Environment: Lelu’s Last Stand

Each spring, an invisible migration takes place from the creeks and lakes of northwest British Columbia’s Skeena River watershed. Hundreds of millions of wild Chinook, coho, pink, chum and sockeye salmon smolts reared in these waters descend to the Pacific Ocean for the second stage in their celebrated life cycle. A historically important food source for the region’s First Nations, these five species today comprise the second-largest salmon run in Canada, a basis for sustainable, recreational and commercial fisheries, as well as ecotourism – sectors in which thousands are employed. Of particular importance to the vulnerable smolts, as they transition from freshwater to saltwater, is the habitat provided by eel grass and seaweed beds surrounding islands in the river’s estuary. According to Charmaine Carr-Harris of the Skeena Fisheries Commission, “You couldn’t find a worse location [for industrial development] in terms of risks to fish.”


Photo: Brian Huntington

Words :: Leslie Anthony

And yet this is precisely what Christy Clark’s BC provincial government – with help from the Feds – appears bent on doing with a liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminal on Lelu Island. At Lelu, a pipeline proposed by Prince Rupert Gas Transmission, subsidiary of oil-and-gas giant TransCanada, would deliver fracked natural gas from the northeastern corner of the province to an $11.4 billion liquefaction, storage and export plant operated by Pacific NorthWest LNG, a local consortium controlled by Malaysian state-owned Petronas, whose total end-to-end investment in the project is touted at $40 billion. Given the risk to the Skeena’s salmon, protest against the overall plan has been particularly strong with regard to the Lelu facility, with no voices louder than those most reliant on the area for traditional food gathering and other cultural traditions. Although the Port of Prince Rupert, a federal body, claims administrative aegis over these putative crown lands, the Gitwilgyoots have a differing outlook, as they fall within its traditional unceded territory.

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In the spring of 2015, the tiny Gitwilgyoots community of Laxkw’alaams shocked the world when it unanimously voted against the Lelu plant despite a $1.15 billion enticement. “Hopefully the public will recognize that unanimous consensus… it sends an unequivocal message,” said band mayor, Garry Reece. “This is not a money issue: this is environmental and cultural.”



Both Petronas and governments ignored the vote. In August 2015, with company barges drilling into sandbanks and cutting down culturally modified trees on Lelu Island, the Gitwilgyoots escalated their stance. Band members and supporters occupied Lelu, signaling their intention to settle in for the long haul by constructing cabins. On tiny fishing boats, they continue to turn away massive drilling barges and surveyors caught pulling up vital eelgrass near the island, while the Port of Prince Rupert publicly opposes their buildings.

“This fight really is David and Goliath, we’re fighting a massive company that has a whole lot more money and power than we do.” – Gwis Hawaal, Gitwilgyoots house leader

On the twenty-third of January, 2016, leading scientists, First Nations leaders and regional politicians signed The Lelu Island Declaration (leludeclaration.ca) in Prince Rupert, asserting that Lelu Island and adjacent Flora and Agnew Banks were hereby protected for all time as a refuge for wild salmon and marine resources, to be held in trust for all future generations. Soon after, in February 2016, the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency (CEAA) released its draft report into the proposed development, prompting 130 scientists to question the “scientifically flawed” document in a letter to the Feds urging Minister of Environment and Climate Change, Catherine McKenna, to reject it. A key concern was that the report blatantly ignored effects an export facility would have on the ecology of the Skeena estuary, failing to even acknowledge that the terminal was located on critical habitat of Canada’s second largest wild salmon watershed.

“From my time in northern communities, I’ve learned there are real concerns about creating jobs – but not those that could impact wild salmon, the area’s economic and cultural backbone,” says climate activist and snowboarder, Tamo Campos, who spends abundant time both in the area’s mountains and on the ground with First Nations groups, and who recently co-produced ALast Stand for Lelu, a film to raise awareness and funds for the Lax Kw’alaams warriors. But Campos believes this issue has much larger implications than just Lelu island.


Photo: Tavish Campbell

“I’ve also seen winters deteriorate in my lifetime from climate change,” he adds, “and the fight against Petronas is a frontline for stopping it. Proponents continually greenwash LNG as a transition energy source away from fossil fuels, yet their numbers are based solely on end-point use and don’t consider upstream extraction emissions from fracking, which consistently leaks methane, a greenhouse gas 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide, over a 100-year cycle.”

Even the CEAA agrees, stating that the project’s carbon emissions would be “high in magnitude, continuous, irreversible and global in extent.” It’s hard to imagine a project with that kind of liability even being considered in today’s climate-shocked world, a fact the David Suzuki Foundation voiced in a release: “All those great ideas to stop climate change won’t have much impact if the government also approves large carbon-polluting projects like… Lelu Island… If built, this would be one of the largest carbon polluters in Canada when upstream emissions (e.g., from extraction, processing and transportation) are factored in… similar to Canada’s two largest carbon polluters — an oil sands operation and a coal-fired power plant.”

The report blatantly ignored effects an export facility would have on the ecology of the Skeena estuary, failing to even acknowledge that the terminal was located on critical habitat of Canada’s second largest wild salmon watershed.

Meanwhile, research published in the prestigious journal, Science, shows that 88 per cent of Skeena salmon — 330 million smolts per year — rely on Flora Bank for protection during their formative years. “If the project is built, it would be ignoring science and ignoring the risk to salmon and to people,” says Simon Fraser University biologist, Jonathon Moore.

With Federal cabinet approval of the National Energy Board recommendations pending, the fight for Lelu is heating up. “This fight really is David and Goliath,” says Gitwilgyoots house leader, Gwis Hawaal. “We’re fighting a massive company that has a whole lot more money and power than we do.”
True. But they know how the David and Goliath story ended.


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Originally published in the February 2015 “Tribe Issue” of Mountain Life Coast Mountains, this article from the crew at Beyond Boarding showcases one of the many risks facing British Columbian wilderness in the name of “The Economy.” What we like about this, however, is that the story is also indicative of a new demographic of Canadian willing to fight for the traditional lands, rights and culture of Canadian First Nations. Because we all live downstream…. Read more