A group of First Nations leaders in B.C. are urging governments to stop two pipeline projects on unceded land, as a United Nations committee raps Ottawa again for failing to obtain their consent.
Both pipelines have government permits and approvals from many elected band councils, but neither has obtained free, prior and informed consent from all Indigenous peoples whose land they cross, the leaders say.
“It is Indigenous peoples’ right to self-determination and to be self-determining according to our laws, our traditional governance systems,” said Sleydo’ (Molly Wickham), spokesperson for the Gidimt’en Checkpoint, on Wednesday.
“The band councils are responsible for the reserve communities only in our territories and have recognized that themselves over the years.”
Gidimt’en is one of five clans of the Wet’suwet’en Nation, and the Gidimt’en Checkpoint has, for several years, guarded access to unceded clan territory — land that has never been surrendered to the Crown through treaties. It has, at times, blocked Coastal GasLink workers from accessing their construction site, going against a court-ordered injunction.
Representatives from the Wet’suwet’en Nation, Tiny House Warriors, Tsleil-Waututh Nation Sacred Trust Initiative, Union of BC Indian Chiefs, and Indigenous Network on Economies and Trade held a news briefing renewing their call for government intervention in both Coastal GasLink and TMX.
Last month, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination sent its third letter to Canada’s representative to the UN in Geneva, expressing grave concern about government approval and police enforcement related to Trans Mountain and Coastal GasLink.
The April 29 letter alleges escalated use of force, surveillance, and “criminalization of land defenders” have been used to “intimidate, remove and forcible evict” Wet’suwet’en and Secwepemc peoples from their land.
In December 2019, the committee urged Canada to cease those evictions and withdraw RCMP and associated security presence from their traditional lands.
“The Committee profoundly regrets and is concerned that despite its calls to the State party, the information received points rather to an increase of the above-mentioned acts against Secwepemc and Wet’suwet’en peoples,” reads the letter.
If completed, the Trans Mountain project will nearly triple the capacity of the existing 1,150-kilometre pipeline that carries 300,000 barrels per day of petroleum products from Alberta to B.C. and significantly increasing the number of tankers carrying oil for export.
According to its website, the Trans Mountain Corporation has inked 67 mutual benefit agreements with 73 “Indigenous groups” in B.C. and Alberta. The Tsleil-Waututh Nation is one of several in B.C. that is not among them.
The 670-kilometre Coastal GasLink pipeline, if completed, would transport natural gas from northeastern B.C. to a liquefied natural gas facility in coastal Kitimat, where it would be exported to global markets.
According to its website, the company has signed agreements with all 20 elected “Indigenous groups” along the pipeline route. The elected Wet’suwet’en band council has agreed to it as well, while the hereditary chiefs and their supporters have said it has no place on their expansive territory.
Both pipeline operators have touted the much-needed jobs and revenue they will bring to the province, and its supporters say the projects will bring clean Canadian fuel to international markets. The companies say they can mitigate environmental risks to land and water ecosystems, but opponents say they will do irreparable harm, contribute to the climate crisis, and trample Indigenous sovereignty.
The UN committee has previously called on Ottawa to halt construction on both projects until free, prior and informed consent — as outlined in the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples — is obtained.
In a November 2020 letter, it accused Canada of interpreting that principle as engagement in good-faith dialogue, and to “guarantee a process, but not a particular result.”
The federal heritage ministry is responsible for Canada’s international human rights reporting. In an emailed statement, spokesperson David Larose said the ministry will co-ordinate with B.C. and other federal departments to respond to the UN committee’s concerns, hopefully by its July 15 deadline. The pandemic has delayed previous reporting, he added.
He did not address specific concerns related to pipelines and Indigenous sovereignty, and both Indigenous Services Canada and the press secretary for Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Marc Miller referred a request for comment to other departments.
In an email, the B.C. government reiterated its commitment to advancing reconciliation through meaningful consultation and its Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
“The work to align provincial law with Indigenous law is complex,” the Ministry of Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation said. “Resolving these fundamental issues will help avoid conflicts on the land, at the negotiating table and in the courts benefiting communities and all British Columbians.”
The declaration, the ministry added, includes a pledge to work with Ottawa and First Nations to set up an institution that will support nation- and governance-building in accordance with First Nations laws, customs and traditions.
The committee’s letter was released the same day the federal government approved an approximately $10-billion loan guarantee for Trans Mountain through a fund that’s used to support projects that are in its national interest and that are subject to significant risks including project size, borrower risk, or market risk.
On Tuesday, less than two weeks later, Tsleil-Waututh advocate Will George was sentenced in B.C. Supreme Court to 28 days in jail for protesting the Trans Mountain expansion while on his unceded territory. Last September, he and several others had been ordered not to obstruct access to the Trans Mountain terminal in Burnaby.
“The judge didn’t even know, in the time of reconciliation, where Tsleil-Waututh was, and she was sitting in the heart of the Tsleil-Waututh Nation,” Rueben George of the Tsleil-Waututh’s Sacred Trust Initiative said on Wednesday.
“All we want, what we need and require, and what this international governing body is saying, is treat us fair. If you treat us fair and look at the facts, everybody would be better off.”
The UN committee has said Canada has repeatedly failed to respond to its requests for information on how the country is fulfilling UNDRIP requirements as they pertains to the B.C. pipelines, as well as how it’s fulfilling its calls to cease construction and violence against Indigenous peoples who oppose the project.
“The fact that Canada continues to disobey the UN order shows the level of hypocrisy in this country,” Tiny House Warriors spokesperson Kanahus Manuel said in a Wednesday news release.
“While the Prime Minister defends international law in Ukraine, he continues with the criminal assault on our people and land. They refuse to respect the sovereignty and self-determination of the Secwepemc people who have never consented to this pipeline — which is an attack on our environment, on our Indigenous right to our land and is seen, even in the financial markets, as a project that is so reckless that insurance companies are walking away from it.”
– With files from The Canadian Press