Last Saturday, Indigenous leaders stood arm-in-arm in front of the gates of Kinder Morgan’s pipeline worksite in Burnaby, British Columbia.
For weeks before, hundreds of non-native people – environmentalists, federal parliamentarians Elizabeth May and Kennedy Stewart, even an engineer formerly employed by the Texas oil corporation – had marched to the same place. In each case, police approached, read aloud their violation of a no-go zone, and arrested and shackled them.
Now it was the turn of half of the leadership of the Union of BC Indian Chiefs, including Grand Chief Stewart Phillip. They waited in the rain for hours. But the police never came.
It wasn’t an accident. As the push for this pipeline has transfixed the country, there’s one image the oil industry and Canadian government desperately want to avoid: that of Indigenous peoples as the unifying front of a rising movement for an alternative.
The media has thus far done them the favour. We’ve heard little about the Tsleil-Waututh and Squamish, the coastal First Nations who’ve taken the federal government to court. We’ve heard even less about the Secwepemc in the interior of BC – whose lands cover almost half of Kinder Morgan’s route – who are building solar-panelled tiny houses directly in the pipeline’s path. And we’ve heard nothing about the Lubicon, Athabasca Chipewyan and Beaver Lake Cree downstream of the Alberta mines, who first raised the cry of concern about Canada’s future with the tar sands.
They understand what the Alberta and Canadian governments seem to not. To prevent climate breakdown, we must stop oil companies from digging up new deposits of fossil fuels. Government boosters of each pipeline project have instead sent a very clear message: to hell with our climate commitments. So Indigenous peoples have done what our governments will not: they’ve drawn the line.
At a meeting in Alberta ten years ago, long before the world knew of the tar sands, a young Indigenous activist named Clayton Thomas-Mueller pointed at a map of proposed pipelines, sprawling like tentacles across North America. “This map traces where our allies will emerge,” he predicted.
And so we’ve seen new, diverse coalitions of Indigenous and non-Indigenous people spring forth in the pathway of the Northern Gateway, Keystone XL, and Energy East pipelines. Each has been stalled or halted. Kinder Morgan’s TransMountain expansion – tripling its carrying capacity – is the latest. The thousands who’ve flocked to Burnaby mountain the last weeks now know that real climate leaders aren’t found in legislatures. They’re found mounting blockades on the ground.
The rule of law, you say? By pushing through the pipeline, Justin Trudeau bulldozes it himself. He violates Indigenous land rights on unceded lands that have been recognized by the Supreme Court, and the right to “free, prior informed consent” in the United Nations declaration. He violates the Paris Climate Accords, whose ambitious target his government was praised for helping establish. And he violates an electoral mandate granted by a majority of British Columbians. In other words, the Indigenous-led opposition to pipelines aren’t “rogue criminals” or a “noisy minority.” They’re enforcing the democratic will of a province – and the sacred legal duties of the country.
So don’t let pundits and politicians pretend this crisis is about BC Premier John Horgan defying federal jurisdiction. Governments aren’t provoking a new constitutional impasse. They’re prolonging an old colonial pillage. Much of the remaining pools of global carbon – and the infrastructure to ship it out – are located on Indigenous peoples’ territories. Which makes the attempt to trample through their lands by a foreign oil company – a spawn of Enron – part of a long, familiar story. Yet Justin Trudeau doesn’t call this what it is. He calls it the “national interest.”
But wrapping a crime in the flag of national interest can only shroud the truth for so long. The wall of Indigenous-led protest points the way to a new story: a transition off fossil fuels to a thriving low-carbon economy. The world is already turning on the tar sands. Its shadow may tower over Canadian politics, but its contribution is diminishing and small: just 2 percent of our economy.
The good news is that we can create far more jobs through investment in renewable energy, public transit, and housing retrofits than in oil and gas – as many as 34 times more. So Trudeau and Alberta premier Rachel Notley shouldn’t be bailing out a Texas oil billionaire. They should be bailing out Canada’s workers and the climate.
To say that Indigenous peoples have become the heroes in this fight isn’t high-minded romanticism. It’s hard-bitten reality. Those First Nations who’ve signed deals with Kinder Morgan struggle with crushing poverty – they are stuck between a pipeline and a hard place. And as Indigenous rights have become more formidable, the financials buy-offs – as much as $1bn per fossil fuel project – have only grown larger. This suggests one thing about the resistance of other First Nations: that it is even more remarkable.
“We need the money [the project would bring], but we don’t need it enough to sell out the things we love and are spiritually connected to – and that’s our land, our water, our people,” Rueben George of the Tsleil-Waututh First Nation said on Friday.
The Tsleil-Waututh, and their many growing supporters, will be on watch when Kinder Morgan takes its likely next step: drilling a hole through Burnaby mountain. Polls show that 10 percent of British Columbians – an astonishing half-a-million people – are already prepared to engage in civil disobedience to stop it. They understand what government and industry hoped they would not: that Indigenous rights aren’t just a tool to forge a safe, liveable future – they’re the most powerful one we have.
It means the best representative of our national interest isn’t Justin Trudeau or Rachel Notley, nor even John Horgan. It’s the Indigenous peoples standing in the path of a pipeline.