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Indigenous People Try to Improve Their Economy; Environmentalists Try to Stop Them

Must the indigenous group Nisga’a Nation have their rights—and economic prosperity—sacrificed on the altar of environmentalism?

Image credit: Flickr-Province of British Columbia

One common goal among those often called progressive is the prevention of anthropogenic environmental change. Another is the freedom of self-determination for historically oppressed victim-groups. These goals can conflict, however, because self-determined people sometimes choose to improve their economic conditions by changing their environment.

In such cases, which value takes precedence?

Freedom of the Nisga’a

The West Coast indigenous group Nisga’a Nation recently joined Rockies LNG and Western LNG in proposing a new liquefied natural gas facility. The project would be built in Nisga’a treaty territory on British Columbia (B.C.) coastal waters north of Prince Rupert. According to the news release from July 19th, “Ksi Lisims LNG (pronounced s’lisims), meaning ‘from the Nass River’ in the Nisga’a language, is a proposed 12-million-tonne-per-year liquefied natural gas (LNG) project at Wil Milit on the northern tip of Pearse Island near the Nisga’a village of Gingolx.”

Representatives of the indigenous group see this as a massive growth opportunity for the economic prosperity of their people. “Attracting an economic base to the Nass Valley has long been a priority for Nisga’a Nation. This is why, for close to a decade, our Nation has worked to attract a world-leading LNG project to our treaty lands, and why we are proud to commence the formal regulatory process for our project, Ksi Lisims LNG,” Nisga’a Nation President Eva Clayton said in the news release.

“Total direct and indirect economic impact related to the Ksi Lisims LNG facility, infrastructure and upstream activities is estimated at approximately $55 billion,” the news release said. This estimate represents a truly enormous potential gain for the Nisga’a people in terms of living conditions, medical investments, educational opportunities, or whatever other benefits they choose to prioritize.

But just as other such development projects have frequently been struck down by regulators in response to environmental activism, this bid for economic freedom on the part of the Nisga’a people is receiving no help from Canada’s “progressive” media.

Indigenous People vs. Environmentalists

One of the prominent voices against such LNG cultivation has been Seth Klein, director of strategy with the Climate Emergency Unit and former director of the British Columbia office of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, which Canada’s National Observer has called “Canada’s foremost social justice think tank.”

In the past, Klein has used the topic of indigenous rights to argue against fossil fuel development. In 2016, he wrote, “Indeed, our new federal government has promised to adopt the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) and ensure that all its policies are consistent with UNDRIP. But again, our governments are unwilling to accept what rights and title mean in practical policy terms. Indigenous rights denialism finds expression in particular when rights and title are at odds with the power and interests of the corporate fossil fuel sector.“

Klein continues, “It may be difficult to imagine a world that isn’t dependent on fossil fuels, or a future where Indigenous Peoples exercise their full historic rights – and there’s no doubt it will take hard work to get there.”

So Klein is interested in “the right to self-determination by Indigenous Peoples” (as he puts it elsewhere in the article) when it seems to serve his environmental agenda, but what does he have to say when it is the indigenous people themselves who seek economic progress through fossil fuel use in their own territory?

On the day of the abovementioned news release about Nisga’a Nation’s LNG proposal, Klein wrote that, “Most significantly, the B.C. government continues to propagate a deadly falsehood, namely that we can take meaningful climate action while continuing to double-down on the production of fossil fuels, specifically in B.C.’s case, fracked gas and LNG.” Hence, he concludes that, “The government should declare that no new buildings will be allowed to tie into natural gas lines or use other fossil fuels as of next year.”

This proposed limitation on the property rights of Nisga’a Nation and others would likely rule out the indigenous people’s ability to actualize their LNG project, the approval and initiation of which would be a long-term endeavor and is anticipated not to begin commercial operations until 2027 at the earliest.

Discrepancies like this suggest that “Indigenous rights” per se are not what Klein and others like him are after. Rather, they are in favor of rights protections when it serves their interests, but when they don’t like the specific decisions of indigenous people regarding how to use their own property they are fully in favor of stripping away those rights using the regulatory powers of colonial governments.

“I think the environmentalists use indigenous rights as a strategy to delay, to block, to undermine resource projects,” Heather Exner-Pirot, Board member with the Saskatchewan Indigenous Economic Development Network and research adviser to the Indigenous Resource Network, told me in a phone conversation earlier this month.

Indigenous People versus the Federal Government

This double standard on the topic of indigenous rights has been a frequent and enormous hardship for indigenous people across Canada and elsewhere. Exner-Pirot has delineated in a recent essay the ways in which Ermineskin Cree Nation, Wet’suwet’en Nation, and dozens of other indigenous groups have recently been forcefully prevented by the Canadian federal government from pursuing resource extraction projects.

“Canada has adopted one-sided consultation processes that favour First Nations that oppose resource extraction at the expense of those that support such projects,” Exner-Pirot reports. “That was the finding of a judge recently in a rebuke to the federal government for its treatment of the Ermineskin Cree Nation. Their case makes explicit what many of us have observed over the years: Indigenous people who support resource development do not fall comfortably into mainstream Canada’s idealized version of what Indigenous people should and shouldn’t do, and they are therefore ignored.”

The desire in indigenous communities to engage in profitable resource development projects appears to be the rule and not the exception. According to an Environics Research poll of 549 self-identified First Nations, Metis, and Inuit people living in rural areas or on reserves across Canada, 65 percent supported natural resource development, and 23 percent opposed it. The results were similar with more specific questions. 59 percent supported mining and 32 percent opposed it, while 53 percent supported oil and gas development and 41 percent opposed it.

“There’s an idea that indigenous people are happy with subsistence hunting and gathering, and are kind of noble savages,” Exner-Pirot told me. “The story that people want to hear and the story that their brain registers is indigenous people protesting to save Mother Earth against greedy white capitalists. It’s just a story that we tell ourselves.”

To be sure, greedy colonizers have done plenty of harm to indigenous communities throughout history. Indeed, Seth Klein and others like him are correct that governments continue to unjustly infringe upon the rights of indigenous people to this day. But unfortunately, the Seth Kleins of the world are often turning out to be part of the problem rather than the solution. By threatening the freedom of peoples like Nisga’a Nation to cultivate the resources of their own land, environmental activists with influence over media and government are pushing their own agenda while preventing the economic self-determination of the indigenous people they claim to be defending.

Let’s hope the Canadian government doesn’t inflict the same doomful fate on Nisga’a Nation’s LNG project that they have on so many recent aspirations of indigenous people to achieve economic progress.

  • Saul Zimet was a Hazlitt Fellow at the Foundation for Economic Education. He writes about human progress, propertarian politics, and knowledge maximalism. Learn more about his work at