Pipeline Workers Are Scaring Indigenous Elders Away From Their Own Lands

Indigenous folks—even those who aren’t on the front lines of pipeline battles—report regular harassment and intimidation. But they’re going on their land anyway.
June 4, 2021, 10:00am
Minnie Kenora, 83, harvests maple syrup with her friend on her traditional lands in B.C. Photo supplied​
Minnie Kenora, 83, harvests maple syrup with her friend on her traditional lands in B.
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Tipping Point covers environmental justice stories about and, where possible, written by people in the communities experiencing the stark reality of our changing planet.

Liz Skinaway, a 52-year-old grandmother and homemaker, has lived on the lands of her ancestors in the upper Mississippi River basin all her life. It’s where she learned to harvest birch bark and make baskets and how to cultivate wild rice. Her homelands are sacred, she said. But now she doesn’t feel safe on them due to the Enbridge Line 3 pipeline expansion nearby. 

In April, she said she felt uncomfortable visiting a cultural camp where she practices traditions such as harvesting medicines, planting rice, fishing, and ceremony near the pipeline. “There were two guys from Enbridge watching us, keeping an eye on us. They were not friendly. It was cold and I felt threatened,” said Skinaway, a member of the Sandy Lake of Mississippi Chippewa.

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Three weeks before that, Skinaway’s sister who was over for a visit left at 1 a.m. to make the short drive to her cabin home across the lake. A few minutes later she called Skinaway in a panic. An Enbridge truck was parked on a dirt road near a turnoff by her cabin.

“He was parked there in the middle of the night, why? This is remote,” said Skinway. Her sister ended up home safely, but both women were shaken the next day, Skinaway said.

Their fear shouldn’t come as a surprise, considering communities near resource extraction sites regularly report concerning increases in harassment and violence. Just in February, seven men were arrested in a sex trafficking sting operation in Minnesota. Two of the men were contract pipeline workers helping to build Line 3. 

The Enbridge Line 3 crude oil pipeline cuts through thousands of miles of pristine woods and wetlands in North America. The oil comes from Alberta, Canada’s tar sands, and is shipped to Superior, Wisconsin. Roughly 340 miles of the pipeline expansion runs through Minnesota—and across ancestral lands—without the consent of Indigenous leaders. 

This month the Minnesota Court of Appeals is expected to rule on a legal challenge by environmental and tribal groups that are seeking to overturn state regulators’ approval of the expansion. Pipeline opponents are mobilizing for large-scale protests and civil disobedience this weekend, and preparing for mass arrests.

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Pipeline projects like Line 3 are also making it hard for community members to move around safely and freely in and around their territories, even if they are not on the front lines of anti-pipeline activism. Elders, who often serve as teachers, healers, and counsellors, told VICE World News they are being prevented from accessing traditional medicines and growing and harvesting traditional foods near pipeline construction zones. 

“I don’t think they (Enbridge) have any business on the rez. We’ve been here for millennia. They need to stay off our territory and stop what they’re doing,” said Skinaway.

Liz Skinaway with her son at Big Sandy Lake on her traditional territories. Photo supplied

Liz Skinaway with her son at Big Sandy Lake on her traditional territories. Photo supplied

A representative for Enbridge Energy told VICE World News via email the company is unaware of the incidents, but said it maintains communication with Indigenous stakeholders.

“We work regularly with Indigenous communities and local landowners to make available safe and appropriate access during normal pipeline operations,” wrote Michael Barnes.

“During active construction uncontrolled access to the right of way is unsafe for the public and the workforce. However, if access is needed during construction, individuals should contact Enbridge.”

According to Sheryl Lightfoot, the North American Representative for the United Nations Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigneous Peoples, governments and states are “completely side-stepping” Indigenous human rights in the process. 

Lightfoot said altercations between industries and Indigenous peoples happen all too often. Tensions escalate because industrial companies broker deals with countries and local governments to gain access to extract resources without consultation and consent of traditional Indigenous communities.

“This is a colonial practice and it’s been happening for a long time,” said Lightfoot, who is also the Canada Research Chair of Indigenous Rights and Political Studies at the University of British Columbia. “States are making those decisions without Indigenous input… It’s not even on their radar in some places. Indigenous peoples are always at a disadvantage just due to the structural disadvantages that lay ahead of us, but that doesn’t mean we’re powerless.”

