British Columbia

'Our blood is still on the land': Tsimshian raise totem pole declaring victory over B.C. LNG project

Members of the Tsimshian First Nation have raised a new totem pole on Lelu Island to celebrate the cancellation of a major LNG project and declare stewardship over the island.

Pole is on island where construction of an LNG export terminal was cancelled in July

A totem marking victory in the battle against an proposed LNG development on northwest B.C.'s Lelu Island is prepared for a raising ceremony. (George Baker/CBC)

Members of the Tsimshian First Nation have raised a new totem pole on Lelu Island in northwest B.C. to assert their stewardship over the land and celebrate the cancelation of a controversial liquefied natural gas project.

"[We] made a stand to show Canada that our blood is still on the land and that we are here forever," said Gwishawaal (Ken Lawson), a house leader of the Gitwilgyoots, one of the nine allied tribes of the coast Tsimshian.

Members of Lax Kw'alaams, Metlakatla and the Tsimshian First Nations, among others, were present for the raising of a new totem pole on Lelu Island. (Vicki Manuel)

He made the declaration as the Prince Rupert Port Authority patrolled nearby waters monitoring the ceremony, a reminder that who the land belongs to remains a point of contention.

Though Gwishawaal and other Tsimshian members say they hold decision-making authority over the island's future, the Prince Rupert Port Authority says that power belongs to them.

Pacific NorthWest LNG was an LNG export facility proposed to be situated on Lelu Island in the district of Port Edward, in northwest B.C. (Skeena River First Nations)

"Lelu Island is federal land within the managerial jurisdiction of the PRPRA [Prince Rupert Port Authority]," the organization said in a statement.

"PRPA considers any activities conducted on Lelu Island without PRPA authorization as trespass. PRPA has not been asked for authorization, nor has PRPA granted authorization for any construction on Lelu Island."

Project divided nations

That tension played out over the past two years as oil and gas giant Petronas made plans to construct an LNG export facility on the island, receiving approval from both the provincial and federal governments, as well as the leadership of several First Nations.

In response, Gwishawaal took a lead role in the construction of an occupation camp on Lelu Island in opposition to the project, citing the risk the project posed to salmon and other ocean life.

Lax Kwa'laams fisherman Ken Lawson has been occupying Lelu Island to keep Pacific Northwest's LNG liquefaction plant and export facility out of a key fish habitat. (George Baker/CBC )

"We are the people of the salmon," he said at the time. "You take away the salmon. You take away the people. This is not just an Aboriginal issue. This is for all the people of B.C., if not Canada."

'It's a victory for the people of the nation'

All that became moot in July when Petronas announced "shifts in the energy industry" had prompted them to abandon the project.

Though Petronas blamed market conditions, Gwishawaal said the project's cancellation was a victory "for the people of the nation of the country."

The totem pole, created by Tsimshian carver Phil Gray, depicts a wolf and an orca fin. (Vicki Manuel)

"[We've] taken on a giant in the liquefied natural gas industry, the federal and provincial governments, the Lax Kw'alaams Indian Band, the Metlaktala Indian band that tried to take away our lands, our way of life and our salmon," he said.

"I don't have hard feelings against anyone. This was just something we had to do. It's the name I took to protect the land, the air, the water. I came to do a job, and we did it."

With files from George Baker.

To hear the totem pole being raised, click on the audio titled 'Tsimshian raise totem pole declaring victory over Pacific Northwest LNG'.

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