Robin Rowland/Canadian Press
Lelu Island, a key salmon habitat, is under threat from planned liquefied natural gas (LNG) development approved by the Canadian government. The LNG project is being challenged in court by several First Nations and environmental groups.

First Nations and Environmental Groups Launch Legal Action Against Trudeau Approval of Massive LNG Facility

Daniel Mesec

Several legal challenges have been launched by First Nations and environmental groups opposed to the recent federal approval of the massive Pacific Northwest LNG project (PNW LNG), just south of Prince Rupert, British Columbia.

The legal battles come after repeated attempts by the Allied Tsimshian Tribes of Lax Kw’alaams to have the project site relocated out of concern that the $11.4 billion facility and tanker berth would destroy Lelu Island and critical salmon habitat in the estuary of the Skeena River and eventually wipe out Canada’s second largest salmon run.

RELATED: BC First Nations Adamantly Oppose LNG on Lelu Island Despite Province Claims

“Once again, we are forced to ask courts to do what our politicians seem unable to do—honor Canada’s obligations to its indigenous communities, and to protect our environment from catastrophic harm,” said Chief Yahaan (Donnie Wesley) of the Gitwilgyoots Tribe.

The Gitwilgyoots, Gitanyow First Nation and the SkeenaWild Conservation Trust all launched separate judicial review challenges of the Petronas-backed project, which still has not received a final investment decision, in part due to a drop in gas prices in Asian markets.

The groups emphasized their commitment to seeing their litigation efforts through to the end in a letter to Petronas chairman Tan Sri Mohd Sidek just days before legal documents were filed. Petronas did not respond to ICTMN’s requests for a comment.

The Gitanyow, an upstream community 124 miles from the project site, and the Gitwilgyoots, whose territory encompasses Lelu Island and Flora Bank, will argue that the meaningful consultation that is a fiduciary obligation of the federal Cabinet never occurred. Meanwhile the conservation group SkeenaWild, says the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency (CEAA), as well as decision makers in Ottawa, ignored crucial science regarding the impacts that PNW LNG would have on already struggling salmon stocks in the area.

However, the CEAA said the Canadian government is standing behind its decision to approve PNW LNG.

“This project underwent a three-year rigorous and thorough science-based process that evaluated and incorporated mitigation measures that will minimize the environmental impacts,” the CEAA said in a statement. “The government’s decision shows that the environment and the economy go hand in hand with over 190 conditions to protect the environment including the first ever cap on emissions for a project.”

Yet many First Nations viewed the approval as blatant slap in the face after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s repeated pledges to rebuild nation-to-nation relationships with Canada’s aboriginal peoples.

“In many ways we’re beginning to recognize and acknowledge the fact that the Trudeau government is not the least bit committed to following through with promises and commitments made in the last federal election campaign,” said Grand Chief Stewart Phillip of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs. “Consistently there has been an absolute betrayal of those commitments and promises as this government has simply picked up the previous Harper government’s agenda with respect to major resource development project.”

Chief Phillip said the decisions made by the Trudeau administration to forge ahead with industrial projects like PNW LNG and the Site C dam, with little regard for indigenous rights and culture, have forced many groups to resort to direct action protests, asserting their hereditary rights by building occupation camps in strategic areas to protect their traditional territories and the environment.

“As time moves forward we’re going to see more and more First Nations filing legal challenges. I think we’re going to have a far more contentious relationship with the Trudeau government than with the Harper government,” Phillip said. “Camps are an emerging trend. Litigation and direct action on the ground, that’s what the future is going to look like.”

Earlier this year the Federal Court of Appeal ruled that the government did not adequately consult with First Nations during Enbridge’s Northern Gateway pipeline review and overturned the government’s approval of that project. The lawyer for the Gitwilgyoots, Richard Overstall, is hoping for the same outcome.

RELATED: Revoked: Enbridge Loses Northern Gateway Pipeline Permits Over Lack of Consultation

“Essentially [the challenge] will be similar to the arguments that aboriginal applicants made against Enbridge,” Overstall said. “Saying that the federal government at all levels failed to adequately consult the Gitwilgyoots. The application is to quash the EA report, quash the ministers’ decision and quash the federal Cabinet decision. And hopefully the court will issue a similar order as in the Northern Gateway decision.”

For more than a year Chief Yahaan (Donnie Wesley), and several others have been building a resistance camp on Lelu Island. Although it will be several months until they see their day in court, he remains committed to protecting the island and the Skeena Estuary from any development that would threaten salmon and other marine life.

“As with Enbridge, and despite repeated requests that they consult with us, Petronas and the federal government failed in their duty to listen to the ancestral owners of Lelu Island,” Chief Yahaan said. “We have never been opposed to development. But we have always opposed industrial development on top of the most important salmon habitat we have on our coast.”

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