Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, the president of the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs, said something in reaction to the Trudeau government’s new pipeline review policy in late January that has rattled around in my head ever since. “What needs to be demonstrated,” Phillip said, in registering his disappointment with the policy, “is the federal government’s willingness to take no for an answer from First Nations…who are exercising their sovereign decision-making power.”
In many ways, this is the crux of the pipeline debate – at the intersection between Indigenous rights and energy policy, where we need to decide whether our stated principles or our obligations to corporate shareholders should take precedence. It’s vital to be mindful of the fact that the struggle against pipelines, as pivotal and momentous as it is for the climate justice movement, is also the latest front in a centuries-old Aboriginal struggle for the right to say “no” to settlers who want to exploit and despoil their land.
And let’s be clear – by and large, First Nations are saying “no” to pipelines, and they’re saying it firmly and unequivocally. Right across the country, Indigenous folks, both from the grassroots and from the leadership, are speaking out in the strongest possible terms against major proposed projects like Energy East, Northern Gateway, and Trans Mountain.
As these proposals reach their culmination, it’s becoming critical that the Canadian government affirms the right of First Nations to, as the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples puts it, “free, prior, and informed consent” – or, in Phillip’s formulation, their right to say no and have that be the final word on the subject.
Just to give a (brief) sense of the range of Indigenous opposition to pipelines: The Chippewas of the Thames First Nation is taking their not-over-yet struggle with Enbridge over Line 9B all the way to the Supreme Court. The Assembly of First Nations of Québec-Labrador is urging the government of Québec to radically expand First Nations consultation over Energy East, and has issued statements supportive of First Nations which have opposed the project. The Iroquois Caucus unanimously opposed Energy East, in a statement which was released literally one day after the Trudeau government announced new measures to more thoroughly consult First Nations. Indigenous leadership has been pivotal in the struggles against Trans Mountain and Northern Gateway in British Columbia. The Unist’ot’en Camp continues to physically get in the way of the path of two major pipelines through northern B.C.
And this past week, Serge Simon, Grand Chief of the Mohawk Kanesatake, wrote a letter to Québec Premier Phillipe Couillard in which Simon threatened they would do “everything legally in [their] power to block the Energy East pipeline project”.
Simon was brutally frank in his letter to Couillard:
Opening a new front for TransCanada and politicians to deal with, the letter unabashedly tags the project to move 1.1-million barrels of crude oil a day from Alberta to refineries in Eastern Canada “risky and dangerous,” to First Nations and a threat to their lands, waters and very survival.
“Indeed an alliance of indigenous nations, from coast to coast, is being formed against all the pipeline, rail and tanker projects that would make possible the continued expansion of tar sands,” Simon writes.
“One thing for sure, we the Mohawks of Kanesatake will not be brushed aside any longer and we wish to press upon you that we reserve the right to take legal action if necessary to prevent the abuse of our inherent rights.”
Simon does not mention it in his letter but, a year ago, he told the Journal de Montréal that barricades against the pipeline were not excluded even though the preferred option remains dialogue.
There was no immediate reaction from the premier’s office Sunday.
Now, that’s not true – I’m sure there was a strong reaction from the premier’s office! They just chose not to share it with the Montreal Gazette. Although it’s been quite some time, I’m certain that the government of Québec vividly recall the Oka standoff of 1990, and I can’t be the only one who remembers Grand Chief Stewart Phillip’s warning a few years back that the current pipeline debate that the federal government’s indefatigable pursuit of major pipeline projects risk sparking militant Indigenous protests on that scale or larger.
Which is to say that Simon’s warning that barricades are a last-ditch option is a credible one, and an indication of exactly how serious the Mohawks of Kanesatake are about blocking Energy East. They’re saying “No” in about as unequivocal a manner as can be imagined, openly stating that they will do everything within their legal power to stop the pipeline and that they may even be willing to break the law and risk another armed standoff with the government if necessary.
And this isn’t a shocking new position Simon is taking – I urge you to watch this video from last year of Simon explicitly connecting the historical theft of Aboriginal land with the current push to construct pipelines. Speaking to the Gazette, Simon said, “I think when push comes to shove, if the Mohawk nation comes together to fight this thing, you’re going to see a hell of a force in the path of that pipeline…This land that we’re standing on, we never gave this land up and it’s our duty to protect it, not just for us but for everyone in this country. If you understand our creation myth, the land is the mother of all humanity. The earth is her body. Why would you want to violate that?”
One of the signature issues of the Liberal campaign last fall was a renewed relationship with Canada’s Indigenous peoples. Prime Minister Trudeau has made a big show since his very first day in office of highlighting his respect of First Nations’ rights, at least rhetorically and symbolically. And in some respects, such as his government’s initiation of a national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls or its pledge to implement all 94 recommendations made by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Trudeau has lived up to his own hype.
But making promises and establishing committees is easy enough to do. These require no sacrifices, no political inconvenience. Deferring to the explicit and non-negotiable will of First Nations on what resource extraction projects are allowed to take place on their land is a different matter. Is this government willing to take no for an answer on pipelines?
And if they aren’t – which seems to be the case – then how the hell do they reconcile that with their stated intention to cultivate a “renewed, nation-to-nation relationship with Indigenous Peoples, based on recognition, rights, respect, co-operation, and partnership”?
Solidarity with the Kanesatake Mohawks, and with all First Nations who are asserting their sovereign rights and resisting these ecocidal pipelines!
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