By Discourse Media with additional reporting from Carol Linnitt.
Members of the Lax Kw’alaams First Nation in northwest B.C. were given an extremely short amount of time to respond to an opinion poll that asked if they support energy development in their territory.
The polling followed a series of four information sessions held by the band council in June, focused on plans for liquified natural gas (LNG) development. At the information sessions, band members were presented with a proposed package of benefits that hinge on them voicing their support for the contentious Pacific NorthWest LNG (PNW LNG) project at the mouth of the Skeena River.
Community members are concerned because the polling question did not explicitly reference the PNW LNG proposal, which includes plans to develop the company’s LNG terminal on Lelu Island, near Prince Rupert. Other concerns about the poll that have been flagged by band members include missing forms in packages mailed to them and misinformation included in the proposed agreements package.
The poll question was framed and composed in a way that was likely to push respondents toward answering a particular way, says David Moscrop, a political scientist and PhD candidate at the University of British Columbia. “The implication is, ‘Don’t worry about the environmental impact; assume it will be fine … Are you okay with [development]?”
Moscrop says the structure of the question makes him suspicious of the intent behind the poll. “If you’re not going to do it properly, why are you doing it? Is it because you want to legitimize something you intend to do either way?” he asks.
The question itself, the timeline of the poll and location of the polling stations were all decided by the band council, according to Lawrence Lewis, an independent electoral officer hired by the Lax Kw’alaams band to oversee the process.
Ballots were mailed to all community members both within Lax Kw’alaams and living outside of the village, says Lewis. Members also had the chance to vote in person at polling stations in Lax Kw’alaams and Prince Rupert.
On August 25, The Lax Kw’alaams band council said they received 812 responses (1 spoiled) with 65.5 per cent (or 532 people) voting YES and 279 voting NO.
The mayor of Lax Kw’alaams, John Helin, wrote a message that said: “This is just another step in a process that could lead to the proposed Petronas project becoming a reality. We will have meetings with the appropriate parties (Petronas, Province, Federal Government) to see what the next steps are for this proposed project.”
Helin’s comments have led some to wonder if the poll, which didn’t mention PNW LNG by name, may be used as a de facto referendum for the project despite not being presented to the community as a binding vote.
Which may be how the B.C. government views the poll’s results.
The province released a statement thanking the community for the “positive vote” and Rich Coleman, B.C.’s Minister of Natural Gas Development, congratulated the community for voting to continue talks with government.
Discourse Media obtained the proposed benefits package that was presented at four community information sessions in June. It includes misinformation about the nature of an infrastructure project granted to the community last year, as previously reported.
The $22-million paving of Tuck Inlet Road, the only road into Lax Kw’alaams, is presented as an incentive for the community to support LNG on Lelu Island. But the project was negotiated by the band’s previous mayor, Garry Reece, who says paving Tuck Inlet Road was never tied to any LNG proposal. In the proposed benefits package it is referred to as “work started by Provincial Government as an inducement for good faith negotiations on LNG.”
While Moscrop calls into question the intent of the poll, community member and activist Christine Smith-Martin says the question is too vague and should simply ask members to say yes or no to development on Lelu Island. “It’s like writing a blank cheque. They want us to sign a blank cheque that allows them to do whatever it is they want to do,” she said.
Smith-Martin also raised concerns about the execution of the poll. She said members of her family received their ballots without the necessary First Nation Declaration Form.
In order for a ballot to be counted, they had to be returned with a signed First Nation Declaration Form which stated: “I solemnly affirm that I am an eligible Elector of the Lax Kw’alaams Nation at the address listed below and that I am at least 18 years of age.”
Lewis acknowledges the initial mistake but says all members have now received the declaration form. When asked about concerns regarding the short timeframe of the poll, the framing of the question and the lack of polling stations in Vancouver or Terrace — where many Lax Kw’alaams members reside — Lewis deferred to the band council, saying he could only speak to the process, not how these decisions were made by the Lax Kw’alaams band.
Community Left Feeling Confused, Angry
Other concerns include the information sessions that preceded the polling. The main point of contention relayed by people who attended those meetings was the highly technical nature of the presentation, which many saw as one-sided and biased in favour of supporting Pacific Northwest LNG.
Community member Sandra Dudoward says the current poll was not handled as well as a previous canvassing of community views about the project. Dudoward was referring to a series of votes that drew international headlines in May 2015. Lax Kw’alaams voted against supporting PNW LNG in exchange for a $1.2-billion benefits agreement offered by Petronas, the Malaysian-based energy company behind the project.
Dudoward says she was given a month’s notice to prepare for that vote. This time around, she was given about a week. She found out about the vote on Aug. 16, and had to call to request an emailed ballot. The poll required that all ballots be received by mail before Aug. 24 or delivered in person at one of the polling stations in Lax Kw’alaams or Prince Rupert.
Dudoward worries that the timeframe of the poll was too short and might have affected voter turnout. She also wondered why the band hired an electoral officer to oversee the process given that the polling seemed informal and the question vague.
Despite the question not being explicitly about PNW LNG, the local Prince Rupert newspaper, The Northern View, seemed to confirm suspicions that the poll be seen as just that. “Lax Kw'alaams members vote 'Yes' to ongoing talks with PNW LNG,” said The Northern View’s August 25 on-line headline.
For political scientist David Moscrop, the issue is bigger than just the poll and its outcome. He sees it as a larger affront to the democratic process that works against the movement towards Indigenous autonomy.
“If we’re saying that there is a legacy of colonialism and exploitation and stripping people of their power and their right to self-determination, then we should be even more sensitive that there are groups that might be doing that again,” he said.
Image: Ash Kelly