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Is This First Nation Band Finally Voting on a Controversial BC Gas Terminal?

It's hard to tell, since the ballot question doesn't mention liquefied natural gas.

by Sarah Berman
Aug 23 2016, 4:51pm

Lax Kw'alaams photo via Flickr user A.Davey

Members of Lax Kw'alaams First Nation band have until tomorrow to vote for something that could potentially impact their lives for decades to come. But what that thing happens to be isn't too clear—at least if you read the ballot.

Here's the question band members have to answer:

"Provided the environment is protected, do you support council concluding agreements to maximize benefits for Lax Kw'alaams members and continue discussions with government and proponents to achieve successful outcomes for Lax Kw'alaams?"

According to poll records obtained by Discourse Media and reviewed by VICE, that's asking for a "yes" or "no" to Canada's largest-ever development proposal, a $36-billion liquefied natural gas terminal on British Columbia's northern coast. Pacific Northwest LNG wants to build a pipeline, conversion plant and shipping terminal at the mouth of the Skeena River, just north of Prince Rupert, BC.

It's a bit strange that this opinion poll is even happening, since BC Premier Christy Clark has said on three public occasions that Lax Kw'alaams already voted "massively in favour" of the project.

In June VICE spoke to representatives in the premier's office, who clarified the band had conducted a "community engagement process" that "was significantly in favour of providing approval for Pacific Northwest LNG to move forward under certain conditions."

That would make Lax Kw'alaams the last of five First Nations groups legally required to consent to the project. The band had previously rejected a $1.2-billion benefit package over 40 years in three unanimous in-person votes in 2015. At the time, the band council cited concerns over damage to salmon stocks. The bank of Lelu Island, where the proposed project would be built, is a place researchers have called "Grand Central Station" for salmon, with anywhere from 100 million to 1 billion juvenile fish passing through every year.

The reversal was an important milestone for a government that won elections by promising a multi-billion-dollar LNG industry. And was a talking point for the premier for much of the spring and early summer.

Read More: Did This First Nation Band Consent to a Massive Gas Terminal or Not?

VICE reached out to Lax Kw'alaams band council to figure out how this new vote will be used, since the premier has said the band already said yes. Mayor John Helin replied: "We won't have the results of the poll until Thursday, so I won't make any comments until the result is known."

Folks in the community raised concerns that the question was loaded, and the timeframe was tight—on a week's notice. The band is essentially being asked: environment aside, do you want "successful outcomes"? It doesn't mention LNG, only "concluding agreements to maximize benefits."

"It's like writing a blank cheque," resident and activist Christine Smith-Martin told Discourse Media. "They want us to sign a blank cheque that allows them to do whatever it is they want to do."

When asked if a poll that doesn't mention the company or liquified natural gas on the ballot could count under the government's definition of free, prior and informed consent, Christy Clark's press secretary Stephen Smart referred the question to BC's Aboriginal relations ministry. The Aboriginal relations ministry then referred VICE back to the band council.

VICE also asked if the premier's office stands behind its statements in June, that some kind of vote in favour happened in March. Smart replied yes, it did.

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