The Christy Clark government of British Columbia has really stepped in it this time, going behind the backs of First Nations in its haste to develop the Liquified Natural Gas industry in the province, poisoning relationships and endangering the $78 billion development that the BC Liberals have pinned so much hope on.
It all came crashing down during an LNG Summit in Fort Nelson First Nation mid-April that brought together First Nations leaders, industry representatives and government types. After spending hours with Aboriginal Relations Minister John Rustad around the table one day, having what was described as good discussions, it was learned that the BC cabinet had been developing plans to exempt most natural gas production from mandatory environmental assessments, all done without a peep about those plans to First Nations leadership. It had reached the Order in Council phase, and that Order was filed before any consultation took place, though it was later learned that big industry did know about the plan.
The chief of the host Fort Nelson First Nation, to her credit, tossed the government representatives out of the conference on their ears, in the most respectful way.
“My elders said you treat people kind, you treat people with respect… even when they are stabbing you in the back,” said Fort Nelson Chief Sharleen Gale, who has become a bit of a hero since she stood with an eagle feather held aloft as Dene drummers sang while government guests packed up their things. The young chief deserves kudos for her handling of the betrayal.
While government was asked to leave the Summit, industry was asked to stay, at least as long as it took to deliver a message that Gale said needed to go back to the CEOs of any company hoping to do business in the territory. Act respectfully and share in the bounty the territory provides.
We are the ones, Gale said, that make decisions for our territories, for our people. No one else. She said the message should go to the top, and be carried all the way down to the ground.
“In order for this relationship to go forward, we need to find that common ground… there’s ways we can work together. We want good things for our people too. This isn’t just about money… it’s about who we are, protecting the land, protecting the environment. When we sit across the table and speak to you in this fashion, it’s from our hearts. It’s what we learned from our people, our elders, our ancestors.” She then asked industry to go and have a good day, enjoy the area, while the First Nations representatives had a heart to heart.
She got Minister Rustad on her cell phone to address the assembly, pressing the phone up to a microphone so the room could hear his words.
The Order had been mistakenly filed, he said. Sometimes in government there are some mechanisms that the right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing, Rustad said.
(That’s encouraging, isn’t it?)
BC was going to consult, the minister promised, and the Order in Council was being rescinded.
Then came an apology from BC Minister of Energy, Mines and Natural Gas Rich Coleman. It wasn’t supposed to happen this way, he said. “This is not how we do business.” Coleman said the government was embarrassed about the situation. “We were surprised last night when the Order had been posted.” He said government wanted to do the consultation “before we put it in place.”
But Chief Gale struck back. “Sorry ain’t good enough,” she said. Government had made the decision to exempt natural gas from environmental assessment on April 11, but the minister had sat across from Chief Gale on April 16 without communicating any of those plans.
Gale said she had no interest now in dealing with middlemen. “If you want to get to the table, then I expect the premier will have a chief-to-chief meeting with my council, and that’s the only way we are going to move forward on this,” she said.
There is a lot at stake, and “you guys, have a lot to think about,” she added. All agreements with the province were now under review, said Gale, and the First Nation was looking at all options in regards to its relationship with government and industry.
As we go to press, 28 First Nations and political organization in B.C. had signed a Declaration to put B.C.’s LNG strategy on hold.
This is a lesson in how not to do business with First Nations. What a shame. Everyone was just starting to get along.