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Doug Cuthand: Gateway must pass First Nations opposition

With the decision on the Keystone XL pipeline project delayed at least a year, it looks more and more as if it won’t get built at all.

With the decision on the Keystone XL pipeline project delayed at least a year, it looks more and more as if it won’t get built at all.

This leaves the Northern Gateway pipeline across British Columbia as the next alternative to exporting oilsands crude. However, the route through the mountains is extremely difficult, and most of the First Nations along the proposed pipeline adamantly oppose its construction.

There are two main reasons for this, and neither is an easy fix.

The environmental impacts are of concern to a wide group that includes First Nations, the B.C. government and the public. The pipeline will pass through some of the most beautiful country in Canada, and cross numerous rivers that feed into whole watersheds.

When the crude gets to the West Coast, it will have to be taken on a risky tanker route through the fjords to the open sea. Every step of the way holds the potential for an environmental disaster. To agree to support it amounts to a leap of faith that many are not willing to take.

But the group holding the trump card is the First Nations. Most of B.C. never has been surrendered to the Crown, and the title remains with them.

When the Prairies were made available for settlement, the government of the day realized that it would have to obtain title to the land, which meant negotiating treaties with the original inhabitants. This didn’t happen in B.C., which was settled and developed, with the First Nations ignored and shoved aside in the process.

Now the Crown is reaping the fruits of its racism and stupidity.

For years, the government has had various negotiations underway, but these have been led by Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada. The department’s colonial agenda was aimed at terminating aboriginal rights and not building strong First Nations under the rights provided in the Constitution.

Today, the treaty process is an abject failure. Success was measured in how much First Nations would give up, not how much Canada stood to gain by negotiating treaties. The proposed agreements were far too detailed and, in addition to terminating rights, placed First Nations in administrative straitjackets that would seriously inhibit their development.

These agreements were impossible to accept. On the Prairies, the government wanted our land. In B.C., it wants our soul.

The federal government has failed to take the process seriously and has not provided leadership. Prime Minister Stephen Harper is a libertarian who believes in a limited role for government, with business taking the lead. Since the federal government failed to do its job, Enbridge stepped in to try to convince First Nations of the value of Northern Gateway.

B.C. First Nations are not prepared to negotiate side deals in advance of a treaty to address the issue of aboriginal title. The issue of the environment, employment and any other benefits take a back seat to the question of First Nations title.

In his book, Resource Rulers, former treaty negotiator and federal energy regulator Bill Gallagher points to 160 cases the First Nations have won in relation to resource rights. Armed with treaties and aboriginal rights, First Nations have become a formidable power in the determination of Canada’s resource development.

Last summer, I visited the Unist’ot’en camp in the mountains west of Prince George on the proposed right-of-way for the Gateway pipeline. It was set up to reinforce the Wet’suwewt’en people’s ownership of the land.

Whole families were taking turns living at the site. It was a welcome respite from urban life for many. For others, it’s a chance to get back to the land and their traditional way of life. I was impressed by their commitment. They weren’t so much holding up development as asserting their land rights.

Other First Nations along the route are prepared to flood the courts with lawsuits, should the government agree to building Gateway.

The federal government has said it will decide by mid-June. If it goes ahead with the pipeline, we can expect First Nations unrest not only in B.C., but also by others in sympathy across Canada.


Doug Cuthand is a freelance aboriginal affairs columnist with the Saskatoon StarPhoenix.