Decades in the making, Haisla in LNG ‘driver seat’

Written By Rob Shaw

“This is where every First Nation in the country would love to be.”

Crystal Smith

In the Haisla Nation off B.C.’s north coast, there are three kinds of natural resource projects: Those imposed upon the nation without a say, those that invited Indigenous leaders to the table to talk, and — newly — those designed and developed by the nation entirely for itself. 

Chief councillor Crystal Smith says the evolution is clear: The Haisla’s future is to build projects where its people are their own leaders.

Smith said she’s “still on cloud nine” after the B.C. government approved the environmental assessment of Haisla’s $3 billion Cedar LNG project, which will see it construct a floating liquefied natural gas terminal to export gas from the Coastal Gaslink Pipeline to overseas markets. The day after Premier David Eby made the announcement, the federal government issued its environmental approval as part of a joint review process. 

“The success we’ve had in this project is a leading model in regards to any project in this province or country,” Smith said in an interview with Northern Beat.

“We’ve managed some very difficult conversations in the community, but we have the mandate of people,” says Haisla chief councillor Crystal Smith. [Image Cedar LNG]

Cedar LNG will produce hundreds of jobs and millions of dollars in revenue. And it marks the first project of its kind in Canada that’s majority-owned by an Indigenous nation.

The way it used to be done

“Kitimat isn’t new to industrial development, we’ve had a methanol facility, a pulp and paper mill and still have an aluminium smelter operating in our territory — and those projects were built at a time, unfortunately, where our community had no involvement,” said Smith.

“They came in and told us what they were going to do. We essentially sat on the other side of the Douglas Channel watching all of the region benefit, whether it be from employment or contracts while we stood in the sidelines and didn’t benefit from much of anything. 

“They came in and told us what they were going to do.”

Crystal Smith

“Our employment numbers in those facilities, I can probably count on one hand from one of the facilities and possibly one or two on another. Our community didn’t see those benefits. 

“And to where we’ve been able to progress in industry and territory to the point that we’re majority owners and will be the largest Indigenous-owned major project in this country – that’s a story.”

‘We’re in one of the driver seats now’

Haisla has long been a proponent of LNG, throwing its support behind the $40-billion LNG Canada project in Kitimat several years ago. But that megaproject is being led by a consortium of major energy players, including Shell Canada, with benefits to the Haisla in the form of money, work training and job opportunities that are largely time-limited.

In 2019, emboldened by LNG Canada’s success, the nation announced it was striking out on its own to create Cedar LNG.

Aerial view of Haisla First Nation territory. [Image Cedar LNG]

Calgary-based Pembina Pipeline Corp bought a 50 per cent stake in the project in 2021, hoping to get in on the export of 3 million tonnes of LNG per year to Asian markets, after failing to execute its own LNG project in southwest Oregon due to protests over environmental concerns.

“Environmental stewardship, Indigenous prosperity and inclusion, and mutual economic benefit are the cornerstones of future energy infrastructure development in Canada.”

Pembina Pipeline Corp

“We believe that environmental stewardship, Indigenous prosperity and inclusion and mutual economic benefit are the cornerstones of future energy infrastructure development in Canada, and we are honoured to have the opportunity to work with the Haisla Nation to produce Canadian LNG,” Pembina said at the time.

The deal left Haisla in control of the project, but with the financial backing and expertise of a major energy player.

“This is where every First Nation in the country would love to be,” Smith told media in 2021.

“We have all of our years of experience of putting expectations on proponents and relying on the partnership for success. We’re in one of the driver seats now.”

Haisla-LNG roots run deep

Former Haisla chief Ellis Ross, now the BC Liberal MLA for Skeena, helped kickstart discussions about supporting LNG inside the Haisla Nation as far back as 2004. At that time, a company approached Haisla to support construction of an import terminal, bringing to Canada natural gas from other countries. 

