Chief Theresa Spence is back home in Attawapiskat and Idle No More has faded from view after an impressive run in the headlines. Another aboriginal movement, however, continues to build toward the biggest First Nations stand-off in a generation — the fight against the proposed Northern Gateway Pipeline.
The contentious project — a 1,170-kilometre pipeline that would link the Alberta oilsands with a supertanker port in Kitimat, B.C. — is a major economic and environmental issue. But it also represents the most significant degree of aboriginal resistance this country has seen since 1990 when Mohawk warriors stared down Her Majesty’s Royal 22nd Regiment across barricades at Oka.
Like Idle No More, the pipeline battle is a gut-level expression of aboriginal determination. Unlike Idle No More, it is tightly organized and well defined, with proven staying power and a simple focus: to prevent construction of the $6.5-billion project.
Aboriginal opposition to Gateway is centred in 20 or so relatively small First Nations between Prince George, B.C. and Haida Gwaii (the Queen Charlotte Islands).
During a trip to northern B.C. last August, the half-dozen aboriginal leaders I spoke with along the proposed route of the project all said three things: 1) they oppose Northern Gateway; 2) there is nothing Enbridge can do to change their minds — that is, they are not just posturing in order to get more money; 3) they are prepared to oppose the project in the courts and by standing in front of bulldozers.
The responses were as consistent as they were heartfelt.
Russell Ross Jr. — a Haisla First Nation councillor — sat surrounded by leaning stacks of documents about Gateway. His office in Kitamaat Village is a short boat ride across Douglas Channel from the site where Enbridge wants to build its tanker terminal.
When I asked how he would feel if the project were to proceed and supertankers would travel to the heart of Haisla territory, he paused. “I’d have to move away,” he then said, emotion brimming in his eyes.
The leaders I met were not anti-development — the Haisla of Kitimat, for instance, are aggressively pursuing a multi-billion dollar project to export liquified natural gas — but the risks of the Gateway project are simply too high, they say.
Their primary concerns are the risk of an oil spill into a treasured salmon river or a supertanker accident along the coast. A major accident, they say, could have catastrophic and possibly irreparable effects on aboriginal culture and identity.
The harvesting and use of salmon and other wild foods are an essential part of the economy, diet and culture for First Nations in the area. This tangible, immediate and deep connection to the lands and waters is closely related to the degree of resolve among First Nations opposing Gateway. Ross says opposition is unanimous among the roughly 800 Haisla residents of Kitamaat Village.
Resolve on the other side is also firm. Enbridge says the project would provide a $270-billion boost to GDP over 30 years and is “clearly in the national interest.” The Calgary-based company has been pursuing the project for more than a decade.
As for the federal government, though their support for the project has dimmed over the past year, Prime Minister Stephen Harper has used Gateway to test-drive his vision for the country, a vision centred on aggressive expansion of the conventional energy sector within a more agreeable regulatory climate.
That test drive has been bumpy. In addition to aboriginal opposition, the B.C. government is promising to make things complicated and the reputation of the pipeline industry has been smeared by repeated spills.
The big question now is whether Enbridge will stay the course, and if so, whether Ottawa will approve the project. Will Gateway proceed to the point of open confrontation with First Nations?
“People ask how far we are willing to go to oppose the project,” Wet’suwet’en Hereditary Chief Na’Moks (John Ridsdale) told me in his Smithers, B.C. office. “But I want to know how far Enbridge is willing to go to push it through.”
When I asked whether he thinks the project will be built, Ridsdale said, “we’re not a defeated people.”
Many analysts say the project is doomed, and speculation about alternatives is vigorous, but late last year Enbridge opened a new Gateway office in Prince George and committed $150 million to the next phase of engineering work on pipeline.
Shortly thereafter, federal Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver told reporters he still hopes the project will proceed.
Meanwhile, a federally-appointed panel continues to hold public hearings, with their findings due in Ottawa by the end of the year.
Officially, the project is still on track. If that doesn’t change, Ottawa will be faced with the prospect of fighting numerous First Nations in court — First Nations that have not signed treaties or otherwise ceded their lands, which gives them a stronger legal leg to stand on.
Ottawa will also face the prospect of arresting dozens of respected and articulate aboriginal leaders and elders, along with many more community members, as the world looks on.
That would almost certainly ignite an international swell of support for the First Nations that would make Idle No More look like an opening act. The fact the anti-Gateway movement has a simple objective, established leaders, a geographic centre, reasonable chances of success and appeal well beyond aboriginal circles would likely enable it to mobilize support that would dwarf the rallies of Idle No More.
It may not come to this. The project may be quietly shelved at some point. But if Ottawa and Enbridge do not relent, Canada may face a defining moment in terms of aboriginal relations.
The question Northern Gateway presents is not only whether Canada should build its future, in part, with the proceeds of bitumen exports, but whether a federal resource development plan that steamrolls First Nations who oppose projects is tenable.
Will Braun is a writer from Morden, Manitoba.