Federal hearings continued in Prince Rupert B.C last week when the Enbridge Northern Gateway Project Joint Review Panel met with local First Nations leaders and activists as part of an ongoing public consultation process. The Panel, mandated by Minister of Environment Joe Oliver, sets out to assess environmental risks posed by the project through a series of public hearings throughout B.C and Alberta. During the most recent hearings, Calgary-based oil producer Enbridge Inc. acknowledged that some stakeholders will inevitably be dissatisfied with final decisions about the project. As Enbridge Executive Vice President, Janet Holder told the panel in Prince Rupert, this is “a very complex project,” and there are “some interests that are impossible for us to incorporate.” The Joint Review Panel is responsible for deciding how to best accommodate the collection of diverse interests invested in the resource development project. Considering the growing pressure from the Alberta government to expand oil sands markets, however, affected Indigenous communities are concerned that their political, social and environmental interests as ‘stakeholders’ will be deemed marginal in comparison to a larger journey toward national economic prosperity.
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While the review hearings proceeded in Prince Rupert, First Nations leaders from across Canada and the United States gathered in Ottawa last Wednesday (22 March 2013) to oppose both Keystone XL and Northern Gateway pipelines. The Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, the Tsleil-Waututh Nation, the Yankton Sinoux Nation, and the Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg Nation have joined the Yinka Dene Alliance in their fight against the proposed pipelines. Despite Minister Oliver’s claim that “there is an opportunity to transform many aboriginal communities which have been suffering from high unemployment for far too long,” these First Nations leaders promised to actively resist these resource development projects. While the federal government has celebrated proceedings like the Joint Review Panel as a step towards recognizing Indigenous concerns about development, some bands and nations have disregarded the legitimacy of these hearings, while others have been forced to drop out because they are unable to afford ongoing legal fees. It is becoming increasingly obvious for Indigenous communities that their environmental concerns, decision-making protocols and constitutional treaty rights have limited relevance for other stakeholders involved in these specific projects. In response to this negligence, the alliance of First Nations leaders in Ottawa pointed to the Canadian government’s failure to adequately address the social, environmental and economic issues Indigenous communities confront as a result of market expansion and resource development.
In Alberta, however, pipelines present an opportunity to expand oil sands markets during times of fiscal restraint. In the wake of the province’s controversial 2013 budget, approval of pipelines from the oil sands has become a pressing matter. The Redford administration has predicted that Albertan oil companies will generate $6-billion less in provincial revenue this year as a result of low oil prices. In response to this estimated loss, cuts to social programming have been made and public funding has been delegated to promote projects like Keystone XL and Northern Gateway. Once oil sands markets are expanded, Alberta will have access to revenues necessary to restore funding to social services, education and health services on a provincial and perhaps even a federal level. As the province’s budget release states, these cuts should be understood as a “responsible change” necessary to secure new markets for Alberta’s resources and to invest in growing families and communities.
If we accept that the pipelines will help to prevent the province from running a deficit and provide long-term benefits to all Albertans, Albertans benefiting from social programming become stakeholders in these resource development projects. To oppose the pipeline for reasons other than far reaching environmental risks is, at least from this standpoint, to elevate specialized interests above the interests of the province and, in turn, the nation as a whole. In the context of Redford’s fiscal plan, opposition to the pipelines becomes special interest issue obfuscating the province’s primary goal to provide economic security and social benefits to all Albertans. As a result of the logic of the 2013 provincial budget, Indigenous communities intending to stop the Alberta’s pipelines find themselves in a complicated relationship with another group of stakeholders—Albertans who are dependent on provincially funded services.
When the alliance of First Nations leaders spoke to politicians in Ottawa, they testified to the devastating environmental risks posed by the oil sands yet being concealed by the Albertan government. As Chief Allan Adam of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation said in a news release last Wednesday: “The Canadian government is spending a lot of money and time in the United States saying the tar sands are environmental and well-regulated, but my community – the polluted air we breathe, the polluted water we drink, the miles of toxic lakes – is living proof the Canadian government is telling one long, expensive lie.” While development of the oil sands has allowed Alberta to prosper as a province, those communities within close proximity of the projects suffer from chronic illnesses caused by pollution. Yet Chief Allan Adam’s point is not simply that the oil sands pose huge risks to the environment; he has also, along with other First Nations leaders, helped to expose the prosperity of certain groups within Canada as dependent upon the negligence of another. Together these leaders called on Canadians to recognize its government’s decisions as necessarily exclusionary and unjust, despite the appearance of democracy at the site of the public hearing or the equity deal. Drawing on the language of grass roots Indigenous movement Idle No More, Chief Reuben George of the Tsleil-Waututh First Nation said, “we, as a nation, have to wake up.”
Cynthia Spring is a writer living in Edmonton.
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