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100 Indigenous Nations in US and Canada Join Forces in Opposition of Pipeline Expansion

Standing Rock's Sioux Tribe, the Union of BC Chiefs, and many more Indigenous leaders signed a treaty to prevent expansion of the tar sands.

Serge Simon, left, Grand Chief of Kanesatake, Ghislain Picard, Chief of the Assembly of FirstNations of Quebec and Labrador listen to drummers during a treaty signing ceremony. Paul Chiasson/Canadian Press

Across North America, more than 100 Indigenous leaders have signed a treaty against Alberta's tar sands, effectively putting those who want to build oil sands pipelines—including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau—on notice.

By signing the treaty, Indigenous nations agree to help other nations when they face a fight against a major tar sands pipeline.

The expansion of the tar sands "can only happen" if new pipelines are approved, the treaty states. The treaty's signatories are therefore against the following pipelines that would carry oil sands products to North America's coasts: Enbridge's Northern Gateway and Alberta Clipper pipelines, TransCanada's Energy East and Keystone XL pipelines, and Kinder Morgan's Trans Mountain expansion, "any of which, if allowed, would lead to a major expansion of the Tar Sands."

Trudeau is under pressure from petroleum advocates and Canada's Conservative opposition to approve a major pipeline that would carry Alberta oil to international markets—something he has repeatedly said he is in favour of doing, as long as it's done in a "responsible" way that includes First Nation consultation. But that pressure comes at the same time that a groundswell of Indigenous peoples across Turtle Island (the Indigenous name for North America) are rising up against pipeline projects, using both legal challenges and encampments on traditional territory, as seen at Standing Rock, to assert their land rights and delay pipeline construction.

Read more: Justin Trudeau Can Fully Back Pipelines or Aboriginal Rights, But Not Both

At the treaty signing in Vancouver, the line of chiefs in regalia waiting to add their names "filled an entire room," according to the National Observer. Leaders were invited to sign in Vancouver, where part of the Trans Mountain pipeline would be built, and Montreal, which sits along the proposed Energy East route. Treaty signatories included Grand Chief Stewart Phillip of the Union of BC Chiefs, Standing Rock's Sioux Tribe, and Grand Chief Serge Simon of Kanesatake, who has stridently opposed Energy East, and who represents a reserve that famously stood up to the RCMP during the 1990 Oka land crisis.

"We are going to stick together and we're going to protect each other right across the country," Simon told reporters Thursday, according to the Canadian Press. Simon added that the pipeline resistance would aim to be peaceful.

Alberta oil is currently carried by train and by trucks in addition to pipelines, but the petroleum industry has urged the Canadian and US governments to approve major pipeline projects because they say existing pipelines have exceeded their capacity. Petroleum proponents say energy and oil consumption needs are increasing, and they need to extract more fossil fuels to meet those needs. Pipelines are safer than other transportation methods, they assert.

But the treaty also takes aim at other methods of transporting oil, stating that "every single Indigenous Nation on Turtle Island will suffer terrible harm if such pipeline, rail and tanker projects move ahead because, by the leading to the expansion of the Tar Sands, such projects will unquestionably fuel catastrophic climate change."

Scientists describe "catastrophic climate change" as the point at which the earth warms enough to trigger feedback cycles that will contribute to runaway warming. For instance, if the Arctic permafrost melts due to a warming climate, it will release additional carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

"The world might not be able to immediately stop using oil tomorrow, but the last thing we need is more oil," the treaty states.

First Nations in British Columbia have used similar treaties in the past to oppose pipelines. The 2010 Save the Fraser Declaration brought together 60 undersigned nations against Enbridge's Northern Gateway pipeline that would run from Alberta to the BC coast. The alliance of nations that signed the treaty was later monitored by the RCMP for "acts of protest and civil disobedience," the Toronto Star reported.

Though treaties can be criticized as symbolic, they also pave relationships between nations that can lead to partnership in court action, and tangible support for anti-pipeline encampments, including donations of food and supplies, and volunteers.

The treaty states that Indigenous leadership is "the only solution" to the expansion of the tar sands:

"While Indigenous Peoples have contributed the least to climate change, they stand to lose the most," it states. "This Treaty will take the fight to the final step by ensuring that the Tar Sands are not able to escape by another pipeline route and thereby cripple the efforts to fight the climate crisis."

"Otherwise, none of our peoples will be safe."

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