Oil Sands Truth: Shut Down the Tar Sands

'It's Going to Be War': First Nations Battle Canadian Tar Sands

February 20, 2012
by Common Dreams
'It's Going to Be War': First Nations Battle Canadian Tar Sands
- Common Dreams staff

The indigenous First Nations of Canada, along with environmentalists and civil society groups, are gearing up for an epic battle as the oil giant Enbridge continues to press for its 'Northern Gateway' pipeline that would transport tar sands oil from Alberta to the coast of British Columbia. The fight against the Keystone XL has won at least a temporary victory in the United States, but its Canadian counterpart, despite vocal opposition by environmentalists and community members along its westward route, has been largely championed by the ruling conservative government in Ottawa.

The $5.5-billion Northern Gateway project, which would carry 525,000 barrels a day of crude 731 miles from a town near Edmonton through the Rocky Mountains to a new port on the British Columbia coast, has long been in the works as a companion to Keystone XL.

But with Keystone's recent turmoil in the U.S., Northern Gateway has risen to new prominence as a defiant Plan B for a nation increasingly aggressive in combating international hurdles, whether it's greenhouse gas treaties, low-carbon fuel standards or U.S. presidential politics.

"There has always been very strong support by the Harper government, by the province of Alberta and by the oil industry for the Northern Gateway pipeline. But there's no question that for all three of those entities, that urgency increased dramatically with the apparent defeat of Keystone XL," said George Hoberg, a political scientist and professor of forestry at the University of British Columbia. [...]

Canada's Harper-run government has lobbied hard on behalf of both the Keystone XL pipeline and Northern Gatway. First Nations and local municipalities, however, have refused to back down from their opposition. The Globe and Mail reported recently:

More than 60 B.C. First Nations and aboriginal organizations have signed a declaration opposing the plan to build a 1,177-kilometre twin pipeline from Alberta to the northwest B.C. port of Kitimat, where huge oil tankers will ship oil to Asia and the United States.

The Union of B.C. Municipalities also voted against the oil pipeline at their meeting last fall. Terrace announced its opposition at a council meeting [last] week.

"Debate is especially intense here in British Columbia," according to the Los Angeles Times' Kim Murphy, who was in the town of Fort St. James for her report:

Although some residents are eager for the tax revenue and thousands of local jobs the pipeline could bring, many who live along the corridor and in many First Nations territories, homelands of Canada's aboriginals, are mobilizing to fight it.

Crucial are the streams and tributaries of the Fraser and Skeena rivers that lie in the pipeline's path — possibly the greatest salmon rivers on Earth.

Along the coast, there are fears that piloting more than 200 oil tankers a year through the fiords of Douglas Channel and then southward could jeopardize the spectacular coastline of the famed Great Bear rain forest, full of azure waters and rocky waterfalls.

"We truly live in one of the most beautiful places on Earth. We live right at the start of the Fraser River watershed, and if we have a spill, it will devastate everything from here straight to the Pacific Ocean in Vancouver," said Bev Playfair, until recently a municipal councilor in Fort St. James, where a hearing on the pipeline this month was preceded by dozens of townspeople marching down the main street with signs such as "Say No to Enbridge."

The most formidable opposition comes from the First Nations of British Columbia, most of which, unlike those in other provinces, have never signed treaties with the federal government and thus have never relinquished title to their historic lands.

"We have the ability to go to court in Canada and say, 'What you are proposing violates the Constitution of Canada.' And that's the trump card in all of this," said Art Sterritt, director of the Coastal First Nations' Great Bear Initiative.

On the Saik'uz Reserve, near the town of Vanderhoof, schoolchildren spent part of the afternoon before the pipeline hearing making signs and sitting quietly as tribal leaders explained the project and why it must be stopped.

"You've got to understand that it's a huge, multibillion-dollar project that they're trying to put through our lands. And it's going to be a tough fight, because they have so much money. They probably have 10 lawyers to our one," Geraldine Thomas-Flurer, the Saik'uz First Nation's liaison on the Northern Gateway issue, told the students.

Tribal Chief Jackie Thomas has held meetings and written letters pointing out Enbridge's record on accidents, including the spill of 810,000 gallons of oil from a pipeline in Michigan in 2010, much of which flowed 30 miles downstream into the Kalamazoo River. Enbridge has spent $700 million so far and workers are still trying to clean it up.

"It's going to be a war," she predicted of the fight ahead. "The only question is, who's going to draw the first blood?"


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