British Columbia

Gas field workers push for LNG while Indigenous protesters vow to stop it

Indigenous LNG opponents are digging in at an occupation camp slated for a multi-billion dollar LNG export facility. At the same time, others in B.C.'s gas fields are petitioning the prime minister to approve Pacific NorthWest LNG.

'Get off the island! You're gonna damage it'

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 )

Even as the Canadian government is poised to decide on a massive LNG project off British Columbia's North Coast, opponents are digging in on the very island slated for the project's gas liquification plant and export facility.

Local Indigenous people and their supporters have been occupying Lelu Island near Prince Rupert for over a year.

They're trying to stop a LNG plant and pipeline slated to be built in prime fish habitat.

Although members of the Lax Kw'alaams First Nation are strongly opposed, leaders of the Metlakatla, Kitsumkalum, Kitselas and Gitxaala First Nations support and welcome the PacificNorthwest LNG project. 

Lelu Island, the flash point in that LNG debate, is just a short jetboat ride from Prince Rupert.

An artist's rendering of the proposed Pacific NorthWest LNG plant near Prince Rupert, B.C., showing the new suspension bridge design, included after concerns about the impact on fish habitat. (Pacific NorthWest LNG)

A scramble over slippery rocks and the occupation camp comes into view — several tents and a simple cabin, framed and insulated by protesters.

By the heat of the wood stove and the light of candles, several Lax Kw'alaams elders sip tea and explain why they're occupying this North Coast island.

'This is the best fishing in the world here'

"I do not want to see the LNG project in the [Skeena River] estuary or on Lelu Island, plain and simple," said Ken Lawson, a fisherman and clan house leader. This is the best fishing in the world here. That's why we have to protect what's here." 

Elder Murray Smith agreed.

"When they put this [LNG] plant on here, I'm afraid the fish will be gone, and once the fish are gone, so [are] we," said Smith, 76.  "What am I gonna eat? Am I gonna eat wieners and bologna? I go to your stores and eat that?"

The island's occupiers are awaiting Ottawa's decision on Pacific NorthWest LNG, but they're not holding their breath.

"Justin Trudeau said he's gonna bring the green house emissions down, and he's gonna work with the Indigenous people," said Lawson. "I have not seen that."

"It's really ... a dire situation where we're not being heard," said Smith. "The Aboriginal people are not being heard, although we've been hollering loud and clear: 'get off of that island, you're going to damage it."

Smith said his fight continues, no matter what Ottawa decides.

Lelu Island, on B.C.'s North Coast, is located at the mouth of the Skeena River, which is B.C.'s second largest salmon-bearing river. (Brian Huntington)

"I don't think I'm gonna be defeated," Smith said. "I'm not going to let them come into our territory and erect anything they want. We'll... make a bigger stand. Get more people out here."

Meanwhile, 1,100 kilometres away, in Fort St. John's gas fields, David McDougall is collecting signatures in support of LNG.

Support for LNG in B.C.'s hard-hit gas fields

McDougall works in an industry supply shop in a city once fuelled by drilling for natural gas. But for more than a year, low gas prices have pushed the region into an economic slump, with major layoffs and businesses closing.

Many locals pin their economic hopes on LNG. Projects like Pacific NorthWest LNG will bring new demand for the region's natural gas, which would be piped to B.C.'s North Coast for liquefaction and exported to Asia on tankers. 

Hundreds of truckers, many of them from the gas sector, lined up in March for a rally in Fort St. John to show their support for proposed LNG projects in B.C. (Brett Hyde/CBC)

And for McDougall, LNG can't come soon enough.

"There certainly doesn't seem to be a lot of urgency placed on a timely decision [on LNG projects.] The [federal] election this past year, everything seemed to be pushed off, delayed, suspended, and it's just been dragging out," said McDougall. "Pacific NorthWest, it's been on the table for years. This has been a long time coming."

McDougall's pro-LNG petition, with 1,904 names, was presented in the House of Commons Tuesday by Bob Zimmer, Conservative Member of Parliament for Prince George-Peace River-Northern Rockies.

Pro LNG petition in Parliament

 "I trust that this timely petition will positively influence the prime minister and his cabinet with their upcoming decision on Pacific NorthWest LNG," Zimmer said in the House of Commons.

"The petitioners call upon the Government of Canada to support residents, families, communities and businesses of Canada by saying yes to liquefied natural gas and approve B.C. LNG projects such as Pacific NorthWest LNG ... to help put Canadians back to work in rural communities, such as my own and the ones in northeastern British Columbia, with the approval of B.C. LNG projects," said Zimmer.

 Pacific NorthWest LNG is promising construction jobs for 4,500 people.

With a price tag of $35 billion, it would become the biggest private sector infrastructure investment in B.C. history.

With files from George Baker and Andrew Kurjata 

To hear the full story, click on the audio labelled: Lelu Island occupiers vow to stop Pacific Northwest LNG and Fort St John man's pro-LNG petition presented in House of Commons.

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Betsy Trumpener

Reporter-Editor, CBC News

Betsy Trumpener has won numerous journalism awards, including a national network award for radio documentary and the Adrienne Clarkson Diversity Award. Based in Prince George, B.C., Betsy has reported on everything from hip hop in Tanzania to B.C.'s energy industry and the Paralympics.