Luutkudziiwus and Gwininitxw file judicial review to save the wild salmon of the Skeena-
VANCOUVER —Inland B.C. hereditary First Nations chiefs joined coastal ones in announcing a fourth federal lawsuit against Ottawa’s approval of the Pacific Northwest LNG project, at a press conference in Vancouver. They claim that the gas export terminal is an infringement of their Aboriginal fishing rights.
Two Gitxsan Nation hereditary chiefs—Charlie Wright with the Luutkudziiwus house group, and Yvonne Lattie with the Gwininitxw house group —filed the judicial review on Tuesday morning.
Both leaders herald from Indigenous lands near Hazelton, B.C. on the upper Skeena watershed where the salmon have reached critically low levels. They say their lawsuit, combined with three others, threaten to derail the gas project amid a global glut in LNG, making it “a very risky investment.”
“We have a message for the Pacific Northwest LNG project’s investors in Asia. Sell your stock. The Canadian government’s decision to approve this project did not respect our fishing rights protected under the Canadian Constitution. We were not consulted,” said Yvonne Lattie, Gitxsan Hereditary Chief of Wilp Gwininitxw from Vancouver.
“This LNG project will be stopped. We don’t give a damn about Christy Clark’s re-election, Trudeau’s deal-making, or Petronas’ hopes to sell fracked gas. That terminal is bad news for our salmon up the Skeena River,” said Richard Wright, a spokesperson for Luutkudziiwus hereditary chief Charlie Wright.
“Some things are worth more than money. Salmon give us life,” Richard Wright added.
The Aboriginal plaintiffs are seeking to overturn the Trudeau cabinet’s decision approving the project on Sept.27.
During the government’s consultation over the project’s impacts, via the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency (CEAA), the hereditary chiefs say they were very keen to participate, but were either offered grossly inadequate funding to give technical input, or were told they were not directly affected by the project.
But the Aboriginal rights of the Gitxsan —a name which means ‘people of the river mist’ — would be violated. The LNG terminal would be situated in the critical salmon rearing habitat at
Lelu Island near Prince Rupert. There, tiny salmon fry adapt to the Pacific and return years later to spawn on the Skeena River watershed where Gitxsan have fished since time immemorial.
Simon Fraser University aquatic scientist Dr. Jonathan Moore, who studied the fish around the project’s LNG location, concluded that it had the potential to collapse what’s left of the second largest salmon run in Canada.
Since 1999, the Gwininitxw have conducted extensive salmon counts each year. The salmon have dropped by nearly 90 per cent of what they were in the 1960s, according to their data.
“We need to look at salmon enhancement, not salmon destruction. We need to save what’s left. The LNG project could ruin this sacred resource. We have to protect it,” said Chief Yvonne Lattie.
The Gitxsan rely on the salmon for sustenance and ceremonial uses. There is very little commercial fishing of the salmon up the Skeena River nowadays, because the stocks are so fragile.
Wright says the federal government also relied on the B.C. government to do much of the leg work to find Aboriginal buy in for the project. But much of that process of signing up First Nations was done secretively and without proper consultation, he said.
“The Ministry of Aboriginal Relations and Reconciliation sneaks into our communities, cherry picks supportive chiefs, and makes back room deals to make the appearance of Aboriginal buy-in,” said Richard Wright.
On Oct.27, judicial reviews were also filed in federal court by the Gitanyow and Gitwilgyoots tribes, and the SkeenaWild Conservation Trust.
The Gitxsan have been legal trail blazers in Canada, winning in the Supreme Court (in the Delgamuukw decision of 1997) firm recognition of their hereditary Aboriginal rights, including fishing rights.
The Gitxsan have a complex governance system where hereditary leaders, outside of the federal government’s imposed reservation band councils, hold significant decision making powers. In short, even in Canadian law, hereditary chiefs need to be consulted on major resource projects impacting their fishing rights.
Pacific Northwest LNG is owned by PETRONAS, Sinopec, Japex, IndianOil and PetroleumBrunei. It would connect to TransCanada’s Prince Rupert Gas Transmission pipeline, and expanded fracking operations by Progress Energy.