Northern Gateway and Aboriginal rights

Northern Gateway pipeline route. Sierra Club of Canada image
Northern Gateway pipeline route. Sierra Club of Canada image

No one was surprised when the Harper government approved the 1,200-kilometre Northern Gateway pipeline, which would move diluted bitumen from the Alberta tar sands to Kitimat, B.C., along the west coast. There, the product would be loaded onto supertankers that will ply the pristine Douglas Channel and the coast before making its way to export markets in Asia.  This government, like those in other petro states, is close to the oil industry and has acted as its partner and advocate rather than as a guardian of the public interest.

There are many reasons why the pipeline should not be built, and they overlap. One is the danger of a major oil spill from a supertanker. Another is that Enbridge, the major corporate player involved, has a history of pipeline fractures, which spew oil into the lands and waters through which pipelines pass.

Other potent arguments are that the pipeline would run through lands claimed by First Nations and that the oil tankers traveling along the coast would do so adjacent to lands that belong to or are claimed by various First Nations. They have not been consulted in any significant way, even at this late stage when the National Energy Board says — and the government agrees — that the pipeline should go ahead.

Enbridge has been tone deaf in its dealings with First Nations. In one case, workers acting on behalf of the company razed a stand of ancient cedars which had been marked by the Haisla First Nation near Kitimat long before B.C. had even become a British colony. The Haisla have since made it clear that Enbridge employees are not welcome on their land.

Industry and governments continue to say that the national economic interest in Northern Gateway is so great that other considerations, including Aboriginal title, should not be allowed to intrude. This is an inflated economic argument for a construction project that would provide a meagre number of jobs for Aboriginals and which, once completed, would provide few permanent jobs for anyone in Canada.

Similar arguments have often been used to justify an encroachment on Aboriginal lands and waters. My own grandparents were homesteaders in the prairies where Aboriginal peoples were seen as an obstacle to agricultural settlement. The Crown forced treaties upon them and pushed them to the margins of society. Still, those treaties offered at least some limited protection. In British Columbia, home to almost one-third of Canada’s bands, almost none have treaties.

For a century after the province entered Confederation in 1871, the provincial government insisted that there was no such thing as Aboriginal title. First Nations refused to capitulate, using the courts to win recognition that Aboriginal title did, indeed, exist and had never been extinguished. That set in motion a process of treaty making that has been painstakingly slow and frustrating, and remains largely incomplete decades later.

The Coastal First Nations, the Union of British Columbia Indian chiefs and individual bands have all condemned the process by which Northern Gateway has been approved. But they also oppose it on environmental grounds. They are joined in this opposition by a large number of British Columbians. Even in Kitimat, where the pipeline terminal would be located, residents of the town voted a resounding No to the pipeline proposal in a local plebiscite.

Meanwhile, Ottawa, Enbridge and the business press treat the Northern Gateway issue as a matter of dollars and cents. A Globe and Mail headline reads: “The key to Gateway: Sweeten the pot.” They don’t get it. Opposition is based mainly on a fear of environmental risk, not to mention the ability to consider the fate of future generations.

A slightly different version of this piece appeared on the United Church Observer blog on June 26.

4 thoughts on “Northern Gateway and Aboriginal rights

Add yours

  1. This may have a bearing:

    “B.C. Attorney General and Justice Minister Suzanne Anton said today’s decision “provides additional certainty around processes and tests that are applied to the relationship between the province and aboriginal peoples.”

    What today’s ruling will mean for future pipelines is unclear, but one expert said it’s likely this decision will be used by First Nations fighting the Enbridge pipeline in court.

    “The pipeline is going through many, many First Nations who have already declared that they do not want the Enbridge pipeline going through their territories, and this decision strengthens their rights to preserve their traditional territories,” said Antonia Mills, a First Nations studies professor at the University of Northern B.C. “


  2. Thank you, Dennis, for your evaluation of the pipeline challenge. A couple of years ago, the Lubicon in Alberta were having problems. I knew about the billions of dollars of oil that had been pumped out of Lubicon territory, and the plight of the people living there. I phoned our son in Ottawa, who is a lawyer, and works for the Dept. of Indian Affairs, and I asked what the trouble was this time. His answer was short. “The main problem is that we’re a hundred years behind in honouring the treaties”


  3. Isn’t it sad that Canadian governments over the years have treated first nations people in such an unfair way? Former Saskatchewan Premier Allan Blakeney started dealing with First Nations people as fairly as possible without taking over the role of the Federal Government. Paul Martin was the first Canadian PM to negotiate a huge deal that had the possibility of giving First Nations a fair shake in our society. Then PM Harper wiped the whole deal out and sadly set our relationship with First Nations back 100 years. I expect Harper and his government to play the racist card and do everything in his power to circumvent the new Supreme Court ruling on First Nations’ land entitlement.


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