By WENDY STUECK
Saturday, May 19, 2018
When the Chiefs of Ontario, which represents 133 First Nations in the province, joined a cross-Canada network that has vowed to stop Kinder Morgan's Trans Mountain pipeline project earlier this month, Ernie Crey gave the online version of an eye-roll.
"Ontario First Nations are opposed to the Kinder Morgan expansion?" the Cheam First Nation chief said on Twitter from 3,000 kilometres away, in Chilliwack, B.C.
"A noble stance, but let's not forget they don't actually have any skin in the game. It's the First Nations directly on the pipeline route who have much to lose if the new pipeline is not built," he added.
Mr. Crey has emerged as a spokesman for First Nations that support the Trans Mountain proposal, a group not nearly as prominent as the Indigenous protesters and leaders who have travelled between Ottawa and Kinder Morgan's home in Texas to make their opposition known.
Mr. Crey has gained prominence in the past as a First Nations leader with lived experience with many of the issues facing Canada's Indigenous community: The DNA of his sister, Dawn Crey, was found on the farm of serial killer Robert Pickton. Mr. Crey himself was part of the Sixties Scoop.
Kinder Morgan has signed Mutual Benefit Agreements with 43 Indigenous groups along the pipeline route, including 33 in British Columbia. As part of those deals, First Nations agree not to disclose the terms, which can include financial payments for band members as well as training and employment commitments.
So there's a built-in incentive to stay quiet. Pipeline opponents maintain the majority of First Nations affected have not signed such agreements. Kinder Morgan says it engaged with more than 133 Indigenous groups along the route. There's also debate over whether signing agreements reflects support or simply pragmatism - that is, if the pipeline goes ahead despite opposition, First Nations want to be in a position to benefit.
Kinder Morgan says the agreements will amount to more than $400-million in benefits for communities that have signed on.
Meanwhile, Indigenous groups that oppose the project have been speaking out, loudly.
Earlier this month, two Indigenous leaders - Chief Judy Wilson of the Neskonlith Indian Band and Rueben George, representing the Tsleil-Waututh Nation Sacred Trust Initiative - headed to Houston to highlight Indigenous opposition to the $7.4-billion project at Kinder Morgan's annual general meeting.
Tsleil-Waututh and Neskonlith are among several First Nations that have filed legal challenges against the project.
Mr. Crey says he respects the positions taken by other First Nations, particularly those pursuing the matter in court.
But after Kinder Morgan set a May 31 deadline for making a decision on the project, turning up the temperature on an already heated debate, he says he felt an obligation to speak up.
"I started to get concerned about the impression that in B.C. - in particular, along the proposed Kinder Morgan TMX expansion project - that it was wallto-wall opposition from Indigenous communities," he says.
"And I knew that wasn't so."
Now 68, Mr. Crey has been speaking out for decades on Indigenous issues, including missing and murdered Indigenous women, child welfare and Indigenous fishing rights. He knows the value of a pithy quote: In 2016, speaking in support of a Sto:lo chief who had been charged under federal fishing regulations for catching a fish during a closed season (the catch was for ceremonial purposes), Mr. Crey likened the charge to someone being charged for taking communion, asking, "How would people feel if they were charged for accepting the holy sacrament?" In 2011, during a provincial inquiry looking into Vancouver's missing women, which catalogued a string of police failures, he was asked how he felt about B.C.'s justice system.
"I feel it failed my sister and failed my family and failed the other families," he said at the time. "I can't begin to tell you how angry I am about that, the frustration and anger my family carries."
He has been a social worker, a federal fisheries employee and First Nations fisheries adviser. He served a term as band councillor before being elected chief in 2015.
He was part of the Sixties Scoop, when scores of Indigenous children were removed from their families and placed in adoptive or foster homes. Mr. Crey was removed from the family home on the Cheam First Nation as a teen. His father died young, of a heart attack, and his mother struggled with an alcohol addiction. Authorities apprehended her children.
