Lax Kw’alaams halts work on northwest transmission lines

A First Nations dispute over traditional territory has forced work on the Northwest Transmission lines outside of Terrace to be stopped, at least temporarily. Over the weekend, a geo-technical drill crew from BC Hydro were working on the transmission line project at a site located off of highway 16 near Terrace, when a group of “cultural monitors” from the Lax Kw'alaams First Nation arrived and told the crew they were not allowed to work there.

A First Nations dispute over traditional territory has forced work on the Northwest Transmission lines outside of Terrace to be stopped, at least temporarily. Over the weekend, a geo-technical drill crew from BC Hydro were working on the transmission line project at a site located off of highway 16 near Terrace, when a group of “cultural monitors” from the Lax Kw’alaams First Nation arrived and told the crew they were not allowed to work there.

“They were setting up at the site when a group of men from Lax Kw’alaams drove up and started handing out fliers saying that they must work. So the crew followed our protocol and immediately left . . . . In our view the site that we were setting up on was Kitsumkalum territory,” explains BC Hydro’s Executive VP of the Northwest Transmission Line project, Greg Reimer.

The transmission line project is expected to go through the traditional territory of eight different First Nations groups. While BC Hydro has negotiated agreements for the use of the land with five of those groups including the  Kitsumkalum First Nation, they don’t have one with Lax Kw’alaams. It was  because of this that BC Hydro’s workers were told to leave by Lax Kw’alaams’ small force of “cultural monitors” who make sure that the First Nations territorial rights are being enforced.

“Our cultural monitors explained to them that we have no agreement in place, and asked them to leave, and that’s what happened,” says Lax Kw’alaams band councillor, Bob Moraes.

But according to Reimer, even though the workers did leave when asked, BC Hydro’s position is that the site is the territory of  Kitsumkalum and that work will begin there again soon under that assumption.

Moraes admits that the because Lax Kw’alaams’ and Kitsumkalum’s territories are right next to each other, it causes some overlap and the distinctions on who has the right to what piece of  land can often be a matter of debate. He is trying to resolve the issue by drawing up a map that would clearly define his nation’s territory, which he believes will show that the construction site is inside Lax Kw’alaams’ territory in an area that is not also claimed by Kitsumkalum.

Lax Kw’alaams is already in a territory dispute with Kitkatla over Watson Island, and Moraes says they are not trying to start another one.

“There would be no purpose for us to go into somebody else’s territory and trying to cause problems. We’ve got an area that we’re concerned about enough that we will use some of our time to make sure what’s going on there is proper,” says Moraes.

Kitsumkalum’s band manager and former chief councillor, Steve Roberts, says that his First Nation  not only claims the site in question as their territory, but went further than that. According to Roberts, Lax Kw’alaams is merely the product of the Indian Act, and does not (or at least, should not) have any traditional territory rights at all.

“It’s Kitsumkalum’s strong belief that Lax Kw’alaams has no more aboriginal rights and title than the white man who drafted the letter and who purports to exercise right and title on behalf of Lax Kw’alaams,” says Roberts.

“Lax Kw’alaams is just a place name, much like how Prince Rupert is a place name . . . it’s not a tribe, it has no right and title.”

Both BC Hydro and Lax Kw’alaams recognize that the lack of an agreement between them is the central problem behind this incident but the two sides seem far apart on negotiating one. They can’t even agree on whether or not they’re actually negotiating. Remier from BC Hydro refuses to go into specifics, but says that negotiation on an agreement is underway.

“We have been in negotiations for some time, we share the goal of reaching an agreement that is fair and meaningful for them, for us and the rate-payers of BC. So we’re committed to working out an agreement, which I think will be the solution to this issue” says Reimer.

That’s not how Lax Kw’alaams sees it. According to Moraes who is the First Nation’s lead negotiator on the Nortwest Transmission Line agreement, the whole process has stalled since the last  meeting between the two sides a month ago. The band councillor says that the compensation package BC Hydro offered the First Nation for being able to impinge on their  territory rights was completely inadequate, and accuses BC Hydro of not being serious about finding an acceptable agreement.

“We don’t like the cookie-cutter approach when they say” this is what we’ve got, take it or leave it,” says Moraes.

Despite Moraes willingness to continue negotiations, Lax Kw’alaams has been opposed to the Northwest Transmission Line project quite some time, and that opposition was reflected in the comments from their Chief councillor Gary Reece on the incident.

“Lax Kw’alaams has been extremely frustrated by the lack of respect shown by Hydro to our aboriginal rights and title interests and they have absolutely refused to negotiate in good faith to ensure our interests and concerns for the NTL are built into their plans,” says Reece.

“No Agreement with Hydro, no Northwest Transmission Lines on our traditional territory.”