Access to traditional lands is an Indigenous right affirmed by the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), which both the U.S. and Canada support. But those rights are increasingly threatened by extraction industries, and the resolution has no teeth; it’s non-binding.

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Lightfoot said Indigenous peoples having trouble accessing their land can take judicial action, but that’s often a lengthy process and involves navigating colonial court systems. 

Other people are fighting industry more directly. “Our communities are increasingly placing ourselves between industry and access to our land,” Lightfoot said. 

It’s not just on Line 3, either. Where industry goes, stories of harassment follow. Whether hunting, monitoring the land and animals, or harvesting food and medicine, numerous Wet’suwet’en elders in northern British Columbia told VICE World News about being regularly accosted by Coastal Gas Link (CGL) pipeline workers. 

Likhsilyu Clan Elder Chief Kaliset said she and other Wet’suwet’en elders were staying at the Uni’stot’en Healing Camp for a week of cultural activities teaching youth the traditional knowledge of the Wet’suwet’en last summer. Uni’stot’en is at the centre of a dispute between CGL and hereditary Wet’suwet’en leadership who oppose the $6.6 billion pipeline’s construction in their traditional lands. 

On Kaliset’s third day at the camp, the group had tracked down lupin, a plant used to treat high blood pressure and insulin sensitivity, among other ailments, high up on a nearby mountain. “All of a sudden a CGL truck came by. I was thinking, ‘What the heck are they doing way up here?’”  

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A few minutes later the truck returned. This time it slowed down and watched the group for an extended time.

“That was intimidation of the worst kind. I was very angry, then sad… The sadness that our ancestors, my grandmother, had lived and raised her children there. Our women ancestors who walked on that land to protect it for us,” said Kaliset. “You feel helpless.”

“There’s no concern whatsoever for our people or our titles to the lands,” Kaliset added. “And our rights didn’t hold any water with the federal, provincial governments and industry.”

Similarly, when Wet’suwet’en Hereditary Chief Gisday’wa of the Gidimt’en Clan, Fred Tom, 76, was accompanied by a group of Wet’suwet’en youth for on-the-land learning in Gidimt’en territory last summer, they were stopped by RCMP patrolling the industry roads, he said.

“There was a ‘no trespassing’ sign. So, I stopped the bus and got out and asked the two cops, I said, ‘What the hell is this? I can’t go through there? This is my territory; I can go through there if I want!” 

And while the COVID-19 pandemic has slowed down construction on the CGL pipeline, sources said Indigenous peoples are still being denied access to the lands. In late March, Molly Wickham, a Gidimt’en Clan member and land defender, said she was blocked from accessing the Morrice River. “A security officer came over and claimed we weren’t allowed in our territory. He told us it was because of COVID-19. I went down to another road and security was parked there too. They told me they’d call the RCMP.” 

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CGL did not respond to requests for comment. 

Over 800 kilometres southwest in Neskonlith territory near Kamloops, B.C., Minnie Kenora, 83, lives a traditional way of life. She is a member of the Secwepemc Nation, whose territory Canada’s billion-dollar Trans Mountain pipeline expansion is ripping up. 

“Industry keeps pushing us out, overpowering us, and killing us,” Kenora said. “But our strength is our rights to our lands. To others out there I say, go out on the land! Do ceremonies, feed your children out there. When you go out there, that’s your home. I know we aren’t alone in this—the ancestors and the Creator are with us.”

Skinaway said she’s sick of the nightmare unfolding around her. Although she knows the name of every kind of tree in her territory, can recognize the clear, fresh taste of the water she drinks, and celebrates the harvests of each season, she’s not sure if her grandchildren will enjoy the same one day. Her ultimate prayer is for U.S. President Joe Biden to stop the pipeline like he shut down Keystone XL on his first day of office. Line 3 opponents are publicly advocating for Biden to halt the development, but the White House has remained silent on the matter.

“I thought Biden would do the same for this one. I wish he could come and see, come watch what it’s like here,” said Skinaway. “It makes me sad because I don’t think people understand. They say they care about the environment, but they don’t. They care about big dollars.”

Follow Brandi Morin on Twitter.

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