PODCAST: Pipelines, First Nations and reconciliation: Another view

Crystal Smith of the Haisla First Nation discusses how LNG and pipeline investments have helped reduce poverty, remove barriers and preserve traditional culture among the Haisla and their neighbours.


Recent pipeline protests and rail blockades were intended to show solidarity with First Nations. But what about the aspirations of those First Nations who support—and depend on—resource development as a means to end poverty and enrich communities?

Crystal Smith is the Haisla Chief Councillor and chair of the First Nations LNG Alliance. She engages with Energy Examined podcast host Tonya Zelinsky in an eye-opening and sometimes emotional conversation about the impact and importance of resource development in her community. 

She highlights the impact the LNG Canada and Coastal GasLink pipeline projects have already had: how it is helping the Haisla and neighbouring First Nations support their members with training, jobs, social programs, and programs to preserve traditional culture and language. She discusses how these projects are ultimately helping remove barriers, enable independence and provide hope for the next generation, including her own grandson. 

And she questions why more stories like the Haisla’s aren’t part of the national discussion on pipelines, Indigenous reconciliation and resource development.

Full transcript of podcast:

Tonya [00:00:09] Hello and welcome to another edition of Energy Examined, the podcast that talks about the issues facing Canada’s oil and natural gas industry with the industry insiders in the know. 

Tonya [00:00:18] I’m your host, Tony Zelinsky. This week, I had an opportunity to speak over the phone with chief counsellor of the Haisla nation and chair of the First Nations LNG Alliance, Crystal Smith. We spoke about what development means to her community in northern B.C. and how the blockades and protests regarding the Coastal GasLink could, in fact, affect that development. She had a lot to say about the important issue of reconciliation, about how communities need to work better together, and basically about a great basketball team that the Haisla Nation has. Please enjoy and take a listen. 

Tonya [00:00:56] Thank you for joining me here today. Crystal, I really appreciate your participation. I hope you’re doing well. 

Crystal [00:01:02] Thank you. Thanks for having me on your show. 

Tonya [00:01:04] Well, you know, we’re facing a pretty interesting time. I’m sure that you’ve been very busy lately. And a lot of this has to do with what’s going on right now in terms of liquefied natural gas here in Canada. We’ve seen protests. We’ve seen blockades. It’s been in the news a lot lately. You come from a unique position because you wear two different hats. You’re the chief councillor for the Haisla Nation and you’re also the chair of the First Nations LNG Alliance. Is that correct? 

Crystal [00:01:32] Yes. 

Tonya [00:01:33] So can you tell me, why is LNG so important right now to B.C. First Nations or even the Haisla Nation? 

Crystal [00:01:41] Well, I think that it’s important for First Nations in B.C. simply because it’s an opportunity that is both acceptable for our environment and our territories. The 20 nations along the Coastal GasLink pipeline have done their due diligence over the past six, seven years with Coastal GasLink in terms of the work that’s going to be completed. And then the revenues generated back to each of these communities. We’ve had other other agreements, whether with other industries before. But because of the magnitude of this project, the revenues generated back to our communities is something that would be able to to change people’s lives within each of the communities. And you’re having a struggle over hereditary and elected leadership and whether jurisdictional lines are drawn, whether they’re on reserve or off reserve? These types of revenues generated to our communities remove those boundaries essentially in Haisla’s case. We’ve been able to extend our programming to members regardless of where they reside. 

Tonya [00:02:56] So do you think that this issue, the revenues themselves. Is that something that’s getting lost in this debate right now? 

Crystal [00:03:04] I think what is being lost in the debate is the impact, the positive impact on people. The revenues are one aspect of it, but what the leadership is capable of doing with unrestricted funds for our people is where the opportunity for our people’s lives to be changed is at. 

Tonya [00:03:27] So the Haisla Nation has a has an agreement in place with LNG Canada. Did you face the same issues we’re seeing with regard to the Wet’suwet’en and the Coastal GasLink when you were negotiating this agreement with LNG Canada? 

