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Will the Northern Gateway Pipeline Push Through Unsurrendered First Nations Land in BC?

A few weeks ago the National Energy Board of Canada conditionally approved Enbridge’s plan to build twin pipelines called the Northern Gateway in northern Alberta and B.C. It was a grotesquely unpopular decision, with environmental concerns so...

Unist'ot'en camp. Photos via Facebook.

A few weeks ago the National Energy Board of Canada conditionally approved Enbridge’s plan to build twin pipelines called the Northern Gateway in northern Alberta and British Columbia. It was a grotesquely unpopular decision, with environmental concerns so ubiquitous among residents of BC that even pro-tar sands political parties are against it. The pipelines would carry diluent chemicals and bitumen between coastal tankers and Alberta’s tar sands, increasing export opportunities while introducing the risk of a spill to the coast, the Rocky Mountains, the Great Bear rainforest, and some of the leastcontaminated fresh-water rivers in the world. But the plan’s final approval, seemingly inevitable under Canada’s oil-drunk federal government, could result in unprecedented conflict: A broad coalition of politicians, citizens, environmental groups and indigenous nations are prepared to block the project with their bodies as it inches towards the coast.


At the Unist’ot’en encampment in Wet’suwet’en territory, people are already living in cabins that were built to blockade the Northern Gateway. Along with most other indigenous nations in BC, who have never given up their lands to the Canadian state, those at Unist’ot’en camp believe that this project escalates a conflict that is centuries old—they equate the Northern Gateway with a violation of their sovereignty and the extension of colonial law into their unsurrendered territories.

It’s appropriate then that Northern Gateway’s most enthusiastic cheerleader, Prime Minister Stephen Harper, told the G20 in 2009 that Canada “has no history of colonialism.” In this historicidal remark, Harper denied the often horrific strategies used by settlers and corporations to force indigenous people from their lands over hundreds of years, policies which are the very foundation of our country. But these acts of violence and dispossession, which Harper seeks to erase from history, will only intensify if Enbridge’s Northern Gateway is approved. This is because Enbridge plans to build the Northern Gateway predominantly across unsurrendered indigenous lands.

“There are creative, subtle, and sometimes not-so-subtle ways that the practices of colonialism are still carried out. And this is absolutely one of them,” Jess Housty argued. She is an elected councillor of Heiltsuk Nation in BC who gained support through her anti-Enbridge activism. Speaking on behalf of her nation, Housty told me that the Northern Gateway is “an issue of sovereignty. It’s the point where we’re saying enough is enough, too much has been taken away. This is our place, this is our territory, these are our resources. We have a responsibility to steward them and we’re saying no. It’s about asserting our right to govern ourselves and to act as a sovereign nation.” Fighting the Northern Gateway is a matter of getting “the authority of tribal law recognized” and seeing “how it can be enforced and honoured and respected as a law of the land and a law of this place that has never been ceded by its original owners,” Housty said.


This sovereignty that many indigenous nations claim along the pipeline route is established in BC’s history of land disputes, which is unique among the Canadian provinces in that it is largely unresolved. Hayden King, director of Ryerson University’s Centre for Indigenous Governance, explained: “In the history of the BC treaty process very few agreements have been made. The vast majority of territory in British Columbia is unceded, unsurrendered indigenous territory.” But according to King, there are “two competing and contrasting perspectives on what unceded land, unceded territory means when it comes to consultation, development, rights, and so on.”

At one pole are the original inhabitants of these territories who have never signed away their lands and believe that they have the right to self-govern. This perspective is promoted by broad alliances of indigenous nations in BC, such as the

Yinka-Dene alliance of 130 nations who have banned the transportation of oil through their territories and waterways under tribal law. Speaking on behalf of the alliance, Chief Martin Louie of Nadleh Whut’en First Nation was confident that this indigenous law is enforceable, particularly because most people in BC are also opposed to Enbridge’s project. He explained that there are “a lot of people that stand to help us fight this fight, whether it’s going to be in court or on the land… All these years I grew up with people calling British Columbia beautiful. It’s not going to be that way with all these projects going through it, and a lot of people are behind us on this.”


Unist’ot’en spokesperson Freda Huson explained that in Wet’suwet’en territory the traditional, consensus-based system of governance is “still alive and well here, even though a lot of other First Nations have lost their system.” Under this system they have banned all pipelines and established a rule that those looking to pass through the territory must answer a series of questions: “Who are you? Where are you from? How long do you plan to stay if we let you in? Do you work for the industry or government that’s destroying our lands? How will your visit benefit my people?” The last question, Huson said, is the one that “industry has trouble answering.”

“We’ve written them several letters saying no to this project. Nothing they say or do will change our mind. Because the environmental concerns come before any money, and we’re not holding out just so we can get money from them. We don’t want their money. We want to keep our land for future generations,” Huson said.

But despite all this, Huson’s clan has repeatedly found that corporate surveyors are sneaking onto their land. In November of 2012 they issued a feather to a group of pipeline surveyors, which is “the last warning in our tradition that you’re trespassing when you haven’t even spoke to us and asked permission to be there. None of these companies have ever approached us.” Under historical Wet’suwet’en law, ignoring this warning and continuing to trespass is punishable by death.


“Does Canadian law respect that perspective? Not really,” Hayden King said.