As a boy, Mr. Crey had been hanging out with a crowd of youths who would steal candy and get into other mischief. He ended up spending a few months in the Brannan Lake Industrial School on Vancouver Island, sent there under the provisions of B.C.'s former Juvenile Delinquents Act.
He was brought back to the mainland by the same RCMP officer who delivered him to Brannan Lake. Mr. Crey thought he was going home, but when they got close to Chilliwack, the officer broke the news that he was instead taking Mr. Crey to a foster home.
Decades later, Mr. Crey would co-author a book called Stolen from Our Embrace: The Abduction of First Nations Children and the Restoration of Aboriginal Communities.
He has five grown children and several grandchildren, with whom he plans to spend more time after he retires - possibly after this term as chief.
Recently, he has used social media to comment on Trans Mountain, maintaining that opinion on the project in the Indigenous community - as in the broader Canadian community - is divided and that environmental groups are using First Nations as cover.
"My advice to First Nations is be watchful of environmental groups who want to 'red wash' their agendas under an Indigenous flag," Mr. Crey said in an April 13 Twitter post.
"Trust me, their goals & aspirations are far different than ours.
Check out where they've trashed Indigenous economies to meet their ends."
Ellis Ross, a former Haisla Nation councillor and current Liberal member of the Legislative Assembly for B.C.'s Skeena riding, says he was relieved to see Mr. Crey speak out.
"Community leaders, especially the elected leaders, are the ones who have to deal with the suicides, poverty, poor housing," says Mr. Ross, who has been an outspoken proponent for liquefied natural gas development in B.C.'s north.
"They are accountable to the people who elected them ... but provincial and national [Indigenous] leaders have no accountability to aboriginal members," he adds.
The $7.4-billion project, which would nearly triple the capacity of an existing, 65-year-old pipeline that ships Alberta oil to the B.C. coast, has generated debate since it was announced in 2012.
Kinder Morgan's May 31 deadline upped the stakes for the federal Liberal government - which, under Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, insists the project will be built - and carved a deeper rift between Alberta Premier Rachel Notley, who backs the pipeline, and B.C. Premier John Horgan, who opposes it. The company's deadline also brought renewed attention to First Nations along the proposed pipeline route.
Tsleil-Waututh Nation Chief Maureen Thomas declined an interview request to speak about apparent divisions in the Indigenous community over the project, with a Tsleil-Waututh spokesman saying she was focused on court proceedings, including allegations this month that Ottawa made a show of going through consultations when it had already decided to approve the project.
The Lower Nicola Indian Band, near Merritt, B.C., has a conditional agreement with Kinder Morgan after a 2017 referendum in which a majority of members voted in favour of the deal.
But turnout for that referendum was low, with only 19 per cent of eligible members casting a ballot, one of the reasons chief and council have not yet finalized the agreement.
"If you look at First Nations or Indigenous peoples between Vancouver Island and Alberta, it reflects many different communities, many different nations and a diverse set of concerns and opinions on the project. And I believe it's really important that Indigenous leaders, like Ernie and others, regardless of what their opinion is, make sure they're vocal," Lower Nicola Indian Band Chief Aaron Sumexheltza says.
With Mr. Crey, Mr. Sumexheltza helped come up with a concept that resulted in the Indigenous Advisory and Monitoring Committee - a joint federal-First Nations group that would monitor the pipeline if it is built.
"Over the last month or so, we've heard from Premier Notley, we've also heard from Premier Horgan, we've also heard - of course - the Prime Minister," Mr.
"In many instances, the Indigenous voice hasn't been heard enough. I believe for the benefit of the whole country that everyone's voices be heard," he adds.
Chief Ernie Crey of the Cheam First Nation, which has a Mutual Benefit Agreement with Kinder Morgan, stands on the current route of the Trans Mountain pipeline that runs through Bridal Veil Falls Provincial Park near the Trans-Canada Highway just east of Rosedale, B.C., earlier this month.
RAFAL GERSZAK/THE GLOBE AND MAIL