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‘There will be no pipeline’


‘There will be no pipeline’

In the heart of Nak’azdli territory, there is a steely resolve — the people are firmly against Northern Gateway

The waters of Nak’al Koh are a deep emerald, almost black at times.

The forest presses in at the sides — a mixture of spruce, pine, aspen, birch and willow — so thick it seems like a primeval blanket.

A fierce rain rises up suddenly, hammering the water and the aluminum boat that Stuart Todd navigates, strengthening the already deep, tangy-earth smell.

Todd smiles wryly at the sudden downpour, recounting tales of moose he has seen swimming the river.

“They are great divers,” he says. “They can go down deep and feed on the weeds at the bottom.”

The river (called Stuart River in English after John Stuart, a clerk with the fur-trading North West Company in the early 1800s) is also home to salmon, trout, dolly varden, ducks, geese, elk, grizzly, black bear and beaver.

This is the heart of Nak’azdli territory — downriver from where the revered chief Kwah is buried, and where Calgary-based Enbridge wants to run its $7.9-billion Northern Gateway oil and condensate pipelines.

It is also the heart of the pipeline opposition spearheaded by the Yinka Dene Alliance, a group of six First Nations, including the Nak’azdli, which has sworn they will not let the oil pipeline be built. They say their traditional territory encompasses about 25 per cent of the proposed 1,177-kilometre route from Alberta to Kitimat on the coast of B.C.

In Nak’azdli, which is adjacent to Fort St. James on the southern shore of Stuart Lake, the great concern is that any economic benefit from the pipeline is not worth the risk of a spill on the waterways in their traditional territory.

They are most worried about the effect an oil spill would have on sockeye salmon and the Nechako white sturgeon.

The Stuart sockeye runs — the river is the last leg of a 1,200-kilometre journey from the Pacific Ocean to their spawning grounds — are an important source of food and culture for the community.

Although the runs can still be large, the number of salmon that reach Nak’azdli is already dwindling. Some years, the community has to purchase salmon farther west, outside of its traditional territory.

And the Nechako white sturgeon is at risk of extinction, listed by Canada as an endangered species. The Nak’azdli have not been able to fish sturgeon for more than 20 years.

For the Nak’azdli, the waterways, carved out during the last ice age 10,000 years ago, are an important physical and spiritual presence. So much so, that they call themselves the Dakelh, which in their language, means people who travel by water.

With the approval in June of the Northern Gateway pipeline by Stephen Harper’s Conservative government, the stage has been set for a battle over the project and it is unclear what will be the outcome.

The question remains: Will the pipeline get built?

The conflict became more complicated with a recent landmark Supreme Court of Canada ruling that granted the Tsilqhot’in title to 1,750 square kilometres in central B.C., a first for a First Nation in British Columbia. It set out a strengthened need for government and companies to get consent for industrial development, except where significant national interest can be argued.

The Nak’azdli, similar to other north-central and coastal B.C. First Nations, have said they will take whatever steps are necessary to stop the pipeline, using the courts or blocking the project directly on the land.

“The Dakelh people avoided conflict because the final answer in a conflict, it’s gruesome,” says Peter Erickson, a hereditary chief who holds the same title of Ts’oh Dai as chief Kwah did more than 200 years ago.

“You look at the conflicts around the world — do we have to go to that point?” says Erickson. “At the same time, we have to ensure this land is here for our grandkids. … This project, on such a scale, cannot be allowed to come into our territory.”

Enbridge has said it won’t be ready to start construction until late 2015 and says that, in the interim, it can engage First Nations opposed to the project and gain their support.

The company says it has already signed equity sharing agreements with 26 of the 40 First Nations along the proposed route. That number, the company says, includes 11 of the 22 First Nations along the pipeline route in B.C., but does not count the five coastal First Nations that are so adamantly opposed. It means about 40 per cent of First Nations in B.C. directly affected by the project have signed deals to take a financial stake in the pipeline, according to Enbridge’s calculations.

Janet Holder, executive vice-president of western access for Enbridge, said she believes more First Nations will eventually sign on.

There are discussions underway with First Nations who oppose the project, but she won’t say with whom.

“We’ve had a meeting — not myself — but with a group you would probably believe are definitely opposed (to the pipeline), who are having that conversation with us, saying if we were to work together, how would this all work and what opportunities are out there and what role can we play?” Holder said.

