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Former First Nation Chief and MLA to Skeena, Ellis Ross spoke to a crowd of 500+ at the Global Petroleum Show in Calgary. The speech came shortly after yesterday’s ‘approval’ of the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion by the Canadian government and the national emergency declaration on climate change.
Speaking to the need for more pipelines, Ross went onto say how anti-oil and gas legislation in Bills C-69 and C-48 have directly hurt his constituents.
A balanced approach to the economy and the environment has shaped his understanding and support for advancing partnerships with the industrial sector. As a councillor for Haisla First Nations, his push for economic prosperity — in the spirit of consultations — effectively dispels narratives surrounding Indigenous perspectives on resource development.
While Tsleil-Waututh First Nation is amongst those most adamant in their opposition of the Trans Mountain approval, citing spiritual connections to the land and environmental concerns, Haisla First Nation is a heartfelt success story that reminds Canadians of the benefits to ‘economic reconciliation.’
In an exclusive interview with one of Canada’s more prominent Indigenous representatives, Ross weighs in on the advancement of and Haisla Nation partnership within the oil and gas Industry and others in Kitimat, BC.
TPM: Let’s begin with your first and last name? Your current position as an elected official, out of BC and from there on, we delve into your roots. I want to mention that before your run for provincial politics, you were heavily involved with First Nation politics, elected onto your local council where you reside. The floor is yours…
Ross: Well, I was the youngest of seven kids, born and raised in Kitimat, British Columbia, where my parents survived the harsh realities of the Residential School System. I got into politics after I was nominated for council out of the blue. I decided to keep my name in the running, as I thought I could divert some of the council’s funds to my basketball teams in Haisla First Nation.
I was coaching at the time, and three months into my tenure, I realized my band council was broke. We were in so bad a deficit that we were in danger of being shut down by our debt. During my first year on council, I spent learning the ins-and-outs of the council, learning about third-party management, and the role of the federal government versus my council. It was a horror show.
Things were really ugly, and at first, I didn’t have a clue on what council was all about. From then on, I joined or was asked to join some of the fundamental science and resource committees. Every one of those committees I joined, I clicked with right away. I realized that many weren’t all that useful, as their portfolios couldn’t affect the change my band needed.
The only portfolio I sat on was the one on BC Treaty Negotiations under the BC Treaty Commission. It was a tremendous resource for learning about treaty negotiations and land issues, but the whole time I was there, I didn’t support the system in place.
TPM: Why was that the case? What were the issues with treaty negotiations, according to you?
Ross: Well, the day I became chief, I pulled my band out of treaty negotiations. I saw no use to it, nor did I believe in it. During my first term as a councillor, I was pretty demoralized by how I couldn’t change the trajectory of my people. I became a councillor in 2003 to effect change for my people, but things hadn’t changed because the government and private enterprise were not respecting us, especially on consultation matters.
We couldn’t even talk on relevant issues, as companies and the government would come to our table, and say that we’re here in passing. We don’t have to give you anything, and we don’t have to talk to you. We’re just here to listen to you. That’s all we’re doing. These attitudes carried on till about 2006 or 2007. Back then, I wasn’t thinking about jobs or the economy. I was thinking, come on guys, we need to take things seriously and respect the title we have and the people we serve.
TPM: With how things turned out, it was needed. As a councillor, what were some of the difficulties you were faced with? What are your hopes for the future at the time?
Ross: Well, by 2009, we had a new chief councillor, and the new chief councillor had gotten in on a mandate ripe with corruption that was not helping people. Since she got elected, things were callous for about a year, and so my supporters wanted me to oppose her every step of the way and not give her any help. I believed that I could not let her fail.
I’ve got to provide her with all the advice I can give her in passing on whatever information I could and teach her. It was our future, and we have to take care of our kids’ future. So, within a year, she came into my office with one of her supporters, where she sat down and said, “Look, you guys are a great bunch of guys. You guys are doing everything you can to help our people. So, I want you to be in charge of all the resource files. You’re where the buck stops, so continue what you’re doing, and I’ll be there to support you.”
