The benefits the Wet’suwet’en First Nation looks for from natural-gas pipeline proponents are typical—jobs, training, education, and revenue to the community.
But councillor Erwin Tom lights up as he talks of an unusual benefit: cultural revival and reinforcement.
As with many other nations, some traditional practices had faded. There’s not been that much in recent years of hunting and trapping, for example, and the Indigenous language became pretty much limited to elders.
Enter the Coastal GasLink (CGL) pipeline project. It proposes a 670-km gas pipeline, from the Dawson Creek area to the proposed LNG Canada facility near Kitimat. It would run clear across unceded Wet’suwet’en territory in north-central BC.
“When I first got onto council my hope was to bring more culture back into our Nation,” says Tom. “We had no hunters. We had no trappers. We had nobody providing meat for the elders. This is all essential to First Nations, and we were losing it. From the residential school, we lost a lot of our ways.
“When I went to look at the pipeline control station in Calgary, the lady that was giving us the tour asked me what did I see that CGL could help out on. We put together a proposal for a culture camp. And when we first started working on it, it was the first one to be done, I guess, across Canada.
“The whole Nation goes to our culture camp. We go out on the land. One year we went and camped by a lake and did hiking, and berry-picking, and the elders taught the younger generation how to make and cook bannock on a fire, and they taught them how to make home-made hammocks, and they put the babies in them, in the old way.
“A lot of our elders got together with our youth, so from the elders they started hearing more of our language. And I started taking guys out hunting with me, and bringing meat to our elders in the way it used to be done, and now we have more people hunting.
“It’s a pretty awesome feeling when you look around our Nation, and you see more people getting out on the land. And it’s neat to see that we’re starting to speak more and more of our language.”
Under a benefits agreement, there will be financial benefits coming after CGL makes its Final Investment Decision. CGL also has benefits agreements with other First Nations along the pipeline corridor. And the BC government will also be sharing out more revenue if the pipeline goes ahead.
Tom says jobs and training are indeed important for the Wet’suwet’en, and its 255 members who live on and off reserve lands.
“That’s what I see out of LNG and pipelines, on the plus side. A lot of people think of the jobs being short-term jobs, but when you look at it, you get trades training and qualifications under your belt. And that’s not short-term, that’s long-term, that’s lifetime.
“You can take that ability that you have and go anywhere, and adapt, to any city or place where the job goes. Once you get the trade, you get your Red Seal ticket, and you could even go international if there are big jobs on the other side of the world.”
What about benefits to the Wet’suwet’en First Nation as a whole?
“The pipelines came to all the Nations seeking approval and working towards agreements. In the past, though, big resource companies never did that; they just built, with no accommodations or benefits or anything.
“If a Final Investment Decision goes through, there will be annual payments coming to the Nation, and that will greatly improve the way of life on the reserve—everything from housing to education.”
Some benefits came right away, long before any final investment decision on the pipeline.
“We made some good partnerships. We had people at work with us. We’ve been doing archaeology work, we’ve been doing stream-assessment work, vegetation studies, wildlife monitoring. There’s a lot of different aspects when you get out into the territory.
“We had people from our Nation in each one of those studies. We had elders go out, too. They know about the land, because they grew up on it and learned about it. It’s pretty fascinating when you hear them; you’ll go out to a certain point, to a mountain or a tree, and they have a special name for it, and it has a special meaning for our people.”
What comes now?
“We’ve been around to other Nations. We had five regional sessions that other Nations were interested in. Some of them had signed agreements three years ago and they had gone on the shelf waiting for an FID.
“What’s happened recently is that Premier Horgan is willing to do some tax-breaks for LNG and the pipelines. To me that seems positive for a pipeline actually going through.”
(Posted here 13 May 2018)