Lillian Sam, 75, spreads a map out on her kitchen table. It’s a copy of one made by an anthropologist in the 1940s. Obtained as part of research to trace community descendants and for the First Nation’s land claim efforts, it is marked off in large parcels of land, some hundreds of square kilometres, with family names. They delineate keyohs — areas where families had the rights to gather food and to fish, hunt and trap, but also had the responsibility for the land. An area just below the lake, to the west of the Nak’al Koh River, is marked with Kwah. Her grandfather was a grandson of chief Kwah.

Lillian calls the land “precious,” as she runs her hand over the map, and says any pipeline spill will affect a lot of habitat.

Sam says that their lifestyle — which still includes the use of traditional foods — is important and it has to be recognized. There is a rich history on the land — and potential future — that they wish to protect, she says.

“Our elders have always said you cannot eat money,” says Lillian. “The food and the land is so important for us. Not only for us, for … other people. You see the devastation of the oilsands: a huge part of that land is no good. What’s going to happen to us? What’s going to happen to our children and our grandchildren?”

The keyohs remain today, and while they are used differently than they were in the past, they are still important, says Liza Sam, a nurse for the Nak’azdli health program.

When people talk about keyohs, they talk about it as their home, she says.

Her family’s keyoh is on the Nations Lakes, but she also has connections to others on Camsel Lake and at the village of Tachie, all north of Nak’azdli.

“It’s not just fish and berries and meat — it’s our sense of where we were, who we were before we were moved onto reserves,” says Liza. “When I go to these keyohs, I get that sense of peace — that spiritual sense of where I belong.”

Elder Tina Erickson notes that historically the First Nations that made up the Yinka Dene people had lands that stretched west hundreds of kilometres to the Tahltan people, hundreds of kilometres north as well, and west to the continental divide where the Sekani people lived.

It was chief Kwah, born in about 1755, who greeted Simon Fraser in 1806 when he was establishing fur-trading forts, and provided fish and food to his starving party.

“Our people say that we were put here to look after this part of the earth. And we take that seriously,” says Erickson.

Decades of industrial activity have already brought significant change to the Nak’azdli’s traditional territory.

Beyond the thick carpet of forest at the edge of the Nak’al Koh River, the land has been broken into pieces from logging, road building, farming and most recently Thompson Creek Metals’ $1.4-billion Mount Milligan gold and copper mine.

And while the Nak’azdli have continuing concerns about resource development, it has, over the years, become a partner.

It has jointly owned lumber company T’loh Forest Products since 1995 with Apollo Forest Products. It also owns a piece of the Conifex sawmill with several other First Nations. It has signed on to Dalkia Canada’s $235-million bioenergy plant under construction. And it has a revenue-sharing agreement with the B.C. government for Mount Milligan, which is expected to provide $24 million over the life of the mine.

The First Nation also owns a grocery store and a gas station, and it recently purchased a second gas station and restaurant.

The business interests have over time provided more jobs and money.

That has been significant for the growing community of about 1,800, about half of which live in the Nak’azdli reserve.

But the Nak’azdli’s growing business interests, and the fact they will soon own two gas stations, prompts the question: why do they not support the pipeline?

The risk of a spill is remote. Enbridge has calculated the probability of a major rupture in the B.C. Interior is once in 1,566 years (about a 0.06-per-cent chance a year). For a “pinhole” leak, the probability is once in 79 years (about 1.2 per cent a year).

Enbridge also plans to install shut-off valves on either side of the Stuart River (about 3.5 kilometres apart) to limit the amount of oil that could spill into the river in the rare case of a major rupture.

Chief Fred Sam stresses the Nak’azdli are not against development.

“But not this one,” he says in a soft-spoken voice, referring to Northern Gateway.

Still, it creates a strange juxtaposition.

There is no question the Nak’azdli depend on oil and the fuels derived from it for their vehicles and boats, and gain profit from it through their Petro-Can gas station.

The chief acknowledges this has been a difficult question for them.

Profits from their business enterprises have been used to improve the newly built Nak’al Bun elementary school (originally funded by the federal government) with an upgraded gym, a commercial-style kitchen and high-tech interactive white boards for the classrooms.

Sam said the community is trying to find a way to use less fossil fuels.

Kwah Hall is now heated with an energy system that burns wood waste (energy from renewable sources is considering a greener alternative to fossil fuel), and the grocery store, new elementary school and an apartment they own all use geothermal heating.

The Nak’azdli are not alone in their opposition to Northern Gateway in the local area. The District of Fort St. James also opposes the project, citing similar concerns that an oil spill would be devastating to the waterways in the area.

Mayor Rob MacDougall points to the lake, which can be seen from the district’s boardroom. “Envision that with an oil slick — that’s something we don’t want to see,” he says, recalling the major spill Enbridge had in Michigan on the Kalamazoo River in 2010.

