It has been an intense few weeks since the proposed Enbridge pipeline hearings kicked off in Kitimat on January 10. With over 4,000 speakers lined up to say their piece, it’s clear many are vehemently opposed to the threats that a lengthy tar sands pipeline through northern B.C. and tanker traffic in the pristine waters of B.C.’s north coast will pose. This appears to displease the oil companies and the federal government, which, bolstered by massive investments from China, would prefer to ram the project through regardless of what the public thinks. They have made their disapproval over too much opposition and lengthening of the process well known.
Recently, two very clear voices were heard on this debate. One voice came from Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who said on January 26 at the World Economic Forum in Switzerland that the government will “make it a national priority to ensure we have the capacity to export our energy products beyond the United States and specifically to Asia”. The other came from Assembly of First Nations chief Shawn Atleo, who at a joint meeting on January 25 with other chiefs and Harper stated: “The treaty relationship said we would be full partners in designing and determining what would happen within our respective territories” and that the federal government needed to obtain “consent” from First Nations.
It is an understatement to say the First Nations are opposed to the pipeline and tanker port. So far over a hundred First Nations groups in B.C., Alberta and the Northwest Territories have lined up against anything to do with Enbridge and many have made it perfectly clear that should the government railroad this through on its own terms there will be certain and outright conflict. But the headline of a January 28 article in the Vancouver Sun reads: “Natives have rights, but no veto: experts”. Peter O’Neil’s experts say that neither the possibility of a UN declaration nor case law is likely to stop the oil flow to markets.
Perhaps to this point the aboriginal people of this land have not had a clear veto, but that does not mean that this will not soon change. In essence humankind is at a watershed moment in the history of our evolution. The uprising of the First Nations people across Canada and the world—as exhibited clearly in this fight against Enbridge—is now being joined by many others. All are fed up with the endless lineup of invasive resource extraction projects that continue to lay waste to the blue and green planet we all call home.
We can now look backwards and chart the growth of the industrial economy by colonial powers across the globe for the better part of the past 300 years. This highly destructive worldview was forced upon the unspoiled land and its resident indigenous people and today it shows no signs of abating. It continues to bulldoze forests, overfish the oceans, and grotesquely pollute the soil, water, and air. The fact that centuries of this process has been devastating to both to the Earth and the foundation of human society seems lost on most governments and business groups, which continue to work together to encourage more of the same. With increasingly efficient technologies and the mantra of constant economic growth as a marker for their way of measuring wealth, industrial development continues to auction off shrinking natural resources as if our natural capital were one giant bargain basement.
On one hand industrialization has offered more short-term comfort and safety for some humans. But it has also encouraged excessive population growth, cast aside indigenous peoples, and vanquished ecosystems with their resident plant and animal species with little regard for future generations. It is certainly is not based on sound and sustainable economics. The latest insult has been runaway climate change. In this frightening scenario there are few scientific models and no historical precedents. Humans have created a monster that we do not know at all and we are barely amassing an army of intelligent humans to beat the foe. Instead our world leaders continue to deny the problem. In Canada’s case the government’s brilliant plan for the future is more resource exploitation.
How many times have we heard that when another old building comes down or a swamp is paved over or farmland is turned into a shopping centre and a coastline is lined with more shipping ports that this is “progress”? It’s what civilized people do and it’s not going away—so we need to “suck it up” and “appreciate all we’ve got”. After all—we are comfortable with our cheap and constant food supply, fossil fuels, and centrally heated buildings. We wouldn’t want to deprive the developing countries of the same would we?
Humanity is at the point where we have to make a decision: do we continue invasive and destructive activities like the tar sands extraction which requires pipelines and tankers and continues to rape, pillage, and destroy the land and the culture and community of humans? Or do we use our human ingenuity to create systems which can exist in accordance with the laws of the Earth? We certainly have the ability to do more of the latter—all that’s needed is more opportunity.
After having been marginalized and belittled by the conquering society for too long the First Nations of Western Canada are speaking very clearly about their own wishes on their own lands. And there are thousands of other forward-looking individuals lining up right next to them. All the people on this planet have ancestors who were tribal so we must remember what it looks like to live in harmony with the land. Surely we can all realize that too many industrial growth projects reflect a destructive short-term vision?
The local First Nations can see they will hardly reap the benefits of the increased economic growth that is always touted as the reason for tar sands expansion and transport to markets. They will only incur all the liabilities. The “industrial growth gang” does not live in the path of the pipeline or on the pristine coast of B.C. and will not be there mopping up the sticky bitumen when the pipe breaks or the tanker runs aground. They will not be washing oil-soaked birds and getting sick when the cleanup needs to be done. The First Nations have been forced to stand by for centuries watching their land be clearcut and despoiled, their communities decline, and their culture destroyed. Now they are gathering their strength to stand up to the Goliath that has ruined directly and indirectly not only their lives but the lives of all humankind.
Today the “experts” claim the First Nations have no veto over tar sands pipelines and tanker traffic because efforts to this point have not been on their side. A former treaty negotiator for the B.C. government, Thomas Isaac, says the reckoning is going to come “someday where the consent is required over a discreet parcel of land of high significance to a first nation, where title has been proven”. Isaac says “we’re a ways from that and we don’t know what that would look like”. In my opinion, and I would guess the opinion of many others, the time of reckoning is right now. Just as William Wilberforce succeeded in abolishing slavery in England in 1807 after 30 years of lobbying (because it was just plain wrong) the First Nations are standing in the way of our perpetual addiction to the fossil fuels that are holding us hostage (because it also is just plain wrong). They and thousands of others are ready to look at a better world for our grandchildren and the land we live on.
The wagons are circling once more, but this time the natives and many forward-thinking descendants of the settlers are on the same side. They have all watched history, and they don’t want a continuation of the ruin of the past. Watch the force of this confrontation. Those who think that economic growth and fossil fuel dependency is the only way forward will be reconsidering fast.