Proponents of this pipeline, like Enbridge and the Canadian state, hold a radically different understanding of what it means for indigenous land to be unceded. Under Canadian law, King explained, these parties “have a duty to consult and accommodate” indigenous peoples when proposing new projects. However “Canadian law is still very fuzzy about what consultation entails” and this could involve anything from writing a letter to actually giving indigenous groups veto power over proposals. But ultimately, King explained, consultation “doesn’t mean that native people can say no to development if they oppose it… Canada assumes that it has ultimate jurisdiction over this territory.”

Sentries guard Unist'ot'en land from trespassers.

“We’re always going to have this disparity between the jurisdiction indigenous peoples believe they have when it comes to unsurrendered land and the jurisdiction that Canada believes it has over those unsurrendered lands… they’re just two separate ways of looking at the world. They’re incompatible,” King said.

But the incompatibility of these worldviews makes conflict inevitable. “We’ve seen over and over again how government, military, and police bulldoze indigenous people that are basically just trying to protect our lands,” Freda Huson said. “It’s actually them that instigate everything they try to turn it around via media… You’ve seen what happened across New Brunswick. It was a peaceful protest and they were macing the women and children.”


I asked Jess Housty of Heiltsuk Nation if she fears that the government will turn to violence to build the Northern Gateway when people along its route refuse to be moved. “I do not fear it but I anticipate it,” she said. But Housty would prefer a peaceful solution. “I have a firm belief that we need to resolve this by peaceful, logical means in any way we can. I believe that because that is what my elders have told me and that is what is consistent with my teachings as a Heiltsuk person. Having said that, if this continues to be escalated by the federal government, by the National Energy Board, by Enbridge and the proponents, there’s nothing that I won’t do to stop this pipeline and I know I won’t be alone in that. I say that with the spirit of my community behind me,” she explained.

At Unist’ot’en camp, where a much more militant strategy of land defence is already in place, Freda Huson believes the RCMP’s use of force is inevitable. “I believe they’ve been preparing for it because they opened a base for training in Prince George and they upped their training and security with the RCMP,” she said. Nonetheless, Huson remains confident that the pipeline will never be built. “If any of government or industry is listening, you don’t know what you’re up against.” Accordingly, the camp is currently investing in security equipment after several arsons occurred and a homemade bomb was set off in territory. The perpetuators of these acts are unknown, but Huson speculates that they could potentially be part of an RCMP dirty tricks campaign or that these acts may have been undertaken by corporate goons.


Enbridge’s spokesperson, Graham White, declined to comment on whether or not the company had consulted with the many indigenous communities that will be impacted by their project, or what they will do if communities along the route do not consent to its construction. “I really don’t see the point in me taking the time to provide any further comments,” he told me in an email. Mr. White might have been annoyed that I caught him in a lie the last time we spoke.

But in the case of the Northern Gateway, this process of consultation was undertaken by the National Energy Board’s Joint Review Panel. It was a process that may have fulfilled the government’s duty to consult, even though many nations refused to participate on the basis that they had no input into designing the process itself. “It’s a process that was not of our making as a community. It’s of course a process being imposed on us,” Jess Housty explained.

There was also a pervasive sense that the panel’s outcome was pre-determined and the hearings were just a public spectacle. “It’s not a meaningful consultation process if ‘no’ is not an acceptable end result. There was no way that this process was going to end in the Joint Review Panel recommending that cabinet reject this project and then cabinet rejects this project,” Housty said. This sentiment seems to be confirmed in the NEB’s final conclusion – after hearing 1,159 testimonies against the project and only two for it, from indigenous and non-indigenous groups alike, the NEB’s three person panel determined that “Canada and Canadians would be better off with the Enbridge Northern Gateway project than without it.”

But despite these criticisms, Housty’s nation decided that they would participate in this process and voice their concerns. For the arrival of the National Energy Board, Heiltsuk students organized a peaceful protest at the airport that included children, elders, and hereditary chiefs in traditional regalia. When the NEB panel arrived, Housty recalls, they “walked off the plane, bee lined to a waiting taxi, took a water taxi across to the next island where they were staying at a resort, and then issued a letter saying that they were cancelling our hearings because they felt that their security was being threatened. It took a day and a half of negotiations to get the hearings back on track and that was time that was never adequately made up.”

When the hearings finally went forward, many speakers were unable to deliver their prepared testimonies due to time constraints. Those elders who spoke, according to Housty, “were antagonized by the panel. We had elders who walked off the stand in protest because they refused to suffer being disrespected that way by people who had come into our territory and who were supposed to be unbiased.” She recalls “the atmosphere in the room… was of three very distracted people who were doing a duty but doing it in a very perfunctory way.” Ultimately, she feels that her community was denied “their right to express themselves. And that’s a lot of hurt and anger and disrespect that’s still stirring in this community.”

Yet, with so much anger growing throughout Canada’s northwest, the NEB’s decision can in no way be final.

“This pipeline will not be built,” Housty asserted. “I very firmly believe that the proponents of this pipeline underestimate the opposition to it. This is not just a First Nations issue; it’s not just an environmental issue. There is a huge and diverse constituency around this work, this advocacy work, this activism. The networks that have been built, the communities that have been built, are incredible and powerful and strong. These are people that are unlikely and often unlooked for allies that have never banded together as strongly as I’ve seen them band together here. It’s an incredible thing to watch.”