Crystal [00:03:42] We did not face those types of issues when it came to our membership. Back then, our chief councillor, Ellis Ross, was very thorough, in the communication aspect to our membership to ensure that they were a part of the conversations that were happening, were informed about each stage of the project and what the plans were for when the construction phases started. We still continue that today. We don’t only focus to our on reserve membership in Kitimat. We actually take information and hold information sessions where a majority of our people reside. So the Lower Mainland in Vancouver, Nanaimo, Prince Rupert and Terrace. 

Tonya [00:04:29] So, this isn’t just concentrated on those right there in the area. We’re looking at a far reaching–well, you’re reaching you’re reaching out to all your members. 

Crystal [00:04:38] It’s important information for them to know what’s exactly happening back at home. So, we value that communication to our members thoroughly. 

Tonya [00:04:48] And did they have a voice in this process? 

Crystal [00:04:52] Within the LNG industry, they have. Back in the 80s or 90s we have a reserve which we refer to as Vish, which other projects situated on and the leadership back then took that parcel of land, and recommended to our community that we designate it as industrial zoning. And back then the land was slotted for an import facility of LNG. 

Tonya [00:05:21] Oh, OK. 

Crystal [00:05:22] Yes. So that was voted on at approximately 90 percent success rate. 

Tonya [00:05:28] Sounds like you have a long history kind of with with LNG. 

Crystal [00:05:31] We do. It spans longer than LNG Canada. Most definitely. 

Tonya [00:05:38] I don’t want to harp on this issue when it comes to the Coastal GasLink, but it’s fair to say that LNG Canada needs the Coastal GasLink if it if it wants to move forward. So can you tell me how how the Haisla Nation will be affected if this pipeline is delayed even further or even just cancelled as a result of the public protests and blockades? 

Crystal [00:06:01] Well, for one, I do not believe that it’s going to be cancelled. But what it would mean if that were to happen would be a loss of opportunity. I mean, it would essentially go back to–so right now, within our Haisla territory are existing a few industrial partnerships, agreements. Honestly, it honestly makes me so emotional– 

Tonya [00:06:38] Please take a moment. 

Crystal [00:06:44] Our nation has worked so hard for this project to be successful because of the opportunities that it meant for our people, and as we were going through this work with LNG Canada, and they had announced their delay of 2015 or 16, they announced they were going to be delaying their F.I.D. It it was emotional then. And when we got to the F.I.D., it was such a joyous time in our community for people to realise that our lives were going to be different. We’ve worked so hard to shoot a gap of our living standards of our community, and that’s what this opportunity means. Canada ranks like eighth in the world for living standards. But when you go onto our First Nations reserves, that number dramatically reduces to sixty nine. And that’s the standard of living that–I want my grandson to grow up and not have that huge gap there for him. I want him to have programs and services that meet his needs and that he’s going to be–he is going to thrive, he’s going to be successful. He’s going to have opportunity at home. He can go to college or university for whatever he wants. And to have the support systems to remove barriers that our people have seen for far too long. 

Tonya [00:08:26] I really appreciate you sharing this with me. And I have to ask then, how is the issue of LNG is emotional, how emotional is it right now to see what’s going on in Canada with regards to these protests against ultimately the project as a whole? 

Crystal [00:08:46] It’s frustrating. I’ve been keeping up with a lot of the interviews on TV and within the social media and newspapers. And there was one specific interview on Global one morning and there was a woman that was a part of the protests in Vancouver, and she was asked what was in the pipeline and she–her answer was bitumen. And that is completely inaccurate. So it just goes to show that a majority of those people don’t know what they’re out there for. And the issue, the root issue and the cause of all of this is something that can only be resolved by the Wet’suwet’en people, no one else. All the sensationalism around it is actually fueling more of a divide within that community, within family, within friends. 

Tonya [00:09:45] Do you think–and I don’t I don’t want you to feel like you have to speculate on what people are thinking, but I mean, does it seem to you, like some people are taking advantage of this situation to advance other agendas? 

