The British Columbia government has appointed former New Democrat MP Nathan Cullen as a provincial liaison with Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs in an LNG pipeline dispute, a move welcomed by spokesmen for both the chiefs and the company.
Cullen represented Skeena-Bulkley Valley, a sprawling part of northern British Columbia that includes the Wet’suwet’en traditional territory, until last year when he decided not to seek re-election.
The premier’s office said Monday that Cullen will work with Wet’suwet’en leaders, the RCMP, Coastal GasLink, the provincial public sector and other parties.
Cullen will focus on de-escalating the conflict surrounding a court-ordered injunction regarding the company’s access to a forest service road outside of Houston.
“I’m pleased all parties have agreed to the appointment of a liaison,” Premier John Horgan said in a statement.
“Nathan has agreed to act as an intermediary in the hopes of finding a solution to this challenging dispute.”
The premier’s office said Cullen would not be available for an interview.
Coastal GasLink has signed agreements with 20 elected First Nations along the pipeline’s 670-kilometre route from northeastern B.C. to an export terminal in Kitimat but the hereditary clan chiefs say it has no authority without their consent.
Work on the project has been halted for about a month, since the court granted the injunction and the chiefs countered with an eviction notice to the company.
Supporters of the chiefs have since built a new encampment along the road toward the work site and felled trees along the road.
The RCMP have said patrol officers found stacked tires with jugs of accelerant and rags soaked in fuel nearby.
Na’moks, who is one of the five hereditary clan chiefs, said in an interview that Cullen is well informed and represented the community well in Parliament for 14 years.
“There is a level of trust that currently we don’t share with many current elected officials or former,” said Na’moks, who also goes by John Ridsdale.
“It gives me more confidence than the premier of the province.”
Horgan has said that the rule of law must be respected and that the project will be built, but has not met with the hereditary clan chiefs since this year’s impasse began.
Horgan offered to have a phone conversation and sent Indigenous Relations Minister Scott Fraser for a meeting. But Na’moks said the chiefs were in a conflicting meeting at the time of Fraser’s visit, and they prefer face-to-face meetings with fellow decision-makers.
The Wet’suwet’en are a peaceful people but there’s no scenario where a resolution will also involve a pipeline through their territory, he said.
Coastal GasLink president David Pfeiffer said he’s pleased with Cullen’s appointment and remains hopeful the chiefs will meet with the company.
The dispute has not yet affected the project’s schedule and it remains on track for service in 2023, he said. He declined to say exactly when the impasse would begin affecting the schedule.
“We know that time is getting short according to our schedule and we will start seeing impacts at some point,” he said.
Before the eviction notice was issued, the company was in the process of dismantling a temporary work camp in the disputed area and building a larger one that would allow major construction to begin this summer.
About 500 workers were expected to work in the area over the next 18 months or so, he said.
Small local route changes are possible, like a 40-kilometre or so diversion already approved south of Houston, he said.
But a major reroute at this stage is not possible, Pfeiffer said, because the regulatory work required would have a “major scheduling impact.”
The challenging terrain created by the Coast Mountains means the planned route would have the lowest environmental impacts based on river crossings and other considerations, he added.
“Every pipeline that’s come along has looked through there because that is the area that is most technically viable,” Pfeiffer said.
The company’s focus is on reaching a peaceful resolution and avoiding enforcement of the injunction by the RCMP. If the chiefs consent to a meeting, Pfeiffer said the company would like to discuss possible benefits for the Wet’suwet’en members they represent, he said.