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Facing crushing development, First Nations withdrawing permission

Editor’s Note: Oil and gas development proposals are rampant across British Columbia, punctuated by Enbridge, Inc.’s plan to build a pipeline across the province, to carry bitumen from Alberta’s tar sands to the Pacific. In an excerpt from a piece that appeared March 17 in the Toronto Star, former Ecotrust leader Ian Gill looks at why Canadians and, especially B.C. First Nations groups, are saying: no way. And in the extended piece, he suggests that indigenous people lead the revisioning of economic development for this century.

By Ian Gill

One week before Christmas, 2012, the B.C. government announced a permanent ban on oil and gas development in the Sacred Headwaters. “As part of a tripartite agreement, Shell Canada is immediately withdrawing plans to explore for natural gas in the Klappan by relinquishing its tenures,” the province said in a statement. “In addition, the Province of British Columbia will not issue future petroleum and natural-gas tenures in the area.”

“Today is a huge milestone,” said Annita McPhee, chair of the Tahltan Central Council, which governs the Tahltan First Nation. “I am just beyond words about how deeply moved I am about Shell giving up its tenures in the Klappan.”

Karen Tam Woo, a campaigner with ForestEthics Advocacy, one of the environmental groups that spearheaded the international campaign to protect the Sacred Headwaters, was jubilant. “Days like today are few and far between,” she said. “It’s a big deal when small communities can stand up to one of the biggest corporations in the world and win.”

Shell, which reportedly spent $30 million and a decade going nowhere in the Klappan, was rewarded with $20 million in development credits in the province’s northeast and, after removing its test wells and remediating the area, will leave the Klappan for good.

In attempting to build the Northern Gateway pipeline, Enbridge should be so lucky. It is reportedly spending $250 million promoting a project that will no doubt win National Energy Board approval in the coming months, although almost certainly to no avail. The informed consensus is that the Northern Gateway pipeline is dead because too many First Nations communities oppose it. Perhaps out of fear of setting a precedent, the company persists — as does the government — in a doomed approvals process that no one seems to know how to call time on.

First Nations and community groups who are opposed to the pipeline are forced to spend their own countless hours and millions of dollars locked in successive rounds of futile hearings, while drawing the ire of Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver, who characterizes anyone opposed to industrial development as a “radical.” In early February, a key coastal First Nations intervenor finally gave up, its paltry funds simply no match for Enbridge’s quarter billion, and the inexhaustible resources of government.

When Enbridge, like Shell before it, abandons its project, it will no doubt seek to be compensated for its failed efforts. First Nations and environmentalists won’t be compensated, but will otherwise feel rewarded with another “victory” against industry. But there will be plenty of new battles to lose, as Canada continues to encourage investments in an old industrial paradigm that has long-since run its course. Maybe we’ll ship tarsands products east, not west! Maybe Keystone will take them south! — and if we can’t find investors here at home, we can always sell off nationally crucial energy assets to countries like China, who will be happy to extract resources in a foreign country when it can exploit that country’s weak environmental laws.

That irony alone should give serious pause to Canadians. Certainly, it adds more fuel to Idle No More, given that First Nations are at the front lines of just about every attempt — large or small — to develop Canada’s natural resources in this, our climate change century.

Ian Gill (left) and Patrick Dodson, a Yawuru leader who is Australia's figure in aboriginal reconciliation and rights, and former chair of Ecotrust Australia.
Ian Gill (left) and Patrick Dodson, a Yawuru leader who is Australia’s figure in aboriginal reconciliation and rights, and former chair of Ecotrust Australia.
Ian Gill (left) and Patrick Dodson, a Yawuru leader who is Australia’s top figure in aboriginal reconciliation and rights, and former chair of Ecotrust Australia. Photo by Spencer Beebe

Coming back to Canada after almost three years abroad, it is hard not to conclude that this is a lousy way to run a country. The reflexive response from many people is to demonize the Conservatives, and blame Stephen Harper for everything. Mere hours after arriving back in Vancouver last fall, I found myself in the middle of what has become a constant, unofficial (and admittedly unscientific) disapprovals hearing. At the grocery store: a mother and teenage daughter buttonholing me to tell me they will lie down naked in front of bulldozers if construction of Northern Gateway is ever attempted (well, I actually think the teenager was humouring her mother, as I doubt she’d really lie down in the buff in front of a bunch of pipeline workers).

Over dinner, people who have never evinced even the slightest interest in aboriginal issues now siding with First Nations’ opposition to Bills C38 and C45. In the news: the Premier of B.C. and the Opposition leader in rare, pre-election agreement that Northern Gateway ill-serves British Columbia. On a trip to Toronto: decidedly unradical, un-environmental Canadians telling me that they are ashamed of the country’s addiction to oil and its treatment of aboriginal people and, unprompted, making a causal link between the two.

I’m asked about Australia, where I lived and worked most recently, and the news from there isn’t really any better. Canada is not alone in suffering from a split personality when it comes to managing the demands of a growing and greedy society in an era of fiscal austerity and rapidly accelerating environmental stress — let alone dealing fairly with its Indigenous people. Australia, precariously ruled by a government that is the antithesis of the Harper Conservatives, is in precisely the same bind. Sure, Prime Minister Julia Gillard has brought in a carbon tax and, with the Greens holding the balance of power in the Senate, has been forced to accommodate a plethora of demands that not even the wettest Chrétien or Martin Liberals would have tolerated in their most progressive years.

But Australia, like Canada, remains in a kind of dead man’s dance between government and industry and Indigenous people, largely because both national governments are unable or unwilling to honestly confront the depth of the deceit upon which both countries have based their economies. Both nations have begun to reach the limits of government authority based on a lie — the continued denial of the rights and title of aboriginal peoples. They are beginning to experience the stirring of what might come to be — almost as a mirror to the ecological disruptions that threaten our physical existence — a succession of century-defining social and political disruptions that could put our national governments on an endangered species list all of their own making.

What we are beginning to witness, and it goes well beyond Idle No More, is a withdrawal of permission.

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ian gillIan Gill, who served as president of Ecotrust in Canada, the U.S. and most recently in Australia, is a former newspaper and CBC Television journalist, and the author of All That We Say Is Ours: Guujaaw and the Reawakening of the Haida Nation. He is an Australian and Canadian citizen. He lives in Vancouver. gillfile@gmail.com . Twitter: @gillwave