Q&A: Why First Nations Are Stopping Enbridge’s Tar Sands Pipeline

'We're serious about our economy. We want to make sure that it's self-sufficient and doesn't harm the environment—so it lasts forever.'

First Nations protest against the Harper government's plans for oil sands expansion. Credit: Jen Castro

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British Columbia’s First Nations have fought the proposed Northern Gateway oil sands pipeline that would cross their land for years, and they have no intention of letting up just because the federal government recently approved it. They’ve ignored the wishes of Canadian Prime Minister Harper, shrugged off oil industry promises of local jobs, and rejected offers of part ownership in what could be a lucrative and long-lived project.

In short, they’ve been impervious to the kinds of political pressure and financial enticements that routinely succeed in smoothing the way for oil-related projects in the United States. How come?

A big part of the defiance comes from the Coastal First Nations, an alliance of aboriginal groups in British Columbia that has no interest in allowing diluted bitumen from Alberta’s oil sands to pass through their territories or get shipped through their fishing grounds. The environment is too important to their culture, to their economy and to a succession of generations to come.

And because most First Nations in British Columbia never signed treaties ceding their lands or development rights to the Canadian government, they have been challenging projects in court—and winning. The latest and most significant court victory came in June, when the Canadian Supreme Court upheld aboriginal land titles and rights, and suggested that in places where land claims are not subject to treaties, First Nations may have de facto veto rights over projects on their territorial lands.

Art Sterritt, executive director of the Coastal First Nations, has been a key player in the Northern Gateway saga. At 66, he’s a goldsmith, sculptor and carver of totem poles and masks. But in serving on a tribal council, then becoming a treaty negotiator, and then joining the Coastal First Nations, Sterritt is following a family history of civic duty and activism. His dad, who turns 101 in early August, is a chief. He’s also trying to make the world a better place for his 18 grandchildren.

In an interview with InsideClimate News, Sterritt elaborated on what’s driving the First Nations’ opposition to the Northern Gateway and why they can’t be won over. The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

ICN: What is the Coastal First Nations and why was it formed?

Sterritt: We’re an association of First Nations. We came together because of what the forest industry was doing. We were acknowledged by the provincial B.C. government as being the government in the region. Now we have ecosystem-based management practices so that you don’t log at a rate that will wipe out the forest.

All of our communities have a land use plan. We have a marine use plan. What that means is that we’re serious about our economy. We want to make sure that it’s self-sufficient based on what’s there, and that it doesn’t harm the environment—so it lasts forever.

ICN: Why is protecting the environment so important for Coastal First Nations?

Sterritt: The area that we live in represents 25 percent of the coastal temperate rainforest left on the planet. So this is a very, very significant area. It’s an amazingly beautiful area. Tourism is a huge, huge draw. So our communities are moving themselves toward renewable industries—industries that don’t destroy the environment. We have carbon offsets that we get out of the forest. As we protect the forest, there’s the ability to sequester carbon, which helps with the environment, and in return for that, there’s revenue coming in. 

ICN: How did Alberta’s tar sands and the Northern Gateway project come into play?

Sterritt: We have invested, over the last 15 years, in excess of $400 million in this exercise [of planning for a sustainable economy]. We depend on the natural environment for the jobs that we have, and there’s over 30,000 jobs on the coast of B.C. Right in the middle of all this arrives Northern Gateway, a project which actually jeopardizes everything. All those things we’re doing, if you think about it, one oil spill, and all of those are over.

ICN: You don’t think the pipeline and oil industry would protect your environment?

Sterritt: You’re talking about an industry that doesn’t have a culture of cleaning up their mess. Their culture is in covering up their mess with dispersants. We’re still looking at what Enbridge did in the Kalamazoo River in Michigan. They haven’t cleaned that up yet. They cleaned up 10-15 percent of the oil [from the Exxon Valdez] in Alaska. In the Gulf of Mexico, [BP] cleaned up something like six percent. They don’t have the technology to clean up a spill in the ocean. It doesn’t exist.

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ICN: What about the promise of jobs and the prospect of an equity interest in the Northern Gateway project?

Sterritt: We’re not a bunch of poverty stricken, illiterate people. This is a highly developed society—a culture that’s sophisticated in terms of respecting the environment, recognizing what you need to do in order to maintain it, and with a sophisticated art form and languages and everything else. That’s what they didn’t realize. They just figured, oh we’ll flash a couple jobs and a couple bucks under their nose, and they’ll just jump up and down. When you have all that, and somebody comes along and offers you a few jobs, it’s just a joke. You’ll jeopardize more jobs than you’re creating.

ICN: What does it mean to have the Supreme Court of Canada recently uphold aboriginal territorial rights?

Sterritt: It’s been groundbreaking. What that means is that you can’t just ride roughshod over First Nations. They do have rights. They do have title. And the title and rights are enshrined in the Constitution of Canada. Over the last 30 or 40 years, there have been over 200 court cases that First Nations have won where it lays out their right to fish, their right to hunt, their right to an economy, their right to their culture and their societies.

ICN: What is the Coastal First Nations’ position on other kinds of economic development?

Sterritt: We’re not against development. We are involved in industries that don’t have the potential to wipe us out. For First Nations, the first thing they deal with is the environment. If they look at a project and see that the project is going to do irreparable harm to the place they’ve lived in for tens of thousands of years, it’s not going to happen. If a project comes along that is not going to destroy what we already have, you’ve got a pretty good chance of the project moving ahead. 

ICN: And you include liquefied natural gas (LNG) projects among those that could move ahead? 

Sterritt: We are actively involved in helping develop a responsible natural gas industry. Those ships are big, and they would disrupt some of our harvesting and fishing and stuff, so we’re working together to make sure that’s done properly. Are you emitting too much carbon into the atmosphere? Are you contaminating the local airsheds where our people live? If there are impacts, they have to be mitigated. That’s a pretty good formula for starting a conversation.

ICN: I heard that you went on a fact-finding trip to Louisiana and several other oil states along the Gulf of Mexico in 2011 after the BP Spill. What was the purpose?

Sterritt: We were in the middle of making a decision on whether or not we could support the Northern Gateway project. We had seen that the industry couldn’t clean up Alaska, and we figured if anyone could [clean up an ocean oil spill], we would see it there. That was the biggest oil spill cleanup in history, and they couldn’t clean it up. That was the death knell for the Northern Gateway for us.

ICN: You talk about an “oil culture” on the U.S. Gulf Coast and elsewhere. What does that mean?

Sterritt: That’s the culture that the oil industry is trying to introduce us to. It’s one that tries to create dependency from people that live in the region, and once they’ve created that dependency, they can do whatever they want.

If you look at those oil states, that’s what they’ve done. Some people, even some First Nations people, seem to think that somehow we have to become part of this oil culture. It’s not true. We don’t need it. We have a really amazing culture. We don’t depend on anybody but our environment. That’s what it’s about for First Nations.

Alberta is heading down that road, and they don’t have a plan. A group like Coastal First Nations—well, we have a plan. Our plan doesn’t include any industry that jeopardizes the plan.