Crystal [00:10:01] I truly do believe that. I really do. For a while, our community has been aware of outside entities providing financial assistance to organizations that would essentially organize these types of events in order to halt them, in order to stop projects. So there are outside entities fuelling all of this. And, you know, it’s what’s more frustrating is that a First Nations community is at the heart of this and is feeling that the everyday–I don’t even know how to explain it. Our communities are so small and no community deserves to be used as a catalyst for other agendas and to be dividing families and lifelong friendships over issues that could be resolved within the community. 

Tonya [00:11:19] Well, has anyone. I mean, we keep hearing about the Wet’suwet’en Chiefs. We keep hearing about the Mohawk community. Has anyone spoken to or asked about the Haisla Nation and what this really means to your community? 

Crystal [00:11:38] Other than reporters, no, there hasn’t been. 

Tonya [00:11:43] So whether it be protesters or other First Nations that are showing support. Nobody has reached out to you in that respect to say, hey, let’s have a conversation about what this means to you. 

Crystal [00:11:56] No, no, they haven’t. I mean, there are other entities that I that I sit as a part of that have been provided through the opportunities that LNG Canada has presented within our territory. So other nations that I that I work with, that we work best for are Kitkatla, Nisga’a, Kitselas, Kitsumkalum, yes, those nations. 

Tonya [00:12:27] Sort of within that I don’t want say that bubble, but within that group that you’re working with. That’s it. 

Crystal [00:12:33] And we’ve extended a numerous amount of time to any opportunities that get with our First Nations audience, I’ve extended that opportunity to the employment availability to the construction phase at LNG Canada. Our Haisla members aren’t going to be able to fill every position. I would much rather and love to see our neighbouring First Nations communities benefit from that employment opportunity. So that extension of providing information of vacancies within LNG Canada to other neighbouring First Nations to allow that employment opportunity and the training behind it to extend it to other First Nations communities. We’ve been doing that. 

Tonya [00:13:25] How have they received that? Have they been optimistic? Have they wanted to participate? 

Crystal [00:13:30] Absolutely. You know, it’s–for far too many years, our nations have been pit against one another when it comes to funding from federal provincial governments. It’s a very small pie and we are essentially pitted against each others to compete for funding, whether it be for housing or training and its territorial boundaries–invisible lines drawn of not crossing and not going into someone else’s territory is out of out of respect. Our hereditary chiefs had given us somewhat of a mandate to say, share with our neighbours. If this opportunity becomes real, share with our neighbours. So that is what we’ve been working very hard to do in establishing partnerships with other communities. For an example, Laxkw’alaams, they have–I was joking about it because our communities are so big into basketball that they can field a men’s basketball team in our community right now, with how many of their membership are working in our territory. And they’re encouraging their friends to apply for positions in Kitimat. 

Tonya [00:14:57] It sounds like you have an intramural league there already in place. 

Crystal [00:15:02] You know what, I play basketball too. I would love to have a women’s division. Any First Nations women that play basketball that they’re listening to this podcast, come to Kitimat. 

Tonya [00:15:11] Well, we’ll get the word out there for that. 

Crystal [00:15:13] Maybe that’s the next podcast.

Tonya [00:15:16] So it sounds to me like the message that you’re saying to me about sharing doesn’t seem to be a message that I’m hearing outside of our conversation right now. There’s been a lot of efforts or a lot of talk about Indigenous reconciliation here in Canada. Do you think that we are on that path? 

Crystal [00:15:35] I believe we are. And reconciliation is such–and I don’t mean to sound disrespectful to anybody, but I truly believe it’s like a buzzword right now. There has been no definitions laid out to anybody. Nobody said–it means something different to each nation. So one of our one of our council members who have gone on council lists for many years had stated and had made a post on Facebook saying reconciliation should have been stated as relationship building. And that way it would have been more successful. 

