Julie Gaudreau, Executive Director of the International Gas Union Research Conference 2024 (IGRC2024) had the opportunity to speak with Haisla Nation Chief Councillor Crystal Smith in August 2022 about social innovation in the natural gas sector and advancing important relationships with Indigenous communities. The interview has been edited for conciseness and clarity.

Julie Gaudreau (Julie): I’m very happy to have you here today, so thank you. Just to give you a bit of the context, last June we had the second IGRC2024 webinar on the topic of energy and social innovation in which Chris Sankey and Karen Ogen-Toews participated, and you were not able to participate because of last-minute schedule changes. So we appreciate the time now to pick up on the theme of the webinar.

When we talk about innovation, usually people think that it’s only about technology, but we believe it’s really more than that. We believe that innovation is really about doing things in new and transformative ways. There are exciting developments in the natural gas space that represent real social innovation and I believe that advance reconciliation with indigenous communities. So, I will start with my first question to you. What do you think social innovation means, and what does it mean for Indigenous People in respect to natural gas development and use in Canada?

Chief Councillor Crystal Smith (Chief Councillor): Social innovation is essentially taking into context the people aspect; taking into account the human in all the decisions that we’re making. It is having that thought process as you move through any type of engagement, conversation or decision-making process: that each decision makes [an] impact on people [at each] level.

And I think, as we move towards this new conversation around ESG (environment, social and governance), that the social aspect definitely has to be taken into consideration. I’m very fortunate to be in in the middle of the construction of a huge project and I am seeing first-hand the social impact that it’s having in our community. And it is a story that needs to be told, it needs to be recognized.

We’re not just changing and having an impact on people’s lives of today. I truly believe that what we’re creating in our community [and] the way that we’ve taken our people along for this journey, is something that’s going to be generationally positive: there are going to be huge positive impacts for many generations because we’re creating role models in a way. Opportunities that we see with LNG Canada, and with Coastal GasLink – and this is just one way the energy project is a very dynamic opportunity – have many different ripple effects that we’re seeing as we take into consideration the impact of people coming into our territory.

We’re going to need more doctors. We’re going to need more teachers. We’re going to need more nurses. This is a huge impact in everybody’s lives when it comes to our Haisla membership in the region, and the province.

Julie: So right now, you’re building the foundation, as you say, you’re creating something. Then hopefully the next generation will pick up from there and then continue the next phase, so it continues to grow and look to the future?

Chief Councillor: Most definitely. I mean, the reason why we supported these projects was that we were getting tired of managing poverty. We were tired of not having solutions as to how to save our language and save our culture for future generations and that was the main driver behind us participating so actively – and in some people’s view, very aggressively – to get these projects become successful.

I’ve got an identical twin sister, and we grew up with my grandmother who would speak our language. We were only given the opportunity to learn our language up until grade seven, so we were 13. She is now the language teacher in our community school and to hear her speak our language brings back those memories of listening to my grandmother speak it. And to think that I never thought that anyone close in my generation would have ever had that opportunity, and now my sister’s learning it. She’s speaking it, and she’s thriving. I can see her confidence level in herself grow as she learns her identity as a Haisla woman.

Julie: It’s interesting because – just to close the loop on that – the language is the way to transmit the culture. So, in Quebec – because right now I’m in Quebec, in Montreal, and we’ve been fighting for a long time to preserve the French language because originally, as you say, this is a way to transmit the culture and the history [and] you can be better equipped for the next phase of the future.

Chief Councillor: Yes. Growing up, that’s all I constantly heard from adults that would be having conversations about our youth in our community, whether it was in a school district or leaders in our community. If you don’t know who you are, or where your roots are, who you are as a person, as your culture it makes it more difficult to leave and to have that confidence to be able to excel in any aspect of life.

Now I’m seeing that – and to hear that, to have that conversation around me as a young child and see [it] as a youth – to now, being in my forties and seeing that reality come to fruition in our people is absolutely overwhelming emotionally. It’s what drives my passion to continue doing what I do. My twin sister is a very prime example of why I will continue to support this industry and to push for more success and to advocate for First Nations, not only in this province and on behalf of Haisla, but First Nations across this country to experience what we’re experiencing.

