'We have never ceded our lands': First Nations in B.C.'s interior weigh impacts of Kinder Morgan pipeline

Kinder Morgan's controversial Trans Mountain pipeline is pitting First Nations and climate science against industry and the federal and B.C. governments. rabble's Alyse Kotyk is investigating how TMX will impact British Columbians in the lead-up to the May election. Read her first piece here.

Across B.C.'s interior, Indigenous communities are deciding whether or not they will support Kinder Morgan's Trans Mountain pipeline project through mutual benefits agreements (MBA).

While most of the media attention has focused on the Coast Salish First Nations near the lower mainland's metropolitan areas, the majority of the pipeline crosses the traditional territories of interior First Nations, including the Secwepemc Nation in the Shuswap and the Nlaka'pamux to the west of the Okanagan.

Over the weekend, the Lower Nicola Indian Band (LNIB) voted to accept their mutual benefits agreement with Kinder Morgan. Near Merritt, LNIB was one of 133 Indigenous communities approached by the energy company to sign an agreement that included financial compensation and employment opportunities. Last November, Kinder Morgan signed a conditional agreement with the LNIB's chief and council who then called for a community referendum to decide whether or not they would move ahead.

LNIB's Chief Aaron Sam said he did not know which way the vote would go and that he thought the results would be close.

"If you look at the public at large of Canadians or British Columbians or Albertans, there's a wide range of views on the project," he said. "There's many people that are supportive because of the financial component or the potential work. But at the same time, there's people that are strongly opposed to the project because of concerns relating to climate change."

For the LNIB, job opportunities are appealing. However, Sam, who is vying to be the NDP candidate for the Fraser-Nicola riding in the upcoming provincial election, said some of his community members are concerned about increased tanker traffic on the coast and how potential oil spills could affect their salmon supply.

"I think our community is not that different from many of the concerns that you see from the larger community outside of the Lower Nicola Indian Band," Sam said.

Yet only 187 out of 964 eligible voters -- little more than 19 per cent -- participated in the referendum.  The results were 111 votes for signing the agreement to 75 against with one spoiled ballot.

"We have never given that up."

For Kanahus Manuel from the Secwepemc Nation in the Shuswap region of B.C. -- an area that would be largely affected by Trans Mountain -- chief and councils should not be playing a role in these agreements with Kinder Morgan.

"The chiefs and council are, we call them, agents of the government. We call them civil servants of the crown. They work for the government and this is the way Canada manufactured these leaders and manufactured consent to go into these projects," she told rabble.ca by phone. "The Secwepemc people that are 10,500 or so strong are the ones that should be making decisions about their territory, including opposing or allowing this pipeline to go through."

Kinder Morgan appears to be positive about these agreements and said it has worked to build relationships with the Indigenous communities that would be affected by the Trans Mountain project.

"Together with these communities, we worked very hard to establish a relationship built upon respect, trust and openness," said Ian Anderson, President of Kinder Morgan Canada in a media statement. "These MBAs represent not only an agreement to share opportunity and provide prosperity, but a symbol and recognition of a shared respect."

However, Manuel also pointed out that Indigenous-elected chief and council are often in a difficult position when faced with development projects.

"We're forced into this extreme poverty-stricken conditions on Indian reservations where the elected chief and council are being forced to sign under duress for these pipeline projects and mining projects just in order to give the basic needs to the people," she said.

Instead, Manuel said she advocates for a return to traditional Indigenous governance to tackle issues of development and climate change.

"There's traditional ways that we governed ourselves, there's traditional ways that we continue to govern ourselves as Indigenous people," she said. "We have never given that up. We have never ceded our lands or surrendered our lands."

Alyse Kotyk is a Vancouver-based writer and editor with a passion for social justice and storytelling. She completed her undergraduate degree at Queen's University and studies journalism at Langara College. Alyse was the editor of Servants Quarters and has written for the Queen's News Centre, Quietly Media and the Vancouver Observer. She was rabble's 2015-16 news intern.

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Image: Facebook/Shirley Samples -- Stop Kinder Morgan Call to Action

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