Indigenous protests condemn B.C. pipeline project

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“We have drawn a line in the sand. There will be no Enbridge Pipeline and there will be no crude oil tankers in our waters. This is not a battle we intend to lose.”

by Tyler McCreary, September 2, 2010

On August 31, 2010, hundreds of northern residents gathered outside the Riverlodge Recreation Centre in Kitimat, British Columbia, voicing their opposition to the proposed Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipeline. Inside, the federal Joint Review Panel held its first public meeting on the project and listened to a litany of complaints and concerns about the proposal.

Enbridge has proposed the construction of two pipelines and a marine terminal in Kitimat to send tar sands oil to export. The 1,170 kilometers of pipeline will carry an average of 525,000 barrels of oil per day west from Bruderheim, Alberta, and 193,000 barrels per day of condensate east to thin oil for pipeline transport. From the marine terminal, tar sands oil would be loaded onto approximately 225 oil tankers per year, which would then navigate the Douglas Channel and around the coastal archipelago to the sea.

Representatives of First Nations, fishermen, environmental groups, and northern communities, as well as various community members, continue to express concerns about the inherent risks involved in the Gateway Pipeline and its associated tanker traffic. The proposed Northern Gateway Pipeline crosses rough, mountainous terrain through the sensitive watersheds of the upper Fraser, Skeena, and Kitimat. There are serious concerns about the risks of oil spills. On July 26, 2010, an Enbridge pipeline spill in Michigan released four million litres of oil into the Kalamazoo River.

Similar concerns have been voiced about the prospect of increased tanker traffic along the north coast. In the north, the memory of the Exxon Valdez spill still lingers. On March 24, 1989, the Exxon Valdez, an oil tanker bound for California, hit the Bligh Reef in Prince William Sound and spilled 260,000 to 750,000 barrels of crude oil. The oil eventually covered 2,100 km of coastline and 28,000 km2 of ocean. Fishermen and First Nations, as well as environmentalists, have expressed dire concerns about the potential impacts of another such spill on their way of life.

Members of the Heiltsuk First Nation from Bella Bella dancing in regelia at rally

Further, much of the pipeline route crosses through unceded First Nations territories and would impinge on their inherent Aboriginal rights and title. The Supreme Court of Canada has recognized a Crown duty to consult and accommodate Aboriginal peoples regarding any project that would impact their relationships to their lands and traditions. The UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples has further stipulated the necessity of attaining First Nations free, prior and informed consent for developments that would alter their territories.

Many of the First Nations along the pipeline route remain unsatisfied with Enbridge’s limited attempts to consider the importance of their relationships to their territories. Far from consenting, many First Nations, including those represented by Coastal First Nations, the Carrier-Sekani Tribal Council, and the Wet’suwet’en Hereditary Chiefs, have been vocal in their opposition to the project.

While the Joint Review Panel sought to restrict its meeting in Kitimat to procedural questions to be addressed prior to its issuance of a hearing order, presenters both inside and outside the meeting were vociferous in their complaint that the project simply should not happen. In relation to the specific procedural questions, presenters before the panel regularly registered their desire to extend the list of locations for hearings in the review process, the necessity of more detailed information about the project and its impacts from Enbridge, and the desperate need for the panel to consider a broader scope of issues in evaluating the cumulative impacts of development on local environments and communities as well as the global climate. They urged the panel to recognize the project was not simply about a pipeline, but fundamentally about the expansion of tar sands oil extraction, the export of raw bitumen, and the introduction of oil tanker traffic to the northern coast.

At the rally outside the meeting, there was little ambiguity about the stance of the majority of those present. “The opposition to this project is massive and growing every day,” Gerald Amos, the rally MC from Kitamaat Village, told the crowd. “We have drawn a line in the sand. There will be no Enbridge Pipeline and there will be no crude oil tankers in our waters. This is not a battle we intend to lose.”

In a parallel solidarity event in Vancouver, over 200 people gathered outside Enbridge’s Vancouver headquarters before marching to the Vancouver Art Gallery. Speaking at the event, federal Members of Parliament Ujjal Dosanjh (Liberal) and Finn Donnelly (NDP) pledged to work towards a legislated ban on crude oil tankers in northern coastal waters. Coastal First Nations, an alliance of the First Nations of the North and Central Coast of British Columbia and Haida Gwaii, have already declared a moratorium on oil tankers within their traditional territorial waters. Through this ban, First Nations are working to uphold their responsibilities within their own systems of law to maintain and respect their territories. Federal legislation against oil tanker traffic would demonstrate a shared commitment to protect this environment.

At the Kitimat rally, local officials demonstrated a similar recognition of a shared responsibility to protect the land and water. “Due to the uncertainty associated with the transport of crude oil along our unpredictable northwest coast, Queen Charlotte City has resolved that this project should not proceed,” stated Kris Olsen, a municipal councillor with Queen Charlotte City. “All Haida Gwaii municipalities stand together in opposition to Enbridge because the tradeoffs and risks involved are unacceptable.”

Joy Thorkelson of the United Fishermen and Allied Workers Union echoed this concern. “For hundreds of years, the fisheries have been vital to our communities’ economies and our way of life as coastal people, and we’re not willing to put that at risk. The commercial fishing industry is the largest private sector employer on the central and north coast and a handful of oil jobs won’t replace the importance of the fishery.”

David de Wit, Natural Resources Manager of the Office of Wet’suwet’en, articulated the responsibilities in Wet’suwet’en law that shape our obligations to maintain respectful relations with the environment.”We have a philosophy that summarized in a word called yinta, which refers to our land, our territories, the animals, the water, the air. It involves us as human beings. Our interactions with our surroundings impact the whole system. The health and well-being of societies is a reflection of the health and well-being of our territories,” de Wit explained. “We need to all work together so we will be healthy in the future.”

Tyler McCreary is an Indigenous solidarity activist based in northern British Columbia. He is also currently working towards his PhD in geography at York University.