“I think from our perspective you could have the best technology, but all you need is the smallest flaws and that technology fails.”In Prince George, northern B.C.’s largest city of about 80,000, Enbridge is hosting a meeting of community advisory boards. The boards have been organized and funded by Enbridge to provide a venue for sharing information and ideas on the project.

Normally, the sessions are private (you have to have applied and been invited to participate) but today the doors have been opened to reporters for luncheon speaker Peter Howard, CEO of the Canadian Energy Research Institute, which is funded by industry and government.

Howard’s talk encompasses both oil and natural gas, and he endorses a coterie of oil pipelines, including Northern Gateway, as necessary to get expanding Alberta oilsands production to market, including new, important markets in Asia.

Among the members of the five regional advisory groups are 15 First Nation groups, including five Metis groups and five First Nations from Alberta.

There are four First Nations from B.C.: the Cheslatta Carrier Nation, the Gitxsan (two groups), Hagwilget Village Council and Skin Tyee.

The Cheslatta Carrier Nation has been at the advisory board table since its inception in 2009.

The Cheslatta claim traditional territory encompassing about 20 to 30 kilometres of the pipeline route, to the west of the Nak’azdli.

Mike Robertson, a policy adviser for the Cheslatta, said they remain neutral on the project but are in discussions with Enbridge. He would not say whether the First Nation is one of those that has signed an equity agreement, but adds that being offered an ownership stake in a resource project is a rare opportunity.

The community of 350 members — about one third of whom live on a reserve south of Burns Lake — lost a significant employer when a joint-venture sawmill that provided about 140 manufacturing, logging and transportation jobs closed permanently in 2011. Robertson said the Cheslatta respect the concerns of other First Nations on the Northern Gateway project, including over the risk of a tanker spill on B.C.’s coast, but says the alternative to transporting oil via an “engineered” pipeline is the less-appealing option of shipping it by rail.

“It’s easy to just come out and oppose a project, but I think we have to totally understand it before we can say no or yes,” he said.

Holder, the lead on Northern Gateway for Enbridge, attended the community advisory board meeting.

Three years ago, Holder offered to head the project and move back to her hometown of Prince George from Toronto where she was a senior executive in the natural gas division.

Enbridge has tried to capitalize on the credibility they believe her roots in a northern B.C. community give her. Many television and print ads feature Holder.

Although Enbridge would like 100-per-cent support from First Nations, Holder acknowledges that is not likely.

“There’s no major issue that’s ever been dealt with in this country, a social issue or infrastructure, that’s going to have 100-per-cent support from aboriginal communities, as well as the general public,” says Holder.

Holder argues that while First Nation opponents have been very vocal, there are First Nations that support the project that have not voiced their opinions.

The equity agreements signed by First Nations — there’s an up to 10-per-cent stake available in total — will provide a share in profits as soon as the project begins operations.

“This was not First Nations having to put up their hand and saying we support you. They could remain neutral. They just could not openly oppose us,” says Holder, of those that have signed equity agreements.

“I will say, though, those that have signed on are meeting with us on a very regular basis and working on ways to further partnering with us that goes well beyond equity components,” she said.

Holder will not say exactly what the company is doing to convince First Nations such as the Nak’azdli to support the project, saying the company never discusses its efforts with individual First Nations.

But she notes that Enbridge has a team whose job it is to meet with First Nations in northern B.C.

And when it is needed, senior executives also meet with First Nations leaders face-to-face, she says.

Enbridge CEO Al Monaco was in Prince George the day of the community advisory board meeting for a session with three unnamed First Nations chiefs.

“I’d say there’s more (First Nations) talking to us than people probably realize,” said Holder.On the return trip upriver, the rain has stopped as quickly as it started.

Todd points to the riverbank and explains how in the past, they knew the salmon would return when the berries turned red.

The Nak’azdli believe that chief Kwah watches for the return of the salmon, and the first big spring rainstorm is Kwah beating his drum to announce the arrival of the salmon, explains Anne Sam, a councillor with the Nak’azdli.

It is the salmon that hold paramount importance here.

At the Nak’al Bun elementary school each fall, the children learn to clean sockeye and get them ready for canning or drying, part of an effort to maintain the connection to the land and the Nak’azdli culture, says Sam.

Todd slows the boat, shows where he has seen elk come down.

Reflecting on the Nak’azdli’s resistance to the pipeline, Todd says simply it is because they believe it will harm the river.

“Salmon always come up this way,” he says with a sweep of his hand.

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