Julie: Can you speak a little bit more about the projects that you’re involved in?

Chief Councillor: I think for the most part other communities in our region definitely see the positive impacts [of the projects]. I’m fortunate that I get to go for tours of LNG Canada and Coastal GasLink and I see so many other First Nations’ joint ventures participating in the economy. Before, there was so much dissension created in between our nations because of territorial boundaries and land claims – not only fighting over territories, but fighting over money too – to help our communities. There was never an opportunity where we could look to be welcoming other nations to share the wealth. We now have that, and we can see those nations with their joint ventures participating in our economy – [the] revenues generated from those JVs go back to the community; not only that, the employment opportunity here is huge as well.

When I grew up in with my grandparents, I had my two uncles living with us. I had my mom, my dad, my grandparents and my twin sister. That was one household. If you provided an opportunity for my dad or one of my uncles, to thrive in an industry and excel, you were impacting so many people – a whole household. You also then create role models: I’m looking at my dad or my uncle thinking, ‘hey, I have this opportunity and I can do it if they’re doing it.’ So, the impacts that we’re able to see are far reaching. It’s not just First Nations people benefiting. It’s this country that’s benefiting from this project. And that needs to be celebrated.

Julie: I believe that you’re not only a role model for your community, but you are a role model for all Canadians. It’s really important to find ways to come together, so we can develop in a responsible way, because if we don’t come together, then investment will go elsewhere. Do you see that as a threat?

Chief Councillor: Like I said, this project just doesn’t benefit Haisla. Yes it is in Haisla territory. But we’re sharing that wealth, sharing that opportunity, and coming together with other nations and we’re able to solve more issues coming together in a positive manner. When you talk about the social aspect of what this project’s been able to do, I can tell you one key point: it’s brought nations back together again. I co-chair an alliance called the Northern First Nations Alliance, and that generated from a conversation between myself and the previous chief counselor, Clifford White of Gitxaala. I had a proposal to work together and train our people together. I had proposed we pool our resources together and provide that training opportunity for each of our nations together, where we would be sharing human resources, and the monetary aspect of having our people trained. That conversation grew to include all social aspects, not just training employment. If we want to bring our people home from urban areas such as Vancouver or Prince George, we need housing because there’s not enough housing in our communities to be able to bring them home. So we started talking about where we can work together to provide affordable housing, and it grew. Not only are we able to have employment opportunities and training opportunities, now we’re able to invest in our people because there is revenue generated for our communities. If we want to do a housing initiative here for the first time, we’re able to offer up some of the capital cost because of the revenues generated to our communities. We’re in front of government officials where we’re standing together saying “we need to provide solutions for our people on the ground – tangible, real results” and that’s what we’re able to do. The opportunities of what we can achieve together are endless. It’s so inspiring, sitting at tables with like-minded leaders where we’re able to put past differences, egos aside, so that we can make an impact on our people, and we can end homelessness and we can start looking at mental health and addiction issues. It’s amazing.

Julie: You mentioned something earlier that leads me to my next question. There are many, many great stories. How do we get the stories out so people know more and more about that?

Chief Councillor: It’s reaching those people that these projects actually affect – and it’s displaying their stories. In one podcast, I interviewed one of our members about her story. She’s a single mom, she’s very young and she had suffered through addiction issues. My grandson is the same age as her daughter, and we were helping as much as we could but she needed more help. LabCorp, who was our partner, provided her a training opportunity, and another one of our members advocated for her and served as a support system for her. Our single mom had been making posts on Facebook saying, ‘I’m really depressed. I need clothes for my baby. I need formula for my baby. I can’t provide Pampers.” And with help she went from social media posts about her being depressed and the fact that she can’t provide for her child, to her being featured in a video with medical care, saying that she’s got an income and medical insurance. And not only that, but now she’s a role model for her daughter.

It’s [about] displaying success stories like this – showing the impacts of what these big project opportunities represent.