“There was no such thing as talking about exporting LNG,” said Ross. “We encouraged the company that put this together to say, ‘Look, there’s advancements in fracturing, we really should be looking at exporting it.’ And that was coming from our advisors, and everyone in the LNG industry, saying things are going to change.”

“There was no such thing as … exporting LNG.”

Ellis Ross

What began was a two-decade conversation about LNG within the nation, that helped pave the way for both the LNG Canada negotiations and eventually Cedar LNG. That dovetailed with Haida Nation’s 2004 victory in the Supreme Court of Canada – Haisla intervened in the case – on the Crown’s duty to consult on rights and title with Indigenous nations, after the 1990s B.C. NDP government failed to do so on changes to tree farm licences.

Ross drove the conversation as a Haisla councillor from 2003, then as chief from 2011 to 2013, until he resigned to run for MLA. He held a relentless series of community meetings to keep the natural resource conversation alive, at times, he admits, exhausting the Haisla people with information.

A long runway before LNG lift-off

“I just really over-communicated,” said Ross. “There was nothing kept from people… I even had to answer the stuff that was negative. It wasn’t all rosy.

“When we failed, I took the failure upon myself. But when we succeeded, I gave the credit to my council and people and said it’s your support that is making this happen.”

Haisla First Nation began considering LNG about 20 years ago to create jobs and build long-term economic prosperity for the community, says Skeena MLA Ellis Ross, seen here in Kitimaat. [Photo Fran Yanor]

That long runway for discussions about getting involved in LNG set the tone for what eventually became Cedar LNG. It’s also a lesson for other nations considering their own business ventures, whether it be in oil and gas, forestry or other areas of natural resources.

“Our previous leadership, I give a lot of credit to their ability to inform and educate our membership.”

Crystal Smith

“Our previous leadership, I give a lot of credit to their ability to inform and educate our membership so they could give us the mandate to pursue this success,” said Smith.

“So my advice would be to keep your shareholders informed, keep them updated, and bring them along the journey so that when the hard decisions come that you have the support of the people.”

“We’ve managed some very difficult conversations in the community, but we have the mandate of people,” she added.

Challenges ahead

There are still challenges ahead for Haisla and Cedar LNG. 

A final investment decision to actually finance and spend the money is needed later this year. And the facility’s touted environmental credentials — it will float on the ocean and run using electricity rather than burning natural gas — require power lines and capacity from BC Hydro.

Premier Eby has promised to kick Hydro into action to get clean power to parts of the province where natural resource projects are willing to be net free of emissions by 2030, under his new climate plan.

“I do have confidence in those discussions, most definitely,” Smith said of a potential Hydro deal.

“Indigenous communities want to be part of solutions when it comes to environmental issues.”

Crystal Smith

Cedar LNG will also need to get its gas supply from the Coastal Gaslink pipeline, which is facing opposition, protests and vandalism in the northeast. Approval of the pipeline by elected chiefs has divided some hereditary chiefs and ignited leadership issues in the Wet’suwet’en First Nation.

“The responsibility in what’s happening there is essentially their business and theirs to resolve,” said Smith.

United they prosper: Haisla chief councillor Crystal Smith at this month’s Cedar LNG approval announcement with a Haisla councillor and several hereditary leaders. [Photo BC Government]

“When it comes to issues of authority within Indigenous communities, the more sensationalism provided to it is tearing the community apart, and we have such small close-knit comms. Our nation has first-hand experience when it comes to conflict between hereditary and elected (chiefs) and I would not wish that conflict on any community.”

Smith often describes Haisla’s journey as one that’s evolved from not having a share in opportunities on its territory, to being at the table with decision-makers, to now being the decision-makers themselves.

The overriding goal, she said, is to help benefit the community, as well as be stewards for the environment with the cleanest, most responsible projects possible.

“Indigenous communities want to be part of solutions when it comes to environmental issues,” said Smith.

“We’ve been doing it as part of our culture from time immemorial.”