First Nations overwhelmingly support LNG, Rustad asserts

Professional protesters may steal the headlines, but the vast majority of First Nations in northern B.C. are squarely on board with LNG development, John Rustad, the B.C. minister of aboriginal relations and reconciliation, said Friday.

Rustad, who was attending a Greater Vancouver Board of Trade forum, said the province has achieved 90-per-cent success so far in negotiating benefit agreements with First Nations related to LNG development in the North.

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Some 36 First Nations are affected by natural gas development, primarily by extraction facilities and pipelines. Of some 20 projects in the works, he said, the agreements apply primarily to four main planned pipelines -- Pacific Trail, Coastal GasLink, Prince Rupert Gas Transmission, and Spectra Energy.

Of the other 10 per cent not on board, he said: "We're working on it."

The Nak'azdli Whut'en First Nation of Fort St. James announced last week it would not proceed with any of agreements at this time involving the Coastal GasLink and Prince Rupert Gas Transmission. Band members still have questions about the project, according to a news release. "Some elements of agreements would need to be altered for clarity and to better reflect our interests and values for discussions to continue."

A typical pipeline agreement with the province provides an upfront payment, more money when construction starts and ends, and revenue sharing as gas flows, Rustad said.

Just one pipeline project could represent $35 million to $55 million in upfront money to be shared by 16 to 20 First Nations, he said, with continuing shared benefits of $10 million a year.

The province is also providing up to $30 million over three years for training members of First Nations affected by a natural gas pipeline or LNG project, he said. More than 1,000 aboriginals have benefited so far, he said, with 85 per cent graduating and finding a job, earning on average at least $19 an hour.

Welding, carpentry and pipefitting are skills that can also apply outside of the LNG sector, he noted.

"A chief called me a few weeks ago," Rustad told the forum. "He said last year he had five youths in his community who attempted suicide -- one, unfortunately, was successful. He said, "This has got to change. This can't go on. We need to build hope and potential for youth.'"

Of "professional protesters" in both aboriginal and non-aboriginal camps, Rustad said the government is committed to "doing it right" to protect against damage to salmon and the environment. He noted that Lax Kw'alaams hereditary chiefs have asked protesters against the Pacific NorthWest LNG project on Lelu Island near Prince Rupert to leave. "They don't agree with the approach they are taking."

Grand Chief Ed John of the First Nations Summit told about 250 people at the aboriginal business forum it is important that policies respectful of First Nations start at the top. He knows that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau supports aboriginal economic development but is less certain of the business sector's position.

He urged industry to not be afraid to develop relationships leading to the sharing of natural resources to the benefit of both parties.

"You shouldn't hide behind corporate doors and glass towers in Vancouver," he said.

As recently as 20 years ago, there were only a handful of industry agreements being signed in the salmon-farming sector, or for minor mining and forestry projects. But a landslide of revenue-sharing and benefit deals with government, Crown corporations and companies have been reached in the past decade both in resource-rich areas of the province and in urban areas such as the Lower Mainland.

Progress came rapidly following the B.C. Liberal government's philosophical change of heart in 2005 - one year after a landmark Haida Nation court victory on a consult-and-accommodate case. That led to calls for a "new relationship" with First Nations, and marked the beginning of the province sharing resource revenues with First Nations, the first province to do so in Canada.

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