Newly elected Squamish Nation council may have implications for future of Woodfibre LNG

Half of the council is now under 36 years old and ran on a platform opposing the Howe Sound LNG project. The new councillors say their community has given them a mandate for change.

Eight newly elected councillors ran on anti-LNG platform, prioritizing increased transparency

Newly elected Squamish Nation councillor, Khelsilem, has been an advocate for the preservation of the Squamish language and culture. He says his priority now will be increasing government transparency and access to information. (Blaire Russell)

The Squamish Nation elected eight new councillors under the age of 36, and a record number of off-reserve councillors giving the council a mandate for change, according to newly elected councillor, Dustin Rivers, whose traditional name is Khelsilem.

All eight new members ran under the banner of a campaign dubbed  "The New Nine" which was spearheaded by Khelsilem and makes up half of the 16-member council. The group was selected via a community survey that 300 members participated in.

"When you work together and you run as  a team you can offer something that you can't as an individual and I think that a lot of young people in our community responded well to the New Nine campaign and it seems to have paid off," he said.

Future of Woodfibre LNG

A preliminary project configuration shows the proposed Woodfibre LNG plant, which would be in a boat-access-only area seven kilometres from downtown Squamish, B.C. (Woodfibre LNG)

The New Nine ran on a platform that opposed Woodfibre LNG, a $1.6-billion project that would process natural gas shipped by pipeline from northern B.C. into liquified natural gas for export out of Howe Sound in the traditional territory of the Squamish Nation.

Many on the previous council supported the project, which has also received a final investment decision and garnered support from B.C. Premier John Horgan during his election campaign.

Newly elected councillor Orene Askew, also an off-reserve member, like Khelsilem, said halting the project would be in the best interests of the Nation as the risks to the environment are too great.

"It's a big N-O. There's no question about it," she said. 

Khelsilem said the election results clearly show the community does not support Woodfibre LNG or the direction of the previous council.

"I think that the last council was guided by a set of principles that they tried to bring forward and I think that the community didn't agree with those principles," he said.

"I think the community spoke loudly and clearly that they do not support the development of Woodfibre LNG in our territory and they've elected people who are ready to stand up for our environment."

But hereditary Chief Ian Campbell, who was re-elected on Sunday, said the nation needs to work within an official process to maintain legal leverage and simply saying no to LNG isn't an option.

An independent environmental assessment was conducted and agreed to by the proponent which resulted in a set of 25 legally binding environmental conditions.

Askew called those 25 conditions "just unreal" but Campbell said working within that framework is essential and the final benefit agreement package is nearly ready to be presented back to the community.

Increased transparency

Other platform issues championed by the New Nine include government transparency, housing, education and electoral reform.

Askew is currently studying business administration at Capilano University and has reduced her studies to part time to accommodate her new role as an elected official.

"I go to school with people and they're struggling. The price for living in Vancouver is one of the highest in the world so you can imagine how it is for them trying to concentrate and go to school," she said.

Khelsilem, a 28-year-old Simon Fraser University professor and Indigenous language advocate, earned the most votes with 634 and said improving transparency is his first priority.

He would like to make meeting minutes more accessible to all members, provide live streaming of council meetings and better champion the needs of off-reserve members like himself.

"Just to start, the message to our community is that we're going to be open, we're going to be transparent and we're going to listen to our members," said Khelsilem.