First Nations prepare for pipeline fight

🕔Jun 04, 2009

Plans to push pipelines through northern British Columbia are getting a less-than-enthusiastic response from some First Nations, who say they will consider legal action if the government continues to move ahead with the project without proper consultation.

“There’s been a unilateral decision made by the federal government as to what type of regulatory process this proposed Enbridge project will be reviewed under,” says David de Wit, natural resources manager for the Office of the Wet’suwet’en. “What we’re calling on the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency (CEAA) and the National Energy Board (NEB) to do is to involve the Wet’suwet’en and other First Nations as a part of designing that process.”

The Wet’suwet’en nation is currently waiting for a response from the CEAA and the NEB to a letter it submitted commenting on a proposed joint panel review that excludes First Nations. The Wet’suwet’en have sought legal opinions on the Enbridge project and de Wit says they are prepared to take action if left out of the decision-making process.

“We need to be a part of developing the process, not just commenting on something that’s been designed without incorporating aboriginal interests, title or rights,” he says. “A sign of good faith on the part of the Crown would be to involve First Nations at the higher strategic level in developing the regulatory process and deciding which projects would be reviewed. That would really demonstrate a willingness to work with First Nations in determining the use of the land.”

The letter, suggesting that evaluation of Wet’suwet’en rights and title be completed prior to continuing the process, was sent April 3. No response had been received by press time.

“The government seems really reluctant to recognize these higher values and how they conflict with the economic aspirations of industry and government,” de Wit says. “There was no dialogue about the process or how it came to be—it was just rammed down our throats, saying, ‘this is how it is: here’s the timeline to comment.’”

Cool response
Even if given the opportunity to participate in the decision-making process, many First Nations appear cool to the idea of a twin 1,170-kilometre pipeline carrying crude oil from the Alberta’s oilsands to Kitimat, and condensate from the coast back to the oilsands.

“No is no,” Wet’suwet’en hereditary chief Alphonse Gagnon was quoted as saying in an April 8 news release. “This is the worst project on earth. We need to stop the pipeline. The more avenues they have to have oil taken out, the more they will produce.”

The pending pipeline battle could see an unprecedented show of unity between First Nations stretching from the oilsands to the Pacific Coast, with environmental and health concerns originating immediately downstream from the oilsands, where high cancer rates have been documented.

At the Keepers of the Water III Conference held in Fort Chipewyan, Alberta last summer, First Nations showed their support for the local Mikisew First Nation by passing a unanimous resolution calling for a moratorium on further oilsands expansion.

In Wet’suwet’en territory, the proposed pipelines would pass through the headwaters of the Morice River, which flows into the Bulkley and Skeena rivers. Petroleum spills in the traditional hunting, fishing and berry-picking grounds could have disastrous effects not only on the local environment and cultural heritage, but on the entire watershed.

“No one’s looking at what is socially and environmentally sustainable, and whether there’s a threshold we’re going to cross where our ecosystems start failing and our fish aren’t coming back,” de Wit says. “We’re seeing some indications out there in the territories and it really begs the question of whether we’re doing enough to look at the cumulative impacts of development.”

When, not if
Gitga’at First Nation band manager David Benton says, “it’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when” a tanker spill could occur in the nation’s territory. For the Gitga’at, it’s déjà vu: Just three years ago, the Queen of the North sank in their territory. The site, which has the potential for devastating impacts to local food sources, is still monitored daily by the nation.

“It’s like somebody opened your refrigerator and threw in a dirty bag of garbage,” Benton says. With this memory so fresh, it’s easy to see why the nation would be resistant to the tanker traffic that would accompany a pipeline.

“We’re very concerned,” Benton says. “We don’t think we’re being consulted appropriately at the Crown level. We certainly want to keep our territory clean, so we need assurance that’s going to happen. We’re very concerned about the potential for an oil spill in the territory.”

Benton adds that job opportunities associated with the pipeline would be minimal and would carry risks. “We don’t believe that this project, on a cost-benefit risk-benefit basis, is worth it. We see it as all risk and no benefits,” he says. “Those are not sustainable jobs. They’re not traditional jobs. We are trying to develop traditional jobs in a modern context: Gitga’at jobs for Gitga’at people.”

The Gitga’at nation has been told that its opportunity to respond to the review panel’s draft terms of reference marks the beginning of the consultation process. However, Benton says the government has yet to respond to a funding request that would allow the nation to review the proposal and provide comments, well after the April 14 deadline for feedback.

Working together
The Coastal First Nations Turning Point Initiative, which encompasses 10 nations on the northwest coast including the Haisla, Haida and the Gitga’at, also recently passed a resolution supporting an independent First Nations review panel for the project.

“We’re certainly in contact with other First Nations along the pipeline route and we are collectively trying to determine what each nation can do, should do, and how we can work together. We’re in discussions at the moment,” Benton says. “Certainly we believe that we stand with the vast majority of British Columbians who say that they’re opposed to allowing oil tankers on the north-central coast of British Columbia.”

Benton adds that the Gitga’at First Nation would also consider legal action if demands for proper consultation are not met.

The joint review, which would be undertaken by the CEAA and the NEB, was previously suspected in 2006 when Enbridge put its pipeline project on hold. In June 2008, the company requested the process be resumed, with an invitation for First Nations to comment coming last October.

In November, representatives from six northern First Nations met in Moricetown to discuss the pipeline proposal and the lack of associated consultation. Later the same month, a resolution was tabled at a First Nations Summit meeting in Vancouver that called on the federal government to establish an independent First Nations review process for the Enbridge pipeline.

Last fall Gerald Amos, former chief councillor for the Kitamaat Band Council, expressed concern with the pace of the Enbridge project.
“Everybody’s anxious about the speed with which Enbridge is gearing up,” Amos said, adding that bonds between First Nations would have a bearing on the pipeline discussions. “We’ve had respect of one kind or another between communities, but the nature of the beast has changed drastically with the new economy and the new impacts from oil and gas development. What happens in the tarsands can have an impact in Kitamaat and vice versa.”