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Gateway to Solidarity?

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October 19, 2007

Gateway to Solidarity?

Pipelines and Indigenous communities in Northern BC

by Carla Lewis

The coast near Kitimat will soon be a route for tankers carrying oil, diluents and liquid natural gas if the Gateway pipeline is constructed. [cc 2.0] Photo: Jessica Johnson

Two years ago, pipelines were the furthest concern from anyone's mind. But today, most Indigenous communities in British Columbia have heard of the proposed pipelines and company names like "Enbridge" and, to a lesser extent, "Pembina" are tossed around like Kleenex.

The Enbridge Gateway Project was the first of the proposed pipelines to capture the attention of Indigenous Peoples in British Columbia, as this proposed project would directly impact unceded traditional territories. If carried forward, the pipeline would transport oil from Alberta's tar sands to the coast, where it would be loaded onto tankers for transport to the US and China. A second, parallel pipeline would transport diluent, which is needed to enable heavy crude oil to flow from the tar sands to overseas refineries, from tankers originating in Russia to Alberta. Enbridge is just one company planning to take their lines across the province; others plan to follow and each will require separate right of ways, albeit on similar paths of economic gain.

Communities already dealing with a chronic lack of funding, time and personnel are now being forced to use scarce resources--rerouted from education, social services and other community portfolios--to try to stay ahead of the wave of large-scale industrial development and pressures resulting from the insatiable advances of industry.

For the past two years, our communities and respective tribal councils have struggled to keep up with various assessments, studies and communications. We eventually found ourselves in the courts.

In October of last year, the Carrier Sekani Tribal Council (CSTC) filed a provincial court challenge against the Ministry of Environment's decision to establish a joint review panel regarding Enbridge's pipeline application. The CSTC made multiple requests to be involved in the review process and were essentially ignored. Since then, a First Nations Review Panel has been formed consisting of the CSTC, two other tribal councils and seven other First Nations across the province who would be directly impacted by the proposed pipeline and oil tankers off the coast of British Columbia.

The First Nations Review Panel proposes to conduct a review that takes into consideration First Nations' interests over and above the position of other stakeholders, and is based on the necessity of "prior, informed consent" from First Nations people when exploiting their unceded territory.

The wanton destruction of territories without Indigenous input is no longer the way to do business. The present review process fails to give weight to Indigenous perspectives, perspectives that often will not fit into a neat formula. The prospect of jobs and "economic gain" should not trump the health of a river that has been the life water of people for millennia, according to the worldview held by many Indigenous nations and peoples.

It's not that First Nations are against all development, but non-renewable resource proposals that meet minimum environmental standards for maximum economic gain are often the only options put on the table. Development that offers sustainable solutions doesn't seem to fit into the discussion, despite the oft-stated commitment to "sustainable development."

Throughout this battle, the role of mainstream media has been to portray First Nations as "trouble-makers" who are trying to halt a booming economy and, as a result, are creating economic uncertainty. This relationship continues to be dysfunctional at best.

In reality, blockades are used as a last resort when the laws and policies of the Canadian state fail to take into consideration constitutionally protected Aboriginal rights and title. In fact, Indigenous people the world over face similar situations in the face of government and industry. One poignant difference for Indigenous people in Canada is that we aren't violently evicted, killed and kidnapped like in other countries. Or are we?

We continue to be dislocated from our traditional territories and respective lands as they are slowly legislated away from us, slowly bled away by a thousand paper cuts. Our lands are contaminated and we die from cancer, asthma and other chronic diseases that are increasingly linked to industrial environmental hazards by scientific evidence. Perhaps even a greater tragedy is occurring as our youth turn knives to their wrists and guns to their heads, as the loss of land and of cultural continuity lead to a devastating loss of hope.

So where are we to go from here? Sit idly by as pipelines cut new borders and deep wounds in the earth, disturb hundreds of watersheds and leave us the possibility of a spill? Aboriginal rights and title are possibly the brightest hope that Canadians have to combat pipeline developments in B.C. And of course, this is not just of concern to First Peoples; this is a dire situation for all Canadians and a relationship of solidarity must be undertaken between Indigenous peoples and the rest of the population. We must all cast a glance forward and look beyond the boom to the eventual bust to decide if oil and pipelines are the best option for the next seven generations. Or is a more suitable form of sustainable development attainable?

Carla Lewis,
Wet'suwet'en First Nation

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