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Meet the Indigenous Occupiers Challenging Development on Canada's Lelu Island

The northern BC island is on one of Canada's biggest salmon-producing rivers, which resident First Nation groups fear could be greatly impacted by pipeline development.

Occupiers spend the day investigating a neighboring island, finding several culturally modified trees (CMT) that were altered past generations of Tsimshians. All photos courtesy the author.

This article originally appeared on VICE Canada.

Gumboots first, four men in bright red survival suits splashed into the 20-foot skiff. They were heading out to escort the liquified natural gas (LNG) surveyors off of Flora Bank.

Occupier Mathew Danes held a slim, black ghetto blaster above his head, the eagle tattoo on his right temple partly obscured by sweat-dampened hair. A Tribe Called Red's "Burn Your Village to the Ground" blasted at full volume, war drums pounding through the speakers as the crew barreled through the water. The boys were hooting and hollering, pumping themselves up, raising the blood and grinning through the spray-like air on this wet and rocky northern BC coast. These boys are ready to fight, ready to defend. They are determined to prevent development of the proposed LNG plant on this traditional territory of the Gitwilgyoots Tribe of Lax Kw'alaams.


Lyle Donald Wesley Jr., son of the hereditary chief of Lax Kw'alaams, has made his position clear: no jobs are worth the destruction of this place.

"I am willing to die to protect it," he said

Danes, of Port Hardy, put it simply, "Our ancestors would have done the same thing."

Petronas, the Malaysian state-owned company behind the Pacific NorthWest LNG (PNW LNG) project, intends to build one of the world's largest LNG plants in an ecologically sensitive area encompassing Lelu Island, the edge of Flora Bank, and an estuary that lies at the mouth of the Skeena River. Members of Lax Kw'alaams and their supporters have been occupying Lelu Island since August 25 in an effort to prevent research and construction of the plant with its proposed 0.99-mile bridge and 0.68-mile pier.

Members of the Lelu Island Occupations confront two boatloads of Surveyors. All three boats held spotlights up high, attempting to gain the visual advantage.

The Prince Rupert Port Authority believes the location is ideal for development, according to communications manager Michael J. Gurney. Close enough to be convenient yet out of sight from Prince Rupert, it has deep water access and is near a port.

The occupiers' concerns are rooted in the environmental sensitivity of the region, traditional land title, and protecting the economic viability of small-scale commercial fishers. The Skeena River is one of Canada's largest salmon producing rivers—second only to the Fraser—and averages about 10 million returning salmon each year. Residents that live in or use the area include thousands of eagles, porpoises, and orcas.


The project is still awaiting approval from the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency, which is expected to rule on the proposal in early 2016. According to a report commissioned by PNW LNG, "the project is not likely to cause significant adverse environmental effects on fish and fish habitat."

Despite structural changes PNW LNG made to the proposal to lessen the quantity of dredging required, the combination of construction and operation could still have a serious impact, said Greg Knox, executive director of the SkeenaWild Conservation Trust. Underwater blasting, dredging (more than 765,529 cubic yards) and trenching (2.8 miles) would be major components of construction; disturbing pre-existing contaminants from an old pulp mill and re-releasing them into the ecosystem.

Hereditary chief Sm'oogyet Yahaan, or Donald Wesley Sr., of the Gitwilgyoots tribe of the Lax Kw'alaams, a Tsimshian Nation. Lax Kw'alaams is seeking legal title to the island.

Flora Bank is particularly vulnerable, with its shallow sandy bank rich in eelgrass that is vital to the health and protection of juvenile salmon. "This particular area is the most critical habitat that exists for Skeena salmon and it is probably the most critical and sensitive salmon habitat on the west coast of Canada," said Knox.

The degree of potential damage is uncertain. However, "When you put $11 billion worth of infrastructure right over top of the most sensitive habitat there is on the West Coast, you are taking a rather big risk," he added.

It could collapse the commercial fishery and the $100 million sport fishing industry and endanger the food-security of Indigenous folk all the way up the Skeena, Knox explained.


Drilling off the coast, into Agnew Bank, has been going on for weeks as PNW LNG tests soil samples and ascertains the depth of bedrock.

An occupier taking a breather on the edge of camp.

According to PNW LNG's Environmental Impact Statement, "Changes in sediment or water quality will be short-term and are not expected to affect fish health or marine resources as a whole."

That is small comfort, said Knox. "At low tide, right where they're doing all this drilling, that's where the fish are hanging out because there's no water on the [Flora] bank at low tide, so they're hanging beside the bank, over top of Agnew Bank… Petronas has been saying, basically, 'Hey, we're not going to touch Flora Bank, therefore everything's OK,' and it's an absurd argument because those fish are there twice a day, at low tide."

Flora Bank is highly unusual according to sedimentologist Patrick McLaren, of SedTrend Analysis. The bank has remained essentially unchanged since the ocean reached its current level some 8,000 years ago. That makes it a very vulnerable bit of sand, according to McLaren's report A Sediment Trend Analysis of Prince Rupert Harbour and Its Surrounding Waters.

Much of McLaren's work has been used in the most recent 3-D model by PNW LNG. McLaren however is flabbergasted at how they managed to take his research and come up with the conclusion that the plant would be harmless. "They've twisted it around to suggest that my work in fact supports their model, and that's absolutely incorrect, it doesn't support their model at all," McLaren said.


Matthew Danes warms up in a sleeping tent after patrolling on the water.

Spencer Sproule, PNW LNG's senior advisor was contacted, but was unavailable for on-the-record comment.

