British Columbia

B.C. First Nation has change of heart, now opposes Trans Mountain pipeline project

A First Nation that was once in full support of the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion project is now standing in opposition, at least until it feels confident the project won't destroy one of their ancient villages.

Shxwowhamel First Nation, close to Hope, B.C., fears project will desecrate ancient village

The Shxwowhamel First Nation's lawyer Merle Alexander says the First Nation has a strong case to assert its Aboriginal rights and title if all other legal measures and negotiations with Trans Mountain fail. (Angela Sterritt/CBC)

A First Nation that was once in full support of the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion project is now standing in opposition, at least until it feels confident the project won't destroy one of their ancient villages.

Shane James was "full in" with the project when it was owned by Kinder Morgan. The 37-year-old Shxwowhamel First Nation council member even bought heavy equipment and signed multiple agreements with contractors to prepare for the construction of the pipeline.

"We wanted to have our eyes, ears and feet on the ground to be a part of the project, either doing or monitoring the work, to ensure that our traditional territory was taken care of," James said.

He also saw the economic benefits for the community: jobs, training and revenue. 

But the tide has turned.

'It brought tears to my eyes'

James says when the expansion project was owned by Kinder Morgan, the community had significant consultation with the company and felt confident that their land and sacred sites would be protected.

But when the federal government purchased the project, James says, his community became concerned.

James said former Supreme Court of Canada justice Frank Iacobucci, who was tapped to renew consultations with Indigenous people, only visited with community leaders once, at a gathering with other First Nations in Vancouver. Iacobucci could not immediately be reached for comment.

But a representative from the federal government, Vanessa Adam, told the CBC in an emailed statement that "No relationship is more important to our government than the one with Indigenous peoples."

In Adam's email, she stated that as a result of consultations, the federal government amended six of the NEB's legally binding conditions on the project. 

"TMC made a commitment to this Indigenous group to protect specific sacred sites," she wrote.

According to James, Natural Resources Minister Amarjeet Sohi only visited the community once since federal consultations began.

In those meetings, the community became concerned that the construction route for the pipeline would run through the ancient village, which is about 15 kilometres west of Hope, B.C., and alongside the Trans-Canada Highway. The First Nation is worried the pipeline could desecrate or destroy a 1,400-year-old sacred site full of artifacts, 20 traditional homes, called pit houses, and possible gravesites. 

Sonny Mchalsie, a Shxwowhamel elder and cultural leader, and Shane James, a Shxwowhamel council member, say that when the ownership of the Trans Mountain changed hands, they became less confident their rights and land would be protected. (Angela Sterritt/CBC)

"It brought tears to my eyes, and there's a lot of uproar in the community at the thought of this sacred site being damaged, " he said.

Trans Mountain CEO Ian Anderson told CBC News that he only learned about the Shxwowhamel First Nation's concerns over the pit houses over the past six months, but that the company is committed to staying clear of the ancient village site. 

"I would say we have a far greater awareness of the importance of that site and the degree to which we need to protect it," Anderson said in Vancouver. 

'We will still stand in opposition'

James said he still needs more details from the federal government to feel confident that the site will be protected.

"We will still stand in opposition of the project, until our concerns are met and we know they are listening to us," he said.

Shxwowhamel lawyer Merle Alexander said Anderson's promises are still non-binding until the National Energy Board approves a route.

He said the community will proceed, like three other First Nations in B.C., to challenge the federal government's approval of the project in a judicial review.

The Tsleil-Waututh Nation, The Squamish Nation and the Coldwater community have all confirmed they will also challenge the approval of the pipeline project. 

Alexander said they still have more legal tools.

"They have a whole bunch of other legal options including getting injunctions to prevent the construction anywhere along their territory," Alexander said. 

Part of the Shxwowhamel's anxiety is due to the reality that four ancient pit homes were destroyed during construction of the Trans Mountain pipeline in 1953. Those that remain are just metres away from the corridor.

That pipeline is also above a watershed that the community uses for water.

Alexander says in the 1950s it was illegal for Indigenous people in Canada to hire legal counsel, and they didn't get Aboriginal rights until 1982. Now there is a consultation process but, he says, if the government decides it's "in the public interest," Ottawa could push the project through anyway.

That's when, he says, the Shxwowhamel might want to move into an Aboriginal rights and title argument to push for not just consultation but consent from the First Nation.

'We have always been here'

In order to prove that the pit houses existed, the First Nation had to remove some of the trees and greenery that were covering the pit houses and artifacts.

Jessica Pablo is helping the First Nation by digging up ancient items like arrowheads, tools and fire-cracked rock to show what may have been there for thousands of years.

"Finding all these artifacts is amazing, to show that we have always been here," Pablo said.

Shxwowhamel elders like Sonny Mchalsie say sacred Indigenous sites should be respected just as a cathedral would be.

Jessica Pablo has been scouring an ancient village site on the Shxwowhamel First Nation and has found multiple artifacts, including possible gravesites, arrowheads and tools more than 1,400 years old. (Angela Sterritt/CBC)

For him it's also about reviving a culture that was systemically ripped away by residential schools and forced removal from their traditional lands.

"Here is an opportunity for us through archeology to be able to interpret and study our past."

About the Author

Angela Sterritt

CBC Reporter

Angela Sterritt is a journalist from the Gitxsan Nation. Sterritt's news and current affairs pieces are featured on national and local CBC platforms. Her CBC column 'Reconcile This' tackles the tensions between Indigenous people and institutions in B.C.