Assessing social impacts of energy development on the Gitga’at First Nation

By Duane A. Gill, Professor and Head of Sociology at Oklahoma State University. and Liesel Ashley Ritchie, Assistant Director for Research at the Natural Hazards Center at the University of Colorado.

British Columbia’s Hartley Bay is one of Canada’s “hotspots” when it comes to energy development and export. Located at the mouth of the Douglas Chanel, every major marine transport vessel must pass through Gitga’at First Nation territorial waters and by the village on its way to Kitimat. Kitimat is the designated terminal for proposed energy development projects such as the Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipeline (ENGP), LNG Canada, BC LNG, and Kitimat LNG (see for a list of major projects). We recently completed an assessment of potential sociocultural and psychosocial impacts from the ENGP project for the Gitga’at First Nation and have gained insights into some of the perplexing issues that arise with large scale energy development.


Like many First Nations, the Gitga’at are situated in a bioregional context in which “the wellbeing of their people is intricately related to the health of their lands, waters, and resources” (  Historically, these bioregional connections produced a deeply resilient culture that endured and thrived for at least 7000 years prior to Western contact. Ways of dealing with natural hazards such as meteorological and geological events as well as harvest fluctuations became embedded in sociocultural structures and processes—particularly through social capital and local knowledge. In our contemporary ‘World Risk Society” (Beck 1999), technological hazards such as oil spills threaten bioregional integrity and pose new types of risks for which few communities—First Nation or First World—are prepared.

Picture1Many of these new risks are apparent to the Hartley Bay community, which maintains many ‘subsistence’ cultural practices. Village residents rely on traditional foods gathered in their ancestral waters and lands for much of their diet and they share these resources and opportunities to harvest with other Gitga’at People who live in Prince Rupert and other ‘off reserve’ locations.

As Kitimat becomes a major marine port, traditional lands and waters of the Gitga’at will be exposed to a high volume of marine traffic—as many as 240 tankers per year for Enbridge, about twice as many LNG transport vessels, and a significant increase in cargo ships to supply the Kitimat terminals. As a result, the community becomes highly vulnerable to routine operations of maritime vessels. It becomes particularly vulnerable to oil spills and other toxic releases that would damage or contaminate ecosystem resources. Given these potential risks, to what extent can energy development and the traditional culture of the Gitga’at First Nation co-exist?

Methods and Findings

Picture1In 2011, we were contracted to conduct a study to identify, describe, and measure potential sociocultural and psychosocial impacts of the ENGP project for the Gitga’at First Nation (Gill & Ritchie 2011). Given our experience documenting human impacts of oil spills, we were asked to focus attention on potential impacts of an oil spill in Gitga’at waters. We used a mixed methods approach that included document review, a site visit to Hartley Bay, qualitative interviews, and a quantitative survey.

Our assessment can be briefly summarized as follows:

  • The sociocultural existence of the Gitga’at is based on an interrelationship with their bioregion. The “natural capital” of the bioregion has been the pillar of sociocultural resilience of the Gitga’at and other coastal First Nations. Through cumulative adverse impacts of events experienced since Western contact—e.g., colonization, disease epidemics, residential schools, and discrimination—the one “thing” Gitga’at People could rely on to sustain them and their core way of life was their natural capital—the renewable resources their bioregion provided.
  • Traditional foods and activities are very important to contemporary Gitga’at identity. Gitga’at self-identity (collectively and individually) is defined by harvesting and sharing traditional foods and resources and maintaining Tsimshian place names and ceremonial naming. These activities form a foundation for sociocultural processes that are tied to their bioregion.
  • The ENGP project poses two general threats to the bioregion’s natural capital and the Gitga’at way of life: routine operations and marine oil spills.
  • Routine operations and tanker traffic will have some adverse impacts on the environment and disrupt some traditional harvesting activities. Routine tanker traffic will likely be viewed by some groups and individuals as a constant reminder of threat of an accident, and these perceptions will contribute to psychosocial disruption and stress.
  • The possibility of an oil spill and ensuing short-term and long-term environmental damage is viewed as a major threat by the Gitga’at First Nation. They believe a major oil spill is inevitable—it’s not a question of if, it’s a question of when. Nine out of ten Gitga’at survey respondents expected a marine oil spill would occur during their lifetime.
  • A worst case scenario of an Exxon Valdez size oil spill near Hartley Bay would cause severe adverse sociocultural and psychosocial impacts. Mitigation measures for impacts of this magnitude require more than financial reparations and substitution of resources because some adverse effects go beyond financial capital.
  • Shipwrecks such as the Queen of the North and the USAT Brigadier General M.G. Zalinski are part of the collective conscious of the Gitga’at People. These events are understood as risks and threats to bioregional resources and provide a powerful context for evaluating proposed energy development projects. One outcome from these events is a lack of confidence in the ability and willingness of industry and government to prevent and respond to marine oil spills. There is a related lack of confidence that the Canadian government will honourably protect their Aboriginal title, rights, and interests.
  • Gitga’at are concerned that the ENGP project will threaten or destroy their way of life. The perceived threat has already contributed to levels of psychosocial stress and disruption that are comparable to Alaska Natives who actually experienced the Exxon Valdez disaster in 1989.

