In the year since a high-profile conflict over Indigenous land rights led to RCMP raids on a pipeline construction route and sparked rail blockades across the country, the Coastal GasLink project has pushed ahead, with more than 140 kilometres of pipe now laid in northern B.C.
The $6.6-billion pipeline is designed to carry natural gas, obtained by hydraulic fracturing — also known as fracking — in northeastern B.C., to a $40-billion LNG terminal on the province’s North Coast for export to Asia.
The project moving energy resources to tidewater represents one of the largest private sector investments in Canadian history, according to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
But construction temporarily stalled in early 2020, when several Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs opposed the pipeline’s route through disputed land — sparking a nationwide discussion about who gets a say in resource development on land claimed as traditional territory.
One year later, the hereditary chiefs still oppose the pipeline — but their priorities have shifted to caring for their elders during the pandemic.
“We haven’t forgotten [about land rights], but I don’t want to be burying any more of our people. I don’t want to bury anyone from our village,” Wet’suwet’en hereditary Chief Na’moks told CBC News.
In B.C.’s north, First Nations people have been disproportionately hit with COVID-19, with double the confirmed cases as the rest of the population. Data is not available for the Wet’suwet’en specifically.
Several First Nations communities, including Wet’suwet’en villages, have set up checkpoints to try to control the spread of the disease.
Na’moks says talks with the provincial and federal governments have slowed but haven’t “fallen off the rails,” and the chiefs remain determined to uphold their rights.
“They can’t just come in and say, “Oh, what you have, we want, and we’re taking it,” said Na’moks.
“Talk to us. Involve us. We’ll tell you what’s important. There should be entire places on this planet that shouldn’t be touched.”
The hereditary chiefs say supporters who call themselves land defenders are still staying in camps close to the pipeline route, near Houston, B.C., where RCMP arrested several people for defying a court injunction last year — and where police, too, still have a presence.
B.C.’s representative in talks with the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs, lawyer and former MP Murray Rankin, said there has been progress, but the pandemic has been an obstacle to a “lasting agreement on rights and title.”
“There has been the loss of elders and the mourning process,” Rankin said.
The pandemic has also slowed the pace of construction at Coastal GasLink. Last March, the company scaled back to essential service levels to comply with provincial health rules. Before the pandemic, around 4,000 people were working on the project; now, about 600 workers are on the job.
In December, there were several COVID-19 outbreaks among employees at two pipeline work camps and at the project’s export terminal. The Northern Health Authority says a total of 71 workers tested positive for the coronavirus.
Coastal GasLink said it’s improved its COVID-19 prevention efforts and will now be seeking permission from health authorities to “safely increase the number of personnel” to complete critical work before the spring thaw.
Despite the delays, Coastal GasLink says the project is one-third complete. With almost a quarter of the pipeline in the ground, another 500 kilometres of pipe has been delivered to storage facilities, ready for installation.
When finished, it will cross 622 rivers, creeks, streams, and lakes, the company says.
‘The industry puts food on the table’
While the project has faced opposition from some Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs, all 20 elected band councils along the Coastal GasLink route support the pipeline and have signed benefits agreements with the company.
Wet’suwet’en member and former elected band councillor Gary Naziel is one of the workers who has been kept on the project during the pandemic. He works for a pipeline contractor, operating a grader and an excavator to keep a winter road open for pipe trucks.
Naziel welcomes the jobs and benefits the pipeline has brought. He says local workers laid off during the construction slowdown have taken a big hit.
“This community will be benefiting from these pipelines,” Naziel said. “The industry puts food on the table, clothes on our back.”
Calgary business analyst Deborah Yedlin says the pipeline’s completion is key to getting Canada’s natural resources out to markets, particularly in light of the recent cancellation of the Keystone XL pipeline by U.S. President Joe Biden.
“We are a trading nation. And Coastal GasLink is a conduit,” Yedlin said.
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