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Comment: First Nations show leadership in pipeline debates

The Tsleil-Waututh, Squamish and Coldwater First Nations have recently launched legal challenges against the Kinder Morgan pipeline expansion, a project that both Premier Christy Clark and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau have approved.

The Tsleil-Waututh, Squamish and Coldwater First Nations have recently launched legal challenges against the Kinder Morgan pipeline expansion, a project that both Premier Christy Clark and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau have approved.

First Nations are leading the movement to protect B.C. ’s coast and reverse climate change — leadership that is lacking from our premier and prime minister.

The proposed Kinder Morgan expansion project will result in a sevenfold increase in tanker traffic. The oil-spill risk assessment conducted by Tom Gunton from Simon Fraser University shows “a high likelihood” of a tanker spill. The Tsleil-Waututh have consistently warned about the increased chance of oil spills in Burrard Inlet, the terminus for the pipeline, and part of their traditional territory.

A spill of diluted bitumen is likely to cause massive damage to marine ecosystems. This would make it ever harder for the Tsleil-Waututh to safely access the marine foods that are integral to their culture and economy.

According to the City of Vancouver, a spill would cause about $1.2 billion worth of economic damage for the region, affecting commercial fishing, tourism and recreation. While Clark and Trudeau are gambling with the coast, the Tsleil-Waututh are defending the lands and waters upon which we live.

Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, president of the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs, raised pointed questions about Trudeau’s environmental leadership in light of the Kinder Morgan approval: “You boldly lied to Canadians, and not very well — I am surprised that you think we are stupid enough to believe that approving two more tarsands pipelines and drastically increasing Canada’s GHG emissions is the best and only way to protect the environment.”

A report by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives supports Phillip’s no-nonsense criticisms. According to the centre: “The problem with new fossil fuel infrastructure projects — like liquefied natural gas (LNG) plants and bitumen pipelines — is that they lock us into a high-emissions trajectory for several decades to come, giving up on the 1.5 to 2°C limits of Paris.”

Despite Trudeau and Clark’s smiling assurances, the Kinder Morgan pipeline approval will facilitate oil-sands expansion, increase global emissions, and make it extremely challenging to limit warming to less than two degrees Celsius. While a seemingly small increase, surpassing the two-degree limit is predicted to result in dangerous and potentially irreversible climate change: sea-level rise, drought, species extinction and extreme weather.

To date, more than 50 First Nations in British Columbia have signed the Treaty Alliance Against Tar Sands Expansion. We are thankful that indigenous communities are making environmental decisions with future generations in mind when our premier and prime minister are not.

While Clark and Trudeau have acknowledged the scientific consensus on climate change, they are not making decisions rooted in that science. Their actions exemplify what the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives has termed the “new climate denialism” — acknowledging the science of climate change while denying the scale of policy action it demands.

The recent legal challenges launched by First Nations against the Kinder Morgan expansion represent one of the most important fronts in the struggle to stop this short-sighted project. The challenges are rooted in aboriginal rights and title that themselves have been hard won in previous legal victories, most recently in the 2014 Tsilhqot’in decision, which raises a very high bar for government and industry wanting to pursue industrial development on indigenous territory.

Drawing on the legacy of that decision, Tsleil-Waututh Chief Maureen Thomas noted at the press conference announcing her nation’s legal challenge: “We do not consent to the Kinder Morgan pipeline project in our territory. We are asking the court to overturn the federal cabinet’s decision to approve this project.”

Clark and Trudeau are trying to force a fossil-fuel infrastructure project on indigenous peoples who do not consent. This is not what genuine reconciliation looks like. As one small step toward supporting a just and lasting reconciliation, we have contributed to the First Nations legal defence fund established by the organization RAVEN. We encourage others to do the same.

Helping to defend aboriginal rights and title not only begins to redress colonial injustices such as the genocidal residential-school system, but it is a vital way that Canadians can defend environmental health now and for future generations. First Nations have been stewarding this beautiful land for thousands of years. May that continued leadership be met with strong winds of support from all Canadians.


James Rowe is an assistant professor in the School of Environmental Studies at the University of Victoria. This commentary was written with Karena Shaw, associate professor and director; Natalie Ban, assistant professor; Jeremy Caradonna, adjunct professor; Deborah Curran, assistant professor; Trevor Lantz, associate professor; Ana Maria Peredo, professor; Mike Simpson, sessional instructor; and Trudi Smith, adjunct professor.