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Amid protests, one hereditary chiefs explains importance of LNG project to his community

Last Updated Feb 21, 2020 at 7:11 am MDT

FILE - A notice to clear the road from RCMP sits in a tree fell across the road block access to Gidimt'en checkpoint near Houston B.C., on Wednesday January 8, 2020. The Wet'suwet'en peoples are occupying their land and trying to prevent the Coastal GasLink pipeline from going through it. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson

Gitxaala First Nation chief says there's frustration all around, but he hasn't lost his patience yet

The Gitxaala signed their LNG agreement last March, one of 20 First Nations along the pipeline to do so

KITKATLA (NEWS 1130) – Nearly two months after an injunction was served to opponents of the LNG pipeline on traditional Wet’suwet’en territory, and weeks after demonstrations have disrupted traffic and train travel in parts of Canada, at least one hereditary chief remains calm.

Clifford White belongs to the Gitxaala First Nation, a community of about 2,000 who inhabit the islands and inlets between Prince Rupert and Haida Gwaii.

The Gitxaala signed its LNG benefits agreement with the province in March, 2019, one of 20 First Nations communities which have done so, including the elected leadership of the Wet’suwet’en First Nation. Together they form the First Nations LNG Alliance.

“When there are companies and businesses coming into our communities, we want to make sure that not only the environment is preserved, but how is their activity going to help our people get out of poverty. There is a lot of truth in the fact that we have been governing poverty for decades, and we have been at the beck and call of government agencies giving us handouts,” says the former elected chief.

And so it took what he calls lengthy negotiations to get to that agreement.

He points out his community includes 23 houses, with a hereditary chief at the head of each one.

“The elected chief and council, hereditary leaders, our matriarchs and elders were at the negotiation table. What we did, we basically took the advice of not only community members, but all of those people. It was very inclusive of the people and the governing structure.”

Because the Gitxaala live along the coast, protection of the water was their major concern. LNG shipping routes would traverse Gitxaala territory.

“Our people were concerned about the salmon, kelp, seaweed, shellfish. We worked with the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency and BC Environment Assessment office to ensure we weren’t running into problems should there be any LNG catastrophe.”

According to a B.C. government news release, the agreement “ensures Gitxaala members benefit from jobs, business opportunities and the increased revenue and growth that this project will bring.” It says the fund agreement will provide an annual base payment plus incremental project funding. The total annual payment is anticipated to be up to $800,000 a year, depending on the amount of LNG shipped.

White says a lot of his community members are now employed in the industry.

Hereditary chief doesn’t harbour any resentment toward protesters

So how does he feel about the protesters, delaying a project that promises to bring prosperity to his people?

“I think their hearts in the right place in support of Indigenous people. But what we are calling now is for is a peaceful resolution.”

He knows there is frustration all around, but he hasn’t lost patience yet.

“I back hereditary leaders, I back each of the communities in terms of what their concerns are. But I also understand that there is a process for all of this. We need to be able to come to the table peacefully with each other,” he says, also noting a lot of Indigenous people have been hurt during the last century, so he doesn’t blame them for feeling as strongly as they do on the issue.

Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs oppose the Coastal GasLink LNG pipeline which will run through their unceded territory and actions in support of this opposition have spread across the country.

He says as a board member of the alliance, he along with Wet’suwet’en’s own board member, has been working with the Wet’suwet’en to highlight the project’s opportunities. He credits the Haisla Nation for setting the pace and opening up its partnership with the industry to include all affected First Nations.

“We are so grateful they made this possible for all Indigenous along the pipeline. Theoretically, the Haisla could have left us out, but they haven’t. We have a special sacred spiritual character that sums up how we collectively feel. We take into consideration all of the animals, all of the species, we need to take them into consideration, we are all inter-connected with them.”