It is has been nearly four months since the occupation began. In the beginning, interactions between occupiers and the PNW LNG-hired surveyors were relatively peaceful, consisting of escorting surveyors off Flora Bank and brief boat-to-boat interactions. However, tempers have flared over the last month. Occupiers yell across the water, demanding that workers get lost, while survey boats resort to constant video surveillance. One worker held up a grappling hook while the boats circled one another during a late-night confrontation. Boats have made physical contact. Boatloads of surveyors pass the island with their hands covering their faces while a designated videographer rolls to catch any angry words cast by the occupiers. The RCMP boat has been out patrolling the area regularly.

Occupiers Mathew Danes, Lyle Donald Jr., Kendal Hughes, and Warren Tait have a smoke in one of the first structures to be built on the island. The running joke in camp is that they are the first Tsimshian people to ever build a teepee in their village.

Lelu Island is under the traditional protection of hereditary chief Sm'oogyet Yahaan, or Donald Wesley Sr., of the Gitwilgyoots tribe of the Lax Kw'alaams, a Tsimshian Nation. Lax Kw'alaams is seeking legal title to the island.

On November 9, Wesley penned a letter to newly elected Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, asking him to halt the LNG project, warning that tensions were on the rise. The letter was endorsed by 70 signatories, including the Lax Kw'alaams Band Council, numerous other First Nation groups and several well-known environmentalists including David Suzuki and Alexandra Morton.


Four Tsimshian Nations responded by declaring publicly that they are not in accord with the letter and its demand that the project be scrapped.

Ken Lawson or Gwishawaal, a Gitwilgyoots house leader and current front man on the island, bluntly stated his opinion of their stance. This is not their land.

A PNW LNG barge can be seen miles out from the island. The buoys are set up by surveyors and now cut across the water for several hundred meters.

"This territory belongs to the Gitwilgyoots tribe. It does not belong to the other nations. They are Tsimshian. They have their own territories, they have their own houses. They have their own tribes. We are the Gitwilgyoots tribe. We are defending Gitwilgyoots territory… It's plain and simple, it's cut and dried. I'm not stepping on anyone's toes, I'm defending our territory… I'm defending this estuary, the land, the water, the way they should be. All of the nations should be defending this land, not just Gitwilgyoots tribe. This is for everybody."

Lawson acknowledges that the occupiers have come under scrutiny, even from his own community of Lax Kw'alaams, for the heckling and visible anger they have displayed to surveyors while on the water. "Let me put it this way, we're not going out there to blow kisses," Lawson said.

"I'll defend my guys by saying I think what they do, they are doing because they have to. We work with what we have and who we have, just like the surveyors are. The surveyors are trespassing. They are asked not to come onto Flora Bank. They are asked not to come onto Lelu Island. They came on anyway, so we're not just going to sit there and say 'have a nice day.' They're trespassing; so are we wrong or are they wrong? I say they're trespassing."


Occupation has not been easy. Occupiers spend their days building boardwalks, buildings, cooking, cutting firewood, patrolling the sea to disrupt the work of surveyors, removing flagging from trees marked by surveyors and putting up 'no trespassing' signs along the entire perimeter of the island; all the while trying to come together as a community.

One occupier, James Ryan, worked for 20 days nonstop, ten to 12 hours a day, building the first permanent structure on the island. He worked himself into a hospital bed where he remained for ten days. He returned to camp for another 12 days before taking a break.

Warren Tait grabs a neighboring boat to stabilize the smaller one so that passengers can transfer.

Occupiers are a diverse and ever changing group; Lax Kw'alaams, Metlakatla, Haida Gwaii, Port Hardy, Unist'ot'en as well as non-indigenous supporters from Vancouver and beyond. The number of occupiers is constantly in flux due to the necessity of work, family and finances. For security reasons the exact number is kept private.

More than anything, camp life is hard, according to Leona Peterson, who is currently on the Island and has spent several days there, on multiple occasions. Peterson was one of the original handful—mostly women—who organized the occupation. Her first reaction when she learned about the project was tears, her second was action.

Peterson's governing council of Metlakatla signed an Impact Benefit Agreement with PNW LNG a year ago. They also rebutted the letter sent to PM Trudeau on Nov. 9, 2015. Peterson recalls the helplessness she felt when her leaders took that stand. "They're supposed to be the people that are looking out for us. And they've decided to align themselves with industrialization that will cripple us," she said.


Around the late night fire, discussions about the industrial complex and the meaning of development were central concerns. Talk turned to the 1763 Royal Proclamation, a piece of pre-Confederation legislation, which declares Indigenous land title has always and will continue to exist; that all land must be ceded by treaty or will continue to be considered indigenous. Most of British Columbia is unceded territory, including Lelu Island.

Voices got louder and the excitement was palpable when discussion turned to the Supreme Court decision of June 6, 2014, when the court made history by awarding Aboriginal title to the Tsilhqot'in people in BC's interior. "That case could really turn the tide for us," said Wesley Jr. Currently the case of Lelu Island is waiting to enter the courts.

The land claim is an important part of the battle over the island, but it is not a Native-only issue. "This is not a First Nation's issue, this is everybody," Lawson said.

James Ryan, a Lax Kw'alaams occupier, enjoys the morning sun with a local resident. Dozens of eagles can be seen in a single day throughout the area.

The uncertain future weighs heavily on the pocketbooks of investors and workers with an eye on potential jobs: there's an estimated 8,000 person-years of work in BC and 650 full-time positions during the 30 years the plant would operate. But the weight sits all the more firmly on the hearts of the people who have grown up surrounded by this land and water, who make a playground of it in the summer months and who have sustained themselves and their families with the bounty of the sea.

"It's total devastation. Our whole ecosystem is being ripped out right in front of us," Wesley Jr. said. "It's like tearing out our heart. Everyone in my community depends on this."

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