Tonya [00:16:21] More accurate, it would seem. 

Crystal [00:16:23] Yes, because that reconciliation process means something different to every nation. Whether– and I believe that reconciliation or relationship building is required at the nation level first to reconcile and build relationships with outside entities before doing that within your own community is a recipe essentially for disaster. 

Tonya [00:16:56] Well, if you look at the definition of reconciliation, as you’ve just described it, as relationship building. Do you think that we could reach some sort of consensus or is this really a nation by nation discussion, that there’s no one way to achieve this? 

Crystal [00:17:17] Each nation in itself, we’re all unique. We all share similar histories and similar experiences that have put us in situations that we currently find ourselves in. But we are all so different that I only believe that it’s only going to be successful as by nation, by nation. 

Tonya [00:17:41] And it doesn’t sound like it’s something that can happen overnight.

Crystal [00:17:47] No, it’s it is definitely not. I mean, our nation in particular was going through a situation where there was a huge divide in our community and that was like 2008, 2009. And it has taken up until now for–when LNG Canada announced their final investment decision–we had a celebration in our community and we had asked our elected leadership had asked our hereditary chiefs if they could dress in regalia and walk in front of our elected leadership into the into the celebration. That was just two years ago, a year, two years ago. And to feel that support from them was a moment that I don’t think that I’ll ever forget. 

Tonya [00:18:51] That sounds like it would have also been a pretty emotional time to see that happen, especially this is what is dating back over 10 years. 

Crystal [00:19:02] Yes, most definitely. 

Tonya [00:19:04] So this hasn’t been an easy process. 

Crystal [00:19:07] No, it hasn’t. 

Tonya [00:19:07] For anyone looking at the Haisla Nation and its agreement with LNG Canada, this is not something that was just achieved overnight. You had your own internal strife. 

Crystal [00:19:17] In terms of community building I think through the process of what we were able to accomplish in the time that we were taking to be open, transparent, honest and develop those relationships with people to realise what the meaning and what this project could do for our community in terms that we all share a common goal, and that is to have healthy, thriving members that are independent. And that’s what our hereditary–that’s what our, more importantly, our membership wants. And that’s what we supported. 

Tonya [00:20:04] Well, now correct me if I’m wrong here, but I’m going to use that buzzword of reconciliation. But do you think like a project like LNG Canada and their relationship or agreement it has in place with the Haisla, is that a step towards the other buzzwords of economic reconciliation? 

Crystal [00:20:23] I believe so. It is, absolutely. What was it able to accomplish within our community with LNG Canada, you know that it’s never been provided there before. The programs that we’ve been able to implement. You know, everybody talks about our culture and our language and through the revenues generated back to our community, through the industry, that we’ve been able to fund fully fund our own language and culture department. 

Tonya [00:21:08] Did this exist before? 

Crystal [00:21:10] No. And there would be no other level of government or other level of political entity that would have been able to allow us to do what we’ve been able to do. We’ve got at least 70 to 90 programs that are enhancing the existing programs that we have, or they are completely new programs that we we delivered to service our membership. Whether you reside on reserve or off reserve. 

Tonya [00:21:41] Are members taking advantage of this? It sounds like a really cool opportunity. 

Crystal [00:21:45] Absolutely. Our education and capacity department expanded, I believe, by like 200 percent. We had one employee within that department. And now we have every support that every barrier that our people experienced, we have someone in place or a program in place that removes those barriers. For an example, a licencing program for your class five, you can get your class, you, whatever. 

Tonya [00:22:18] Oh, so for trades? 

Crystal [00:22:19] No, driver’s licence. 

Tonya [00:22:22] Oh, OK got you . 

Crystal [00:22:23] So we have–within the beginning stages of the project, we always ran into the barrier of our membership not having their driver’s licence as a barrier to employment. So we’ve fully funded and have our own licencing program, driver’s licence program that has seen approximately 30 to 50 people go through the program, my daughter being one of them, be successful in getting their licences. So those people that applied for employment but couldn’t because they didn’t have their licence, now are eligible for employment. 

