Pipeline stuck on shoals of Indigenous politics

When plans were announced last October to build a $40-billion liquefied natural gas project in British Columbia, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau couldn’t contain his glee.

“It is a vote of confidence in a country that recognizes the need to develop our energy in a way that takes the environment into account and that works in a meaningful partnership with Indigenous communities,” he said in Vancouver.

B.C. Premier John Horgan was equally chuffed. “This is a spectacular day for British Columbia,” he said. “I can’t stop smiling.”

Indeed, it seemed that the project’s proponents had managed to successfully navigate the shoals of both Indigenous and environmental politics.

First Nation band councils along the proposed natural gas pipeline route, from northeastern B.C. to Kitimat on the Pacific Coast, had given their consent. And while B.C.’s Greens, who hold the balance of power in the provincial legislature, remained opposed, they were not threatening to bring down Horgan’s minority New Democratic Party government over the issue.

After years of stalemate over pipelines, it seemed that Canada had finally managed to come up with an energy project that could proceed.

But as this week’s events have demonstrated, in the world of Canadian pipeline politics, nothing is ever really settled.

A few dozen protesters representing the hereditary chiefs of the Wet’suwet’en set up a blockade on one part of the proposed pipeline route to remind Canada’s governments that while their First Nation’s elected band council may have agreed to accept the project, they had not.

By Thursday, the protesters had come to a tentative agreement with the RCMP to temporarily lift their illegal blockade.

But the fundamental questions raised by their actions remain unresolved. Who speaks for Indigenous communities? What happens when, as in the case of the Wet’suwet’en, elected representatives and hereditary leaders disagree?

And while the Supreme Court has ruled that Indigenous communities do not have a formal veto over resource developments affecting their lands, does the constitutional requirement that they be meaningfully consulted beforehand amount to the same thing?

Like many First Nations, the Wet’suwet’en have two parallel political structures. The traditional one is based on clans headed by hereditary chiefs. The elected one, authorized under the Indian Act, is democratically chosen by all First Nation members.

In this case, the hereditary chiefs argue they have jurisdiction over all unceded Wet’suwet’en land outside the reserve’s settlement proper.

The elected council clearly disagrees.

The situation is further complicated by the fact that no treaty has ever been signed between the Wet’suwet’en and the Crown. The Supreme Court ruled in 1997 that the Wet’suwet’en retain aboriginal title to their traditional lands. But the scope of that title has never been determined.

All of this came to a head last year over plans to construct a new pipeline that would bring natural gas to the B.C. coast. The gas would then be cooled to a liquefied form and loaded on tankers bound for Asia.

The so-called LNG scheme is deemed environmentally superior to the proposed Trans Mountain pipeline expansion, which is designed to bring bitumen from the Alberta oilsands to Burnaby on the Pacific Coast.

That’s because any leak in either the gas pipeline or tankers would simply release natural gas into the air, leaving land and water unfouled.

Proponents for the B.C. gas pipeline won the support of all 20 First Nations along the proposed route — or at least thought they had. As part of the deal, Trans Canada Corp., the pipeline’s builder, tentatively awarded contracts worth $620 million to various First Nation businesses in northern B.C.

But no one got the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs onside. And now the once-lauded LNG project — Trudeau’s only energy success story — has become a cause celebre across Canada, painted by critics as yet another example of this country’s ill-treatment of its original residents.

Tom Walkom is a columnist with Torstar Syndication Services.

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