Here is another. We were able to build a youth center for the first time ever in our community. For many years, we’ve heard our leaders and ourselves included, saying our youth is our future and let’s go start investing in them. And now we finally have a facility for youth, where we can provide endless programming and opportunity for them. These are huge impacts in our community.

Julie: It’s interesting because as the Executive Director of the International Gas Research Conference that will be held in Banff in May 2024 – a global conference on gas innovation – I’m thinking, is there a way that we could use that platform to showcase the benefit of projects like that and to really show all the social innovation and maybe have some people sharing stories like this? But, what can government do to support social innovation in your communities?

Chief Councillor: I cannot say. I also sit on the First Nations Climate Initiative where we’re talking about global warming and contributing to other areas… it’s supporting that balance and taking into consideration all aspects of everything. I mean, LNG Canada is a huge example of how government, industry and Indigenous communities came together to provide the success that’s been established. If there is a precedent set within that process, it’s to allow that conversation to continue in regards to how we become more a part of having the same goals and objectives. We’re listening to First Nations communities such as ours, as we go through the process, as we went, literally, from bystanders of watching the economy develop in our territory to a situation now where we’re owners. It’s not for my profile. I have 1900 people who I speak on behalf of. It isn’t a perfect process. Do they all support the work that we’re doing? No, but the majority of them do. And when I’m in Ottawa and I’m away from my family, I think about my grandsons and the impact that me getting out in front of people and knocking down my own personal fears of doing what I’m doing.

I was so terrified when LNG Canada announced their positive final investment decision and I was going to make a speech in front of the Prime Minister and the Premier. There had been at least 100 cameras around and I was terrified. I was so scared. [But] a text message to me said, “Allow your people to speak through you.” And I’ve always held that saying and that belief in my heart – that I speak on behalf of a large group of people and whether they support me personally, I’m doing this to improve the quality of lives and the opportunity that they have. And not only [for] today, but for future generations. The success that I see right now because of LNG Canada – I can’t put into words what it’s doing for our community. It’s a step in the direction that every First Nation in this country, in this world, would want. We’re driving this project; we’ve got a great partner in Pembina [Pipeline] that are the experts when it comes to the facility build, but we are owners. We are building it to our values and holding it and keeping our principles at the board level and driving that through. So, the precedent has been set. We’ve proven to the world that Canada can provide the cleanest LNG energy to the rest of the world, and we need to continue to push in that direction. Again, the First Nations participation is huge. The way that we’ve been able to find our success and find balance in our territory, is worth noting. Every First Nation has that ability and the opportunity to do that. All levels of government and First Nations want that success.

Julie: Is there a way that government [can]better support Indigenous ownership and engagement in resource projects?

Chief Councillor: Absolutely. What we’re running into right now is the financial aspect. Being an owner in a major project, we’re like every other proponent, every other private sector company. We’re having to raise the capital. We’re having to do our part within this project, and every province is different when we take into consideration that ability to financially participate. It’s [about] creating conversations and avenues for us to allow that active participation – policies and regulations and all of that need to come together to allow that success. 

“It’s [about] creating conversations and avenues for us to allow that active participation – policies and regulations and all of that need to come together to allow that success.”
Julie: How does natural gas fit with [the] climate [conversation] and caring for the environment? What is your perspective on that?

Chief Councillor: I’m sure that technologies are being built across the world in order to mitigate impacts and help our climate. It’s a transitioning field. We recognize that it’s a part of the solution [even though] there are people that don’t agree with that statement. What is the solution? We’re not going to have the ability to have electric cars and all of these ambitious goals in a timely manner. Meanwhile, countries like in Asia and other parts of the world are still burning coal, and we still have First Nations communities here in this province still burning diesel to power their communities. What are we doing about those? Right. They are the dirtiest energies to be utilizing. I recognize that with LNG there are people that don’t believe that it’s a solution now, and we would be able to have a tremendous impact if we were able to get especially B.C. gas to other countries in order to help reduce their emissions and hit their targets.