Tonya [00:23:09] And there’s another basketball team there. This is all I hear and see now is basketball. These are really good news stories. And I’m wondering, why don’t more people know about this? 

Crystal [00:23:21] I mean, it doesn’t–my opinion, it doesn’t sell newspapers. It doesn’t get views on Global. It doesn’t get views on CTV News. There’s one other program that we fully fund. We have an outreach worker. His name is James Harry. And he works with our most vulnerable people on the Downtown Eastside, supporting them and building relationships with them to help them become healthy, to find housing and to go to treatment centres as–whatever they require. It’s all on the ground, whatever our people need. He provides those support systems for them and we fully fund that program. 

Tonya [00:24:16] And how old is this program? 

Crystal [00:24:18] It’s approximately three years. Three years old. 

Tonya [00:24:22] So there’s been a lot of significant positive changes that have happened in the community. It’s not all related to LNG Canada, of course, but just these types of projects or just advancing the community this way. It’s all feeding into this reversal, if you will. 

Crystal [00:24:38] Absolutely. Everything that we’ve been able to do has been based on our community’s needs and their desires and what they see as as a means of rebuilding. And I you know, I always describe it as a rebuilding and reigniting of our Haisla identities. And I truly believe that is what we are doing. We are saving our culture. We are reigniting our language and a commitment over of dollars over five years to be as creative as we possibly can. You know, we’re losing our elders, we’re losing our fluent speakers and to be able to invest where we thought we were going to lose our language, approximately six or seven years ago, to be able to invest money now to be able to do something about it, is, and hopefully have my children coming home, my grandson coming home fluently speaking Haisla. It’s an opportunity that’s real. 

Tonya [00:25:52] So if you had another community come to you that found themselves perhaps where Haisla was a decade ago, asking how do we move forward? What kind of advice would you give them? 

Crystal [00:26:06] Be as open, honest and include your membership. Our membership, our people are the ones that hold, whether you’re hereditary or elected, they hold us accountable. They need to be included in the process of and, you know, they need to be the ones that give the mandate as to where they see themselves in ten, fifteen years. 

Tonya [00:26:36] Do you think there needs to be a louder or stronger youth voice in this as well. 

Crystal [00:26:42] In terms of support of the industry? 

Tonya [00:26:45] Yeah. And just in general, as you say, looking forward into the future. This is their future. Do they need to have a more–a louder, stronger voice, and a more educated and informative one. 

Crystal [00:26:58] I truly believe so. Yes. You know, what I found is that it’s very easy to pick one side and to only listen to that information that suits your thought process. What is more difficult is to be inclusive,  and hear and listen to people that don’t have the same thought process as you and to be inclusive. And I find our youth, they are so more much empowered and in tune with their beliefs. There’s so much more confidence in their their ability to express themselves. Their time right now is so much different than from what my generation was growing up. They are always in the thought process of our decision making. So they definitely it would be–and I do hear from, I get messages of positive messages from our youth that are accessing the programs that we have for them. One of my nephews is at BCIT right now completing his welding ticket, and he messaged me a few days ago…seeing all the negativity on social media, he messaged me to thank us for the work that we’re doing and to let me know…sorry…[crying]

Tonya [00:28:43] Take your time. 

Crystal [00:28:47] ..he messaged to let me know what it meant for him being where he’s at today. He loves the welding course that he is in. He’s succeeding and he’s removing barriers for himself. He sees an opportunity to get his welding ticket and then to come home and work. And it’s not only focussed on an LNG Canada or Coastal GasLink. He’s going to have that trade for life. And it can take him anywhere he wants and desires to go. And he recognizes that. 

Tonya [00:29:22] You have a very powerful message to send to everyone out there, Crystal. I really want to thank you so much for joining me today on this Energy Examined podcast. Your words are very powerful. Thank you so much. 

Crystal [00:29:35] Thank you for having me again. 

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