Mostly, I had the mandate to do what I wanted with the companies, and that’s when I started to apply the pressure on companies, thinking, this is what you’re going to do and this is how you’re going to do it. In 2010, I decided it was time for me to run for chief councillor, and by that time, some jobs were popping up sporadically. There’s some revenue being generated, and you can see the promise of a better future coming to fruition for my community.
As a people, you can see the sign of prosperity trickling through, but we hadn’t gotten over the hump quite yet. So, when I became chief councillor, I sat with my lawyers and advisors, and they ask about my vision for Haisla First Nation. I replied, “I want the land. I want the money. I want everything. I want to return my people to a state of prosperity.”
One of the advisors came back and said, “Well, you know you can’t achieve that. Right?” I said, “Yeah, no, but you guys asked me what I want. That’s what I want. So you guys know where to start.” My hope in the future lies in the principle of consultation, which would lay the foundations for the future prosperity for my people. People get it now. The government gets it, as does industry. And I’m doing this for a purpose. I’m doing this to get my people out of poverty and trying to get us to a better place.
TPM: What were some of the steps you took to bring about change?
Ross: For starters, we needed to bring a better strategy to the table. We needed to get rid of our structures and rebuild for the future. But, to do that, we required a ton of money. We already had a lot of private, reserve, and rental land, and we used that to our advantage. Within three years, our economy exploded with jobs.
As a chief councillor, I swelled up with pride because we were making decisions at the negotiation table that I suspect many BC First Nations had never made, in the spirit of reconciliation. We were proactive in our pursuit of prosperity and took it upon ourselves to be the change our communities needed. We had to accept that initiative and look towards growing our economy, instead of idly waiting for handouts.
In part, we needed to translate our oral history over the last 4050 years and have our grievances listed on paper. It took some convincing, but I was so proud that my people were on the path to achieving independence. Though I was never a fan of self-governance, I wanted to achieve independence for Haisla First Nation, so that we could become the masters of our own fate. And that was made possible by not giving into a victim mentality. My band is a picture of success.
We built a new fire hall, soccer field, and wharf docks. Now, they’re planning to build an apartment complex on the reserve and a multiplex. The list goes on and on and on, and it’s just incredible to see what has been achieved on the Haisla First Nation Reservation.
TPM: With regards to the oil and gas industry, what was their involvement with your band? Can you elaborate a little bit on that?
Ross: Well, oil and gas came to our territory, first with natural gas in 2004. It was a speculative project by a bunch of people out of Houston, Texas, who sold it on the open market. We didn’t hold much of a say in that project and swore that would never happen again.
We want people to come and propose plans to the council and have the golden ticket from start to finish. At the time, Enbridge was coming around and took a different route. They had the idea that they would make a ready-made deal and impose it on us. No matter the opposition from me, as this was wrong, they refused to listen.
In one case, the natural gas industry wanted to do things right per your trends, while another said this was a federal process and we’re going to do it our way, as we’ve been doing for decades in Alberta. Based on my experience with oil and gas, there are two different methods of trying to get a project built.
I then went up to Fort St. John shortly after to see Chevron’s and Shell’s facilities, and after much deliberation with my band, I recommended to allow them onto reserve land, where we then signed a tripartite agreement with them and the BC government. This allowed BC’s regulatory board onto reserve land and enforced Canadian regulations as it relates to natural gas.
TPM: Did you have to go to your membership with all this? And how were they at the beginning of this?
Ellis: When I proposed to change our structure, my council voted against me, so I had to sit through 2 years of a broken system knowing there was a better way. We had another election where half the council get elected, and we get some younger, fresher minds in council.
At that point, the majority of the council agreed with me to give me a chance to prove it. I’m talking about acquiring valuable land that can sustain us through lease agreements. I’m talking about real tangible results instead of just blaming others and complaining for the sake of complaining.