“I recognize that with LNG […] we would be able to have a tremendous impact if we were able to get especially B.C. gas to other countries in order to help reduce their emissions and hit their targets.”
Julie: It’s interesting because at the beginning of the interview, you were talking about how the focus should be on the human being. It doesn’t mean that you don’t care about the environment, but you need to be there to serve the people, and then you take care of the land. I was reading a paper this morning and it was about how gas can help and alleviate poverty in Africa. They were talking about the importance of having reliable and affordable electric power, because when you have that power, then you can end poverty – you can have industries, you can study, you can have many, many things. We need to use the energy to get out of poverty. That goes to the same point that the human being should be at the center of every policy doesn’t it?

Chief Councillor: It’s not that we don’t care about our environment – we do, that’s part of our culture. I grew up with my grandparents and unfortunately didn’t get along with my grandparents, but they taught me the basics [including] to never take more than you need and to always leave areas as when you arrived. That’s when my sister and I realized that my grandparents were teaching us the law. It was so inspiring. And this wasn’t just being taught in our home, it was being taught in in all of my friends’ and all of my extended families’ homes. That’s who we are. And, to the story that’s not been told in regards to the LNG Canada project, people think that when you go into communities with First Nations, with indigenous communities, you’re engaging leadership, you’re engaging Chief Councillors. That was far from our process. We have so many cultural knowledge holders in our territory that are far more expert than myself – when it comes to any type of impact in our territory, LNG Canada engaged those people, they engaged our community, they engaged our cultural knowledge holders in the processes in which they applied for, for permits. And they didn’t go in front of any regulatory body without the support of our safety first. That approach in taking into consideration what was acceptable in our territory at a certain time was huge. That was a part of their success and that was because we had our say in how it was developed.

Julie: A lot of the work in your community has been about building new approaches, and consensus. Do you have any advice to help Canada get beyond the polarization of energy issues?

Chief Councillor: I think the world has seen, and our First Nations communities have seen, what the lack of engagement can do to a project. I mean, there was one that was proposed specifically for our territory that wasn’t successful, and essentially it was about the approach and the inclusion of communities. It isn’t an easy experience. Just like any other proponent, we’re having hard discussions. We’re engaging our community members, and the stakeholders in our region, and it’s [difficult] but it’s about having that opportunity to express concerns – and they’re not minor concerns. Essentially, every First Nations community wants to protect whatever they have as a cultural value in their land. Our cultural value matters – our people will do anything to be able to bring that and revitalize that staple in our territory. So, it’s about having those hard conversations, building relationships with First Nations communities and learning about what the land means to us and taking that as a part of the process and implementing it into discussions.

I think the one last thing that I would say as a part of that is, while this is all about external conversations in regards to engaging with other levels of government, I have 1900 people that I am speaking on behalf of. Those are the most important people in my role, for me personally. If I don’t have their support in the mandate, then I would not be in front of you today. I think that would be my message to other leaders – have the mandate from your people, have their support – and it’s not an easy process, it’s the most difficult one to go through. But that is so vitally important.

Julie Gaudreau is the Executive Director of the International Gas Research Conference 2024 (IGRC2024) at the Canadian Gas Association (CGA). In this role, Mrs. Gaudreau oversees the creation, the development and the strategic positioning of the global conference as well as the engagement with the various stakeholders of the gas value chain, including key gas consumers and the gas technology innovation sub-sector and Indigenous leaders. She is a graduate of the Faculty of Law of Laval University and was admitted to the Quebec Bar in 1997. After articling with a private law firm specializing in criminal, civil and matrimonial law, Mrs. Gaudreau held positions in sales, marketing and human resources in a consultation firm. Subsequently, she held a senior advisor position in the Office of the Prime Minister of Canada in Ottawa, where she was responsible for stakeholder relations. During this time, she had the opportunity to be part of the War Room team for the 2011 Federal Election. After leaving politics, she joined CN, one of North America’s leading railroads, where she served as Senior Counsel – Strategic Advice to the Executive Vice-President, Corporate Services.