More than 300 people representing about 35 First Nations in British Columbia crammed into the Pomeroy Hotel in Fort St. John this week to discuss the risks and rewards of supporting the province's burgeoning LNG industry.
The summit, hosted by Treaty 8 Tribal Association, brought in a slew of influential speakers, including Assembly of First Nations National Chief Shawn Atleo, B.C. Minister of Aboriginal Relations and Reconciliation John Rustad, and Bob Rae, former Liberal Party leader.
Seven oil and gas pipelines are in the works, to go along with more than a dozen liquefaction and export proposals. If fully realized, the scale of development could irrevocably impact the way of life for First Nations.
Upwards of 52 First Nations would be impacted by the province's ambitious plan to develop its energy industry, particularly those situated within the so-called "energy corridor" from Northeast B.C., where the gas is extracted, to the coast, where it will be liquefied and exported to ports in Asia.
The summit aimed to give First Nations leaders the knowledge and tools they need to make decisions on whether or not to participate in the projects, and come up with steps on how to move forward.
Day One on Monday began with opening remarks by Chief Ronald Willson of West Moberly First Nations. Mark Podlasly, senior advisor, British Columbia First Nations Energy and Mining Council, took to the podium for a session titled "LNG 101" that set the stage for the rest of the summit.
"Here's the playing field, here's the rules of the game, here's how the system works. How we respond as First Nations to that is up to the leadership, but we need to have this information to make these decisions," said Podlasly in an interview.
"First Nations for the first time are finding ourselves in the midst of an energy superhighway that connects gas fields in Northeast B.C. and consumers to places like Delhi, Tokyo and Shanghai," he continued, before asking, "What does that mean to us as First Nations? How are we going to react? How are we going to participate in that? How are we going to impact that?
"It's very important to have the information to be able to do that. That's why we're here today."
Shell gave give delegates a rare first-hand look at its operations and facilities in the area. The tour was closed to the media. There was a concurrent First Nations cultural tour that was also well attended.
Anna Barley, director of administration and economic development for the Treaty 8 Tribal Association, explained that the opening of the summit was intended to set the stage for "a really good conversation" on Day Two, "to find some common ground in those discussions and develop some next steps and goals to move forward from there."
Day Two featured a morning breakout session titled "Aboriginal Inclusion," which explored ways that First Nations can participate in resource development projects across the province. From there, four groups were formed that discussed economic development opportunities, closing the educational gap, supply chain analysis and a water strategy for Northeast British Columbia.
In the afternoon, the breakout session focused on community impacts, with delegates splitting up to talk about cumulative impacts, pipeline safety, advancing a community vision, financial management essentials and social impact assessments.
In an interview on the second day of the summit, Tribal Chief Terry Teegee of Carrier Sekani Tribal Council said that if the province wants his support to develop LNG, it must recognize "that we're a decision-making authority, not only the province, but federally and provincially and First Nations.
"They need our consent, they need our input, they need our approval of the projects before any of them go through, so I think there needs to be more communication and more willingness from the province to work with us ... I think they just need more of our involvement in the decision-making process."
Chief Sharleen Gale of Fort Nelson First Nation expressed similar sentiments, adding that LNG development wouldn't get her support if it threatened First Nations' way of life.
"My biggest concerns are striking a balance," she said. "How is shale gas development going to unfold in our territory but still allow us to live off the land as we always have? My biggest concern is future generations. I don't want to leave nothing behind for them. Factories and industry plants - you can't eat that."
Exactly how First Nations could potentially benefit from LNG development was an important topic of discussion.
Clarence Willson, band councillor and negotiator for West Moberly First Nations, said there are several different layers of economic benefit that he anticipates.
"One of them is direct revenue from the government, as part of a tax-sharing structure, as well as with industry when we enter into impact benefit agreements or participation agreements with the companies. So that ensures long-term revenue," he said.
Coincidentally, B.C. Finance Minister Mike de Jong tabled the 2014 provincial budget on Tuesday, which pinned the LNG tax and royalty regime on a sliding scale from 1.5 to 7 per cent of net profits. The province hopes that revenues from these taxes will add up to billions of dollars, solve its debt dilemma, and set the stage for an unprecedented expansion of the economy.
It did not mention sharing any of the windfall with the province's First Nations, who arguably stand to lose more than anyone else from the development, as upwards of 80,000 wells could be drilled in Treaty 8 territory.
Willson noted that LNG development could come with business opportunities for First Nations.
"Our community is partnering with several proponents and service providers to offer supplies to the LNG industry, and there's going to be a training and employment program," he said.
"I look at long-term employment and trades training as a long-term economic benefit from these types of projects. The problem with these projects is they're short term, so they're there a few months and they're gone. A lot has to happen in advance to get people ready to participate in these jobs."
Wednesday's breakout sessions focused on how to find "common ground." Delegates separated into smaller groups to look best practices for successful First Nations joint ventures and economic negotiations. Later in the afternoon, participants examined impact benefit agreements, the Asia-First Nation connection, business governance and treaty rights.
John Rustad, B.C. minister of Aboriginal Relations and Reconciliation, addressed the delegates on Wednesday afternoon. Assembly of First Nations National Chief Shawn Atleo followed him, addressing the risks and rewards that First Nations face in the coming years.
Rustad told summit attendees that by working together, "we will create benefits for generations to come."
The importance of working together as First Nations is a theme that Atleo stuck with when he took the podium. First Nations support development, but not development at any cost, he said, adding that industry and government have been ignoring the rights of First Nations.
Atleo added that First Nations bring a vision of balanced development.
In an interview, Bob Rae, former Liberal leader, said the more information that's sent out to the public, the more discussion can be had. He agreed communication puts B.C. in a better place to avoid the kind of meltdown that occurred on the East Coast between First Nations and energy companies.
"What is happening [in B.C.] is very healthy. A lot of issues are being put on the table," he said.
Rae, the keynote speaker on Monday, is also a legal counsel, advisor, negotiator and arbitrator for First Nations across Canada.
He said that if proponents fail to gain a "social license," they will ultimately miss the boat on LNG.
"Both the market and public opinion will have a significant impact on which proposals come to fruition," he said. "The companies are recognizing increasingly that they're operating under a broad social license, and that social license is accorded, in part, by public opinion across the province, but also in particular by ... First Nations. That's now clearly embedded in law, embedded in the structure of consultation."
Chief Harley Davis of the Saulteau First Nation helped close the conference on Wednesday with a call for unity, calling for First Nations to put aside their differences.
"The reason why industry and government comes to us is because we have a right, a treaty right," he said. "It's important that we connect and share stories together. It's important that we go home and share what we learned today and make good decisions."
Chief Gale, of Fort Nelson First Nation, who will host the next First Nations LNG Summit in April, followed Chief Davis with a call to action. "LNG and shale gas is the Alaska Highway of our generation. But today, we have the responsibility to do better. There is no excuse this time. We must do better and we will do better," she said.
"Industry must be willing to sit at the table with us with open respect for our rights and our goals. We're not going anywhere. This is where we live."
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