An anti-coal mining car rally organized by Piikani Mountain Child Valley Society took place Saturday morning.
“It’s our traditional hunting, gathering and our ceremonial lands,” said chairman of the Mountain Child Valley Society, Adam North Peigan. “And with the coal mining that’s going to proceed, it’s going to desecrate our ancestral lands and the beautiful mountains just west of us.”
North Peigan said at the height of Saturday’s rally there were 60 cars driving down Highway 3 from Crowsnest Lake to Brocket.
The plan was to drive down to the river bottom for a rally. A small stage could be seen from Highway 3 where speeches and a performance from country artist Corb Lund would take place.
But that changed.
Organizers arrived at the road that leads down to the river bottom to find Piikani Nation security blocking anyone who wasn’t a band member from going down.
They had a statement from Piikani Nation chief and council, citing concerns of the event spreading COVID-19.
Only band members could go down to the river bottom.
This came as a surprise to North Peigan.
“But what we’re finding is our chief and council have imposed a media ban as well as a ban on any non-Nation members being able to attend the rally because they actually support the coal mining.”
Piikani Nation chief and council have previously put forward their support towards the Grassy Mountain coal mine project, which was recently under review by a Joint Review Panel. A report on the project is expected.
On the Piikani Nation website, chief and council issued a statement and frequently asked questions.
“We are deeply, deeply concerned,” said North Peigan. “Contrary to the position of our chief and council that do support the coal mining.”
“It’s unfortunate that chief and council have done that, and it’s really really a sore spot in our leadership.”
North Peigan said that many Piikani Nation members are opposed to coal-mining on their lands.
Piikani Nation elder Wilfred Yellow Wings Sr. attended the car rally. He told media how the Old Man River is a sacred site, Pine Tree Sun Dance Lodge.
“It’s a sacred area where they’re going to dig up the Mother Earth. Elders from way back held our rivers sacred.”
He also expressed his disappointment with Piikani Nation leadership when it comes to coal mining and the roadblock.
“I’m sad. The elders are sad.”
A statement from chief operating officer of Piikani Nation, Clayton Cunningham, was sent out later Saturday afternoon.
It reads, in part: “The Piikani Nation has worked for over five years to be confident that the Grassy Mountain Mine will pose a minimal risk to its lands, waters culture and traditional way of life … With respect to the protest planned on Piikani reserve lands, the Nation is only preventing off-reserve members from entering the community to protect its members from the pandemic.
“Any suggestion that the Piikani Nation is stopping members from voicing their opinions on Piikani decisions is categorically false. The simple fact is that the Piikani Nation can’t risk a COVID-19 outbreak in its community.”
Close to 30 cars were parked on the side of Highway 3, unable to go down to the rally.
But that didn’t stop them from making sure their voices were heard.
“I have heard about this issue and I have heard about healthcare over the past year and precious little else,” said Lethbridge-West MLA, Shannon Phillips. “Everyone is worried about access to water and giving away billions of liters of water to coal mining companies that are going to use it and potentially really abuse it for what, 10-12 years? And a couple hundred jobs? It’s just not worth it for the jobs we’re putting at risk now.”
Country artist Corb Lund lives in Lethbridge. He’s been actively speaking out about coal mining in the Rockies and is even releasing a song about it.
“I understand there’s a few jobs to be had,” said Lund. “But you weigh that against the tourism jobs and the agriculture jobs that will be lost, and the potential cost of cleaning up the mess after the coal companies are long gone, and it just doesn’t make any sense.”
“Drive down here you see signs like this in every field along the highway,” said Edmonton-Goldbar MLA and Environment and Parks Critic NDP, Marlin Schmidt. “I’ve never seen anything like this before. It’s really heartening to see the people taking the power into their own hands and saying no to these kinds of projects.”
Cars drove up and down the highway waving flags and carrying signs before dispersing. Some band members did go down to the river bottom for a smaller rally. Speeches could faintly be heard from the highway.
“This is the biggest threat to Alberta I’ve seen in my lifetime I think,” said Lund. “I know that the mountains in this area are sacred to the Blackfoot people, and my family has been here for only a few generations. But they’re sacred to me too. I’m a human being. I feel the magic in this area and it shouldn’t be messed with.”
“We the members of Piikani Nation are very, very resilient,” said North Peigan. “We’re very, very passionate about protecting Mother Earth. We’re stewards to the land, so we need to do what we need to do to protect Mother Earth now and for future generations.”