In relationships, you’re not always going to agree on everything. I don’t know of anyone who has a relationship like that and if they say they do, they probably need to work on their self identity.”

However, when a First Nation gives a hard no, the results are clear. Consider the proposed projects that got announced, but never happened or experienced costly delays.

These examples are clear indications that contrary to the view that some First Nations just leverage territorial power for cash – sometimes the big money offers get turned down no matter what.

The Northern Gateway Pipeline had significant opposition from Aboriginal interests. It was shelved.

The Morrison Lake Mine proposal near Smithers was on the cusp of going ahead in 2012 but opposition from primarily the Lake Babine Nation caused permitting to halt, court cases to ensue, and as of 2019 was still moving only in small steps with Aboriginal opposition still strong.

The New Prosperity mine proposed for the Chilcotin region in 2008 ran into fierce opposition from a number of First Nations in the affected area and after years of court and government contention still has not gotten a definitive go-ahead.

A 1983 clear-cut logging operation in central BC was opposed in court by the Tsilhqot’in group of nations. After wending through the legal system, it resulted in the Supreme Court of Canada’s landmark William Case in 2014 that further established Aboriginal rights and title.

The Kemess North mine expansion got decisively opposed by the Takla Lake, Kwadacha and Tsay Keh Dene First Nations. It had its permits rejected in 2008 and the project was stopped in its tracks. But this is also an example of how projects can be rescued. AuRico Gold bought the stalled project and drastically altered the approach, going from an open pit model to an underground model, and the science of waste disposal in that form was satisfactory to the Aboriginal groups who then signed on and got the expansion going.

Maynard Angus has been on the Port of Prince Rupert’s operations team since 2007 and heads their Indigenous engagement initiatives. He is Aboriginal himself, as well as a being a veteran of the northwest business community. He scoffed at many companies he’d heard say “Aboriginal relations are our first priority” only to discover they had a handful or fewer people doing Indigenous relations consultations.

Thompson agreed, saying the ‘going slow to go fast’ model is leading BC Hydro into the future.

Lyndsay Thompson

“There has been a huge turn of the dial where Indigenous relations is not just a separate department. It is in the DNA of the entire company. The relationships are not with just a specific group of people engaging with First Nations. It is embedded in the entire life-cycle of the company.”

Puetter said the stakes are just too high to not forge these relationships:

“If it doesn’t go well (the first time), there won’t be a second time.”

But Puetter also recalled a time when a group of First Nations interests opposed one of his wind farm projects because they believed diesel generators would be powering the turbines when the wind didn’t blow. Not so. Once he explained that, those opponents became allies. There are ways, just like Kemess North Mine, to turn situations around.

"If it doesn’t go well (the first time), there won’t be a second time.”

The Mount Milligan Mine project between Fort St. James and Mackenzie benefited from proactive business attitudes by original project proponent Thompson Creek Metals. A revenue sharing agreement was established with the McLeod Lake First Nation, but it took longer to also establish a business relationship with the Nak'azdli First Nation.

The proposed mine and its access points were situated on the ancestral lands of both Aboriginal groups. There was even a rouge protest group that set up roadblocks during the mine’s early stages, breaking ranks with the official Nak’azdli government. Sound familiar? But in that case, an amicable arrangement was struck.

It is more difficult to do meaningful consultation over a pipeline, as the project doesn’t touch one or two First Nations, but dozens. In the case of LNG Canada’s dialogue with the Wet’suwet’en, they got to know them over many years, and even changed the original route of their proposed pipeline at the behest of the Wet’suwet’en to protect culturally important values.

The company was consulting with the elected government, with hereditary chiefs, and with rank and file nation members, the majority of whom supported – and apparently still support – the pipeline. It still wasn’t enough homework to draw in this branch of the Wet’suwet’en who dug in their heels and are invoking every known tool of opposition.

The same can be said for another pipeline project in the headlines. Trans Mountain has garnered tremendous support from practically all First Nations along its path, stated in writing. But those are not the only Aboriginal stakeholders. The messages are powerful when no amount of money can sway them.

Maynard Argus

“I’ve seen this – those two worlds are really wanting to come together, but there is still that gap where there is a lack of trust,” said Angus, with his wealth of knowledge specifically on coastal projects.

“But everyone, at the end of the day, wants a quality of life. We all want the same things.”

He means that both ways. The historically abused First Nations want good wages and training opportunities and safe communities, while industrial proponents also want a healthy environment and fairness for territorial communities. The two sides are not enemies just because they come from different introduction points.

In many ways, the LNG Canada and Trans Mountain proponents are not themselves to blame for these impasses making the news lately. Both of those projects had substantial Indigenous consultation in their favour.

The distrust Angus spoke of comes from decades, even centuries, of abuse by colonial forces sullying what was for a long time a very amicable business arrangement between the First Nations and incoming people who, in the BC context, started out as trading friends but then overran their welcome and failed at almost every turn to establish mutual pacts before assuming, in the literal sense of the word, control over land use.

Both LNG Canada and Trans Mountain had substantial Indigenous consultation in their favour.

Add to that the hostile racial policies of residential school, the so-called ‘60s Scoop, law enforcement inaction on missing and murdered Aboriginal women, bans on the potlatch and sun dance cultural ceremonies, bans on wearing culturally authentic clothing, banning the hereditary governance system, and many more instances of government-sized bullying.

Within a single modern lifetime, it was not legal for Aboriginal people in Canada to make a land claim, retain a lawyer, or even to become a lawyer.

Many of these atrocities and overreaches of power are historic, but Crown governments to this day fight against advances in the rights of Indigenous peoples. In these fields are sown the protests of today.

“Is it reasonable to expect that First Nations must make changes too? Of course. We are all in this together, and I think all of us have to learn more about one another because we are all here to stay,” said George.

“What I’m starting to see with our young people is they are attaining higher education. They are getting more sophisticated in terms of the work that we’re doing. We are gaining business acumen exponentially. We want to be part of the economy.

"I think poverty has been normalized for far too many of our families."

“Poverty is not an Aboriginal right, and I think poverty has been normalized for far too many of our families, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous. We have to do more on that front. I am really pleased with the leadership that has been provided by our elected and hereditary chiefs, but I am more impressed by the young people that are coming forward, getting the education, many of them working within the companies and within the different systems, and are taking their Indigenous world view and imbedding it in different organizations.”

There are 634 different and distinct First Nations in Canada. About 200 of those are within the borders of British Columbia. Most of the BC landmass is unceded territory.

Anyone who wants to do business in those conditions can find tremendous success, if the first thing extended is the hand of friendship.

Frank Peebles is a veteran magazine and newspaper journalist based in Prince George. He has won numerous awards for his work, including Canadian Community Newspaper Association and BC-Yukon Community Newspaper Association citations.