Haisla chief gives heartfelt support for LNG development

Haisla Nation Chief Councillor Crystal Smith gave a passionate, off-the-cuff speech Thursday in defence of LNG development at the BC Natural Resources Forum.

Rather than wear a suit and give her prepared speech, Smith said she chose to dress like her real self - wearing a sweater and yoga pants - and speak from the heart, instead of repeating the same speaking points she's said dozens of times.

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"I had a 20-page prepared speech. As I read it it the other night, I thought, 'I can't read this.' The 'managing poverty to managing prosperity...' You guys have heard those speeches," Smith said. "In reality, this is me."

Smith said she and her council support the development of the LNG Canada natural gas export terminal in Kitimat and the 670-kilometre Coastal GasLink pipeline which would supply it, because it means economic opportunities for their people.

"Our nation's goal is to be an independent, powerful and prosperous nation. We can't get there without powerful, prosperous, independent people," she said.

She said she and her twin sister grew up mostly in the care of their grandparents.

"My grandfather was a victim of the residential school, but they made my twin sister's life most memorable. I didn't think we were poor. We ate traditional food every day. But I grew up poor."

Her mother died in her early 40s of cancer, and Smith and her twin helped raise their nine-year-old sister.

"Poverty, been there. Suicide, been there," she said. "I don't want our people to continue living that life."

Smith said she remembers being 11 or 12 years old, walking by the band office on her way to school in the Kitimaat Village, and thinking the only jobs she'd ever likely get were as a janitor or working as an assistant in the band office.

"Alcan or the band office, those were the two places I had a chance to work," she said. "I'm going to get pregnant early, be on social assistance. I'm going to be a burden on society. I'm supposed to be stupid, right? I came out of that school believing that."

She went to a local community college but dropped out after a year. The self-fulfilling prophecy came true when she got a job working as an assistant to the elected chief at the band office.

It was working for former Haisla chief councillor Ellis Ross, now the B.C. Liberal MLA for Skeena, that helped inspire her that she could do more.

"The reason he did what he did was because of people like me," she said.

Projects like LNG Canada's gas terminal are giving her people a chance to escape poverty and have hope for the future, she said.

"I've seen the impacts firsthand. I've felt the these impacts firsthand," Smith said. "The focus for us is the long-term careers."

Her 17-year-old daughter has a two-year-old son, and will face challenges as she considers going into post-secondary education, Smith said.

"I asked her, 'Do you have hope?' She said, 'Yeah, because with what's going on in the nation, you can do anything. You can be anything. And Zavier will be taken care of all his life,'" Smith said. "Hearing my 17-year-old daughter say that, (I know) our nation isn't doing the wrong thing. I support projects, and I'm not afraid to say it."

The project is also generating benefits at the First Nation governance level, she added, providing revenue to support projects.

"For the first time ever, we're funding culture and language programs. We're also expanding existing programs. This independence is what we want," she said. "This is what we need more of in our community. We need to heal our people. No other government... has been able to heal our people the way they need it."

Smith said she is also mindful that the project isn't just an opportunity for them, but for their neighbours and other First Nations in the region.

"At every First Nations table I sit at, or to the other First Nations leaders in the room... I want to see your people come to Kitimat," she said. "There is enough opportunity, we're not going to be be able to fill it all. That opportunity is LNG Canada and Coastal GasLink."

When asked about the blockade by some Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs and their supporters impeding work on the Coastal GasLink pipeline, Smith said she is sympathetic to the Wet'suwet'en people and the difficult political divide in their community. She's experienced similar conflicts in her own First Nation.

"These are people's lives. Our community experienced that, too. There is a political divide, and you have families that don't talk to each other. It is the hardest thing to go through..." she said. "What is happening in the territory of the Wet'suwet'en can only be resolved by the Wet'suwet'en. (But) they have the power - forget the titles, the people have the power to decide who leads them."

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