In December 2013, the Joint Review Panel (JRP) for the ENGP project issued a report recommending approval with conditions (JRP 2013a; 2013b). Although the JRP purported to make recommendations based on scientific analysis, we contend that social science in general and our social impact assessment in particular were not seriously considered and are not apparent in JRP decision-making processes. Instead, the JRP repeatedly relied on what “Northern Gateway said.” An examination of Northern Gateway’s ‘social science’ reveals that it systematically ignored or dismissed the preponderance of social science literature on oil spills (ENGP 2012:C1-C19). For the sources they used, the proponent highlighted particular passages that fit their position of no ‘lasting negative effects,’ while ignoring contradictory findings in the same article. The proponent did not conduct a proper social impact assessment. By relying on Northern Gateway ‘statements’ instead of social science evidence, likely adverse impacts facing First Nations such as the Gitga’at were not appropriately considered by the JRP.

Picture1The final argument process required the Gitga’at to include ‘conditions’ to be considered should the project be recommended by the JRP. Among these conditions were protection of Gitga’at culture, economic interests, and community well-being. The Gitga’at proposed a Social Health and Community Well-Being Protection Plan that asked for development of measures to protect their sociocultural well-being during construction and routine operations and in the event of an oil spill. It included provisions to quickly and effectively mitigate social impacts once realized. Unfortunately, the JRP did not include these recommendations in their report (JRP 2013b).


History presents a poor record when it comes to First Nations’ experiences with Western environmental laws, regulations, and procedures. Booth and Skelton identified “significant failings in the Canadian and British Columbia environmental processes” and highlighted “fundamental philosophical differences between assessment processes and indigenous worldviews” (2011:367). Some of these failings resulted from First Nations’ lack of resources and capacity, insufficient understanding of the environmental assessment process, poor governmental relations, and inadequate industry consultation. Weakness identified in regulatory processes included lack of procedural fairness, inappropriate time lines, use of inappropriate methods and inaccurate information, and including First Nations too late in the process.

Unfortunately, many of these ‘failings’ appear to have been repeated in the ENGP process— particularly from the Gitga’at perspective. Moreover, these failings are poised to reoccur as provincial energy projects develop in Kitimat. The resulting increase in marine vessel traffic in Gitga’at waters raises legitimate concerns about cumulative adverse environmental and sociocultural effects. An environmental assessment process that disadvantages Indigenous people and ignores their Aboriginal title, rights, and interests will not likely improve when cumulative impacts are considered.

Regrettably, some adverse sociocultural and psychosocial effects are an inevitable outcome of large-scale development projects, particularly those imposing unwanted technological threats and risks. These impacts are exacerbated in Indigenous societies, partly because Western society does not understand or appreciate their bioregional worldview. Social science, particularly when integrating Indigenous research approaches into their designs (Mertens, Cram, and Chilisa 2013), can help to facilitate greater understanding and assist in mitigating the impacts. In the final analysis, however, the issues go beyond science and politics—they are moral issues regarding how contemporary society values the traditional cultures of Indigenous people. When faced with the possible loss of a traditional culture, is there such a thing as adequate compensation?


Duane A. Gill is Professor and Head of Sociology at Oklahoma State University.  He has conducted research on the social impacts of technological disasters including the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill, the 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon oil gusher, and the 2005 Selendang Ayu shipwreck and oil spill. Dr. Gill’s research seeks to understand community capacity to respond to and recover from disasters, as well as ways to enhance community preparedness and resilience.

Liesel Ashley Ritchie is Assistant Director for Research at the University of Colorado’s Natural Hazards Center. Her current research focuses on social impacts of disasters with an emphasis on technological disasters, social capital, and community resilience. Dr. Ritchie has engaged in field studies of numerous disasters, including the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill; the 2008 Tennessee Valley Authority Fossil Plant ash release in Kingston, Tennessee; the 2010 earthquake in Haiti; and the 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon disaster.


Beck, Ulrich. 1999. World Risk Society. Cambridge, UK: Polity.

Booth, Annie and Norm W. Skelton. 2011. “’We are Fighting for Ourselves’ – First Nations’ Evaluation of British Columbia and Canadian Environmental Assessment Processes.” Journal of Environmental Assessment Policy and Management 13(3):367-404.

Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipeline. 2012. Reply Evidence: Recovery of the Biophysical and Human Environments from Oil Spills. Available at (accessed 3/9/10).

Gill, Duane A. and Liesel A. Ritchie. 2011. A Social Impact Assessment of the Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipeline Project in Regard to the Gitga’at First Nation. Report prepared for the Hartley Bay Band Office of the Gitga’at First Nation, British Columbia. Available at (accessed 3/9/14).

Joint Review Panel (JRP). 2013a. Connections: Report of the Joint Review Panel for the Enbridge Northern Gateway Project (Volume 1). Calgary, Alberta: National Energy Board. (accessed 3/9/14).

Joint Review Panel (JRP). 2013b. Considerations: Report of the Joint Review Panel for the Enbridge Northern Gateway Project (Volume 2). Calgary, Alberta: National Energy Board. Available at: (accessed 3/9/14).

Mertens, Donna M., Fiona Cram, and Bagele Chilsa (eds.). 2013. Indigenous Pathways into Social Research: Voices of a New Generation. Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press.