Crystal Smith: If Mark Ruffalo cared about First Nations like mine, he’d defend natural gas projects

Our Alliance chair, Chief Crystal Smith of the Haisla Nation, in National Post:

If Mark Ruffalo cared about First Nations like mine, he’d defend natural gas projects

We have negotiated agreements which have built the Haisla’s capacity to employ our people, to rediscover our language, and to reconnect with our traditional ways

Recently the likes of Mark Ruffalo and Ben Stiller have, with some of their friends, opposed — strongly — natural gas developments in the northwest of B.C., including in Haisla territory. And if they succeed in stopping these projects they will also be stopping the hopes and aspirations of thousands of B.C. Aboriginal people for a future free from unemployment, free from welfare, and free from hopelessness and despair.

A respected former Chief Councillor of our village once said he dreamed for the day we, the Haisla people, would have a “share and a say” in what happens in our territory.

In the 1950s, we did not have that say when the then Aluminum Company of Canada built their smelter and townsite in our territory. It was the same story in the 1960s when a pulp and paper mill came to town.

We missed out on jobs and revenues but had to live with the environmental problems. That was then, this is now. Things changed when natural gas came to town. We have stood against now-failed projects to pipe bitumen oil to our front door. We have protected our land from projects that threatened the environment and our traditional ways of fishing our ocean waters.

When natural gas proponents came to us with plans to build facilities in our territory, we were cautious and skeptical. But we kept an open mind, because we’re not against development at all cost. We want responsible development, and after years of review we determined natural gas as a product was safe for our environment, and the benefits would actually flow to our people.

Now, one thing to know is that the product is only part of the deal. When you work with First Nations, you fail if you don’t take the time to build a proper relationship.

Companies like LNG Canada, and the Coastal GasLink pipeline which will supply it with gas, came to Haisla and delivered what we have needed for a century — a share and a say.

I worry that when people see high-profile actors speaking against economic development in our territory that they give people the wrong impression about who we are dealing with.

We haven’t opened doors to these projects and then had to fight over measly scraps of promised benefits. We have negotiated agreements which have built the Haisla’s capacity to employ our people, to rediscover our language, and to reconnect with our traditional ways.

A share. A say.

We recognize that other Indigenous nations look at development differently and may not support natural gas development. We also know, however, that many of our neighbouring nations absolutely see the benefits of these projects.

That’s really what matters about natural gas development in our territory: when Mark Ruffalo and Ben Stiller and other celebrities scream for banks to withhold financing for projects like Coastal GasLink, they don’t consider the harm they’re doing to our nation’s interests and our people.

Do they realize (or care) that Indigenous nations are being offered equity in this project? Do they realize (or care) that all 20 First Nations governments along the Coastal GasLink route have openly signed project agreements, convinced as we are that there is more to be gained than lost through this project?

We could only wish to have someone like Mark Ruffalo or Ben Stiller or Leonardo DiCaprio in our corner, defending the Haisla Nation from activist groups who call us sellouts for seeking a better life through responsible development. I wonder if the Hollywood actors calling for an end to our economic independence understand Indigenous history in Canada, and what life is like on reserves.

If they ever come to our home reserve of Kitamaat Village — or c’imo’ca in its proper, traditional name — they’ll see our new youth centre which is the first dedicated construction for our young people ever built in our community. They will also see a brand new apartment building, which will allow more of our people to live on their land. They’ll see a new health centre, which gives renewed dignity to our members seeking local health care — something that proved incredibly valuable through the course of the pandemic.

And if they do visit, they may ask how a small First Nation, otherwise still chained to the Canadian Indian Act, can afford to build and operate these facilities?

The answer to that is that we pursue our economic development, and work with companies who will demonstrate their commitment to Indigenous rights and values, who won’t just pay lip service but will live up to the standards they promise from the start. The companies who will join us at the table, even when we demand that we want our share and our say.

Let those who demand Indigenous rights also know our story, and may they learn to defend us too.

Crystal Smith is the elected Chief Councillor of the Haisla Nation. Twice-elected, Smith champions the cause of economic development for the betterment of her Nation. She is the Chair of the First Nations LNG Alliance, which represents a collective of First Nations in support of responsible and sustainable LNG development in British Columbia.

The guest column as it ran in National Post:

(Posted here 29 March 2022)



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