Canadian and U.S. indigenous groups form coalition to stop oil pipelines

Locals rally on Burnaby Mountain, B.C. Nov. 17, 2014 against the initial installation of Kinder Morgan's Trans Mountain pipeline. flickr/Mark Koltz

By Alison Sandstrom

Indigenous communities across Canada and the northern United States are vowing collective action to fight proposed pipeline, tanker and rail projects that would carry crude from Alberta’s oil sands through their respective territories.

First Nations and tribal leaders unveiled The Treaty Against Tar Sands Expansion in Montreal and Toronto Sept. 22.

The initial 50 signatories has grown to 85 as of Sept. 28. The treaty highlights concerns over the risk of spills and says increased oil sands production will fuel catastrophic climate change.

“The fossil fuel industry is going the way of the buffalo,” said Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, president of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs. “On a global scale, we need to make the transformation to renewable energy and we need to make investments for the inevitable transition.”

George Hoberg, a University of British Columbia political scientist, said the treaty bands together groups whose concerns have traditionally been locally based into a powerful national coalition for fighting pipeline development.

“The biggest barrier to getting pipelines built is First Nations opposition, and that barrier just got bigger,” said Hoberg.

Grand Chief Phillip said signatories of the treaty will use a combination of legal tactics, political strategies and direct action to fight pipelines. He pointed to the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s ongoing struggle against the Dakota Access Pipeline as an example of the power of indigenous people standing together against the fossil fuel industry. The thousands of protesters camping at the Standing Rock reservation since mid-August won a temporary victory recently when the U.S. Justice Department delayed construction of the controversial pipeline.

Standing Rock is also one of the signatories of the treaty.

“The corporations are relentless in their efforts to ram these projects through, and similarly we need to be relentless in our efforts to push back and organize an effective opposition,” said Grand Chief Phillip.

Chelsie Klassen, spokesperson for the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers said she isn’t concerned the treaty or indigenous resistance will affect pipeline development.

“Like any debate for any major resource project there are people that are for and there are people who are against,” Klassen said. She mentioned around 300 indigenous companies in Canada do direct business with the oil sands.

The treaty comes as the federal government is set to approve or reject two major crude pipeline proposals this term. The decision about whether to expand Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain pipeline is due by Dec. 19.

At the same time, Trudeau’s commitment to building a nation-to-nation relationship with indigenous peoples and his desire to deliver land-locked Canadian oil to lucrative international markets seem increasingly at odds.

“In the case of Site C he’s pretty clearly chosen to run roughshod over First Nations concerns,” Hoberg said. “And there’s every indication that he’s planning to do so again with the Kinder Morgan pipeline expansion project.”

On Tuesday the federal government approved a controversial natural gas pipeline in B.C. But Natural Resources Minister Jim Carr stressed that other pipeline projects will be decided on an individual basis.

“Kinder Morgan will be decided on its own merits. There is no linkage between these projects,” Carr told reporters at a press conference following the announcement.

If the federal government does approve the Trans Mountain expansion, Grand Chief Phillip said in many ways it will be “just another day at the office.”

“We will not stand down we will never take step back,” he said. “We will continue to fight these projects inch by inch, yard by yard, mile by mile.”

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