Poverty or the Environment?
The challenge facing Indigenous communities. Reflections on my conversation with MLA Ellis Ross
Indigenous people are often stereotyped as being opposed to resource extraction. This is an incorrect assumption. In fact, like all issues - it is complicated. Many Indigenous people rely upon natural resource extraction or the transportation of it through their community to raise their members out of poverty.
I first witnessed the two perspectives on an episode of Power Play on CTV hosted by Evan Solomon. On the one side was professor and activist Pam Palmater who argued that it was wrong for pipelines to come through Indigenous communities where leaders and members were opposed to the project. On the other side was B.C. Liberal MLA Ellis Ross, who argued that many First Nation communities rely on these projects to get their members employment and opportunities to rise out of poverty.
It was my first experience seeing the two positions go head to head. As a Native Courtworker, I understand some of the challenges Indigenous communities face and the crimes that are often committed on-reserve as a consequence of poverty. As a council member, I understand the quality of living circumstances that Indigenous people can face.
Ellis Ross has an important opinion, that I feel I don’t hear very often. You can hear the full interview between Pam Palmater and Ellis Ross below. I took a lot away from the discussion. I think both positions have merit, but I was grateful to hear Ellis speak — as he pointed out issues that I feel are currently not popular or well known.
I understand that this topic can be challenging for some, as climate change becomes a growing concern. But I don’t think it is fair that we ask individuals with so little to sacrifice so much. To ask Indigenous people not to develop economically, for the sake of the environment seems somewhat unreasonable.
Of course, Indigenous people unilaterally agree that we are stewards for the land. This is not in dispute. In fact, in many origin stories, Indigenous people put ourselves at the bottom of the food pyramid. In the Sts’ailes origin story humans are described as the weakest, as we needed the most help to survive and our relations took pity on us - so they gave themselves up so we could live.
The only thing they asked for in return was to be remembered, respected, for us to only take what we need, to share with those less fortunate, and allow time for them to reproduce.
Within these parameters, there is a certain level of flexibility. If we are going to take natural resources from these lands, we must be respectful and grateful. We should only take what we need, while also making sure that we give to those less fortunate.
Within my community, this is how the conversation unravelled. First, I learned that more people die every year from being too cold than being too hot. Then, it was explained that BC Hydro can face challenges during the winter months, whereas natural gas is much more dependable. It was explained to my community and I, that we would be able to help bring about more dependable energy for others - if we supported the project. At the same time, we would be able to take revenue and reinvest it in our community.
At the table, Indigenous voices can also help guide policy and ensure measures are taken to protect the surrounding ecosystems. Stakeholders and proponents often know that the environment is a primary concern for Indigenous people. Often Indigenous people will ask that the impacts to the environment be minimal. Next, they’ll ask for monitoring to be done to analyze and monitor impacts. Finally, First Nation leaders will often expect proponents to support actions being taken to protect local habitats.
If done correctly, there is an opportunity for citizens, First Nations people and businesses to benefit. There is risk, but we can do everything we can to mitigate that risk effectively. Personally, I believe a balance can be struck between protecting the environment and allowing Indigenous communities to partake in economic development opportunities.
It was a true privilege to sit down with Mr. Ross. Ellis and I talk about how we address poverty in Indigenous communities and how his community, Haisla Nation approached the problem. I also asked what it was like to be Chief Councillor and what some of the challenges he faced were. I found Ellis to be incredibly thoughtful, and inquisitive. If you would like to learn more, you can listen to the full interview on Spotify, Apple Podcasts or YouTube.