July 20, 2016

Court Overturns Pipeline Permit, Victory for First Nations

Kelsey Hill

The First Nations peoples of Canada are rejoicing after a Federal Court of Appeal decision overturned approval for the Northern Gateway project, a controversial tar sands pipeline twelve years in the making. The defeat of this pipeline is a landmark achievement for both indigeneity and climate justice in Canada.

“We’re all celebrating a victory for the oceans and our way of life,” said Peter Lantin, president of the council of the Haida Nation in a statement made following the ruling.

Projected to cost 6.5-7.5 billion dollars (USD), Northern Gateway, a pipeline proposed by Canadian energy giant Enbridge, was greenlighted by the country’s Conservative government in 2014. The pipeline would have stretched 731 miles from Alberta to the northern British Columbia, and would haul 525,000 barrels per day of diluted bitumen tar sands oil through traditional indigenous territories.

Last October, eight First Nations tribes, four environmental groups and a labor union mounted an appeal against the pipeline and argued that the 2014 approval wasn’t constitutional. As environmental justice lawyer Barry Robinson told Canadian Broadcasting Corporation earlier this month, these groups collectively “said no to Enbridge 12 years ago when it first proposed the project.”

Now, it seems likely that Northern Gateway faces too many obstacles to ever see construction. The quashing of the pipeline highlights the significance and success of indigenous activism and its alliance with environmentalist causes.

The 2-to-1 ruling, released on June 30, affirmed that the government and energy firm Enbridge had failed to properly consult the First Nations and Metis communities while planning the construction and route of the project. In a 153-page judgment, the consultation was ruled to be “brief, hurried, and inadequate” and found that entire subjects affecting indigenous people — like well-being and subsistence issues — had been completely dismissed.

“This decision confirms what we have known all along,” says Chief Larry Nooski of Nadleh Whut’en First Nation in a statement through the Yinka Dene Alliance, “the federal government’s consultation on this project fell well short of the mark.”

Canada’s watershed Truth and Reconciliation Commission requires, noted in the nation’s constitution, that there must be “meaningful consultation” with the First Nations before projects like the Enbridge pipeline are greenlighted by federal entities. It’s 94 conditions require that any infrastructure proposed for sovereign territories have free, prior, and informed consent from native communities before moving forward. As the court found, no “reasonable efforts” to do so were made by the National Energy Board of Canada.

If built, Northern Gateway would pose an ecological risk to important bioregional resources for native communities, threatening economic and food sovereignty. The construction would pollute pristine eco-systems and bring oil tankers to native land. Similarly, a spill would reek devastating environmental harm for all of Canada.

However, it is important to note that this ruling may not be the final nail in the coffin for the pipeline or others like it. The President of Enbridge Northern Gateway, John Carruthers, issued an official statement following the ruling project is “critical” for the infrastructure of Canada and that the firm is committed to seeing it completed.

The project will return to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau for “prompt redetermination” and will be reexamined by his Liberal administration. It is hopeful, though, that Trudeau’s well-noted opposition to the pipeline — a platform he campaigned on — will stand firm. On Tuesday, the Prime Minister stated “I’ve said many times, the Great Bear Rainforest is no place for a crude oil pipeline.”

For the native communities of Canada, this decision is the result of a decade-long fight to protect their land and waters. It is the hope of the involved communities that the Trudeau government will not re-approve the project and following administrations will continue to prioritize environmental and native protections over nonrenewable energy profits.

Some First Nation communities, like the Gitga’at, are careful to heed that the struggle for indigenous territory is not over. It is commonly realized that where Northern Gateway failed, another will surely take its place. This necessitates that, in order to preserve resources for future generations, governments and indigenous communities must work together and maintain mutual respect.

The majority ruling further stands as a testament to the importance of Truth and Reconciliation Commissions and the juxtaposition between native interests and environmental sustainability.