Assembly of First Nations to host national energy forum in February

Members of the Public Safety Unit guard the site of the Enbridge hearing in Vancouver, Jan 24, 2013.

Members of the Public Safety Unit guard the site of the Enbridge Northern Gateway hearings in Vancouver, BC, Jan 24, 2013.

The future of Canada’s two largest pipeline projects hinges on the cooperation of First Nations throughout the country.

by Christopher Curtis, Montreal Gazette, July 8, 2015

With billions of dollars and swaths of aboriginal territory at stake, the Assembly of First Nations will try to leverage their legal rights and force a negotiation with Canada’s energy producers and the federal government. AFN National Chief Perry Bellegarde said Tuesday he plans on hosting a national energy forum in February with the goal of getting big oil, Ottawa and First Nations at the table.

But some say the pipeline issue can’t wait until next year and that aboriginal chiefs have to unite and resist the expansion of Alberta oil sands development across Canada. The debate illustrates the complex relationship between the federal government, First Nations and natural resource exploitation.

“Yes we want to have a dialogue, a dialogue about pipelines and mining, about alternative sources of energy,” said Bellegarde, speaking at the organization’s general assembly in Montreal.

“We need to bring everybody together and find that common ground because right now (the discussion) is all over (the place). This is really too important to not bring people together to dialogue: the industry, the private sector, the public sector, First Nations governments, environmentalists, all these people will come together to find that common ground.”

AFN grand chief Perry Bellegarde.

AFN grand chief Perry Bellegarde.

While details about the forum are scant, there’s no sidestepping two simple facts: both pipeline projects pass through dozens of aboriginal communities and the companies building them are bound by the Canadian Constitution to consult with First Nations before moving forward.

Enbridge’s proposed Northern Gateway pipeline would transport Alberta oil to the West Coast for shipping to Asia, while TransCanada’s proposed Energy East project would connect new and existing pipelines to transport oil to refineries on the East Coast.

There is concern among First Nations people that an oil spill could devastate traditional lands.

As a result, Enbridge and TransCanada are facing injunctions from band councils and environmentalists across the country and some activists have threatened to physically block the construction of a pipeline through their reserves.

While many gathered at Wednesday’s assembly echoed Bellegarde’s enthusiasm for dialogue, Manitoba’s chiefs said the time for action is now.

“These are life and death situations,” said Grand Chief Derek Nepinak, of the Manitoba Assembly of Chiefs. “We’re talking about the future of our communities and the future of our fresh drinking water.

“We cannot wait until 2016 to have these discussions, we need to have them now,” he continued. “We need to aggregate our best arguments now, our best processes now because if we wait until 2016 we’ll have missed our opportunity to get in the way of some of these big projects.

“(We need to) dictate the course of our future, which is really the future of our environment and our ability to sustain ourselves on our territory.”

Nepinak’s group represents 64 Manitoba First Nations — at least six of which would be affected by the $12-billion Energy East pipeline. He said the Manitoba chiefs will host leaders from across the country in Montreal on Thursday in hopes of devising a unified strategy to fight the projects.

While AFN’s leadership has traditionally sought governmental change through the legislative process, Nepinak has a history of forcing confrontation with Ottawa. In December 2012 — at the outset of what would eventually become the Idle no More protest movement — Nepinak helped organize a protest march from the AFN’s general assembly in Gatineau to Parliament Hill.

In the end, the broad-shouldered Nepinak and other chiefs tried to bowl their way into Parliament but were escorted away by security. At the time, the Manitoba chief and others were frustrated over the Conservative Government’s treatment of aboriginal peoples — who are still recovering from a legacy of government policies designed to eradicate indigenous languages, culture and land.

Despite his occasional heavy-handed approach to negotiating, Nepinak is recognized as a shrewd and popular leader who speaks for a more action-oriented wing of the AFN.

In Kanesatake — a Quebec Mohawk community near Montreal — opposition to the Energy East project could also play itself out in the courts. The proposed pipeline would pass through the northern edge of the Mohawk settlement.

“We won’t roll over for anyone,” said Kanesatake Grand Chief Serge Simon. “Your pipeline violates my community’s laws and if you want to take me to court, go for it, the judge will get an earful. … We can’t stand alone, we’re forming an alliance with the (Quebec) Innu and communities in British Columbia. Let’s form a vice between east and west and let’s start squeezing them in.”

Simon has previously said his people will form barricades to prevent construction of the pipeline.

Meanwhile, a separate battle over indigenous land rights and energy concerns is playing out on the eastern edge of Quebec. With the provincial Liberals set to lift a moratorium on oil exploration in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, a First Nations coalition wants to stop the project in its tracks.

They claim a comprehensive, 12-year assessment — one that would include Quebec and the four Maritime provinces in the gulf — is needed before any drilling can take place. For centuries, the Mi’gmaq, Maliset and Innu have relied on Atlantic salmon stocks to preserve their way of life. The salmon fisheries account for about $10 million in annual revenues for the Listiguj Mi’gmaq First Nation.

“I will never accept royalties from the oil sector,” said Jean-Charles Piétacho of the Innu of Ekuanitshit. “I’m not an activist, I’m not an alarmist, I’m a realist… I’ve seen what an oil spill can do to an ecosystem as fragile as the (gulf’s).”

Though many First Nations face federal funding shortfalls and chronic poverty, there’s a growing resistance to bridge that gap using royalties from the energy sector. Representatives from the Innu and Mi’gmaq both said they’d refuse oil money if a project went forward near their traditional fisheries. For her part, Maliset chief Anne Archambault said such a decision could only be made by the members of her band.

Posted on July 9, 2015, in Indian Act Indians, Oil & Gas and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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