Canada | Environment

Native Sun News: First Nations demand role in pipeline project

The following story was written and reported by Talli Nauman Native Sun NewsHealth & Environment Editor. All content © Native Sun News.

First Nations chiefs met with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper in Ottawa to sign a pact for improving government and economic relations before testifying in Edmonton, Alberta on proposed tar-sands crude-oil pipelines. Photo Courtesy Prime Minister’s office of the Government of Canada

Testimony in the tar-sands crude-oil capital of Edmonton, Alberta, Jan. 24-31, brought to light First Nations’ concerns about the Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipeline project, as the Canadian National Energy Board’s Joint Review Panel requested traditional aboriginal knowledge be shared orally.

Enbridge is seeking permission to invest $5.5 billion to build and operating two pipelines and a marine terminal in Canada. The pipelines would carry tar-sands crude oil and toxic slurry chemical additives between the tar pits in Bruderheim, Alberta, and the Pacific Coastal destination of Kitimat, British Columbia, a distance of 727 miles across aboriginal territories.

“If you let them proceed with the pipeline, it’s going to expand the tar sands probably by twice what it is right now, said Dene Elder Francois Paulette a former Dene Nation chief. He asked the panel to consider “our way of life, our economy, and our spiritual connections with the land, our medicines, [and] water.

“Industrial expansion and corporate profits is destroying the very air we breathe and our way of life for the earth and our economy. You need to have a plan. You need to sit and really be objective in your hearings,” he admonished panelists.

Enbridge has offered 43 First Nations a 10-percent share in the project. The long-term financial benefits for participating aboriginal shareholders would be significant, the company says. Aggregate equity ownership is expected to generate approximately $280 million in net income to neighboring aboriginal communities over the first 30 years, it calculates.

The Northern Gateway could create combined employment, procurement and joint venture opportunities of approximately $400 million in value just during the three years of construction, according to Enbridge.

“Northern Gateway is not just another infrastructure project for the energy industry,” it notes in a written statement. “It is a partnership between First Nations and Enbridge and can be considered an important bridge between Aboriginals and industry for mutual long term benefit.”

However, First Nations have been slow to rise to the bait. Leaders testifying concurred with Paulette that the pipeline will speed up tar-sands production and related pollution for downstream populations further north.

Assembly of First Nations Regional Chief and Dene Nation Grand Chief Bill Erasmus called for better technology applications to avoid wasting water and causing chemical pollution.

“If this pipeline goes as proposed, you would have close to a million barrels a day, so that means close to 4-5 million barrels of water a day,” he said. “To develop the oil, huge amounts of chemicals are used, and one of the most deadly ones is arsenic as the result,” he added.

According to Enbridge, one 36-inch diameter pipe would carry an average 525,000 barrels per day of tar-sands crude oil and solvent west to Kitimat. Another 20-inch diameter pipe would carry on average 193,000 barrels of chemicals per day east to Bruderheim to be used as an additive to thin the oil for pipeline transport.

Erasmus stressed that Canada’s legal history provides a basis for First Nations to have a say-so in the decision-making about the pipeline.

“You have a very important legal question to look at because what we’re talking about and what the Prime Minister alluded to in a meeting with us is the legality of this whole matter, whether or not you have the authority to build a pipeline from what is called Alberta,” he said.

Erasmus and other First Nations leaders attended a meeting with Prime Minister Stephen Harper in Ottawa, on Jan. 24, before traveling to give testimony in Edmonton. The so-called Crown – First Nations Gathering referenced the Royal Proclamation of 1763, in which the British Crown stipulated that colonists must enter into treaties with the First Nations in order to settle in Canada. However, subsequent case law has determined that squatter’ rights are valid, resulting in ongoing land-tenure insecurity nationwide.

“At this point in time, I truly believe that the Premier and the Ministers of Alberta, along with the Prime Minister and Ministers in his Cabinet, should be brought up for charges for lowering the standards of our environmental protection that we have in place. There is treason that is happening right now in our country, at the highest level,” said Chief Allan Adam of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, part of the Dene Nation and a signatory to the 1899 Treaty No. 8.

“Any development that occurs within Treaty 8 territory will require the consent of the First Nation or the First Nation’s people that use and utilize the land where the project is going through,” he testified, citing traditional uses of resources such as yearly spiritual pilgrimages to the sacred site of the Lake Ste. Anne and the Athabasca River.

“And I really think that a review has to be taken into consideration of this whole process. I don’t think that we should be spending money in the Courts to bring this process to a halt. There doesn’t have to be a Court injunction filed against this process.

“Our people back home continue to get sick today because of the water that is flowing down the Athabasca River,” he added. “We cannot be environmental refugees in our own territories. And we will have to protect it.”

The government panelists asked speakers to address only pipeline issues, not the tar-sands extraction, however most testified they could not conceive of the two as separate issues.

“To look at this pipeline in its isolation, the process is flawed. Anyone with common sense would understand that,” said Chief Cheyeanne Paulette of Fort Fitzgerald.

“When we talk about water, we talk about having clean water for our people to drink, not just the Dene people but everyone around the world. We’re connected by water. That’s what keeps us alive. Without water how are we going to sustain life, how are the plants going to grow, the animals?

“The government has said … they already know what their decision is. They want this pipeline regardless of what the indigenous people say without thoroughly hearing the people and their concerns,” he complained.

Right now Alberta tar-sands production is about 1.3 million barrels a day, with an adequate delivery system in place, said Dennis Bevington, a member of Parliament for the Northwest Territories, also known as the Western Arctic in Parliament, and a lifelong resident of the Mackenzie River Basin, who resides in Fort Smith on the border of Alberta and the Northwest Territories.

“You’re looking at approving another project that would carry an extra capacity of bitumen in excess of half a million barrels a day. So you’re providing the delivery system for an expansion of the oil sands to approximately double its existing size,” he noted.

“At the same time, we do have direct impact from the particular pipeline that you’re talking about, in that it does go through the Peace-Athabasca- Slave watershed. It has potential for causing impacts on the environment through accident or misuse.

“The bilateral agreements between Alberta and the Northwest Territories have not been signed, so we’re in a state right now where we do not have agreements on the preservation of the quality and the quantity of water that passes between Alberta and the Northwest Territories,” he said.

Chief Roy Fabian of the K’atl’odeechi First Nation, or KFN, agreed that the tar-sands extraction process and pipeline must be evaluated together, “And you see what you’re doing to Mother Earth. We’re experiencing that right now; another onslaught on our environment and on sovereignty as a Dene people.”

Chief Wayne Sabourn, a member of the Dehcho First Nations, who described himself as an avid hunter, trapper, and fisherman, said he worked in the oil and gas field for 10 years before quitting “because of the impacts and the environmental damage.”

He said, “It’s affecting the First Nations in B.C., Alberta and it’s going through a lot of major rivers, you know. It’s going into our drinking system. We also live off the water, we eat the fish.

“I have been seeing fish floating in the water dead. They had some kind of lesions on them, cancer lesions, I believe. And some of these fish –– they were deformed, fish I haven’t seen before that look like that. You see some fish that don’t have fins, you know. It keeps you wondering what effects the industries and the gas and oil companies are doing to the water.

"I see a lot of spills, small spills that accumulated over time. And these leaks, it’s not just in one spot, it’s everywhere. What’s coming out of the ground is –– the government sees money. We see disaster. We are slowly deteriorating of what the government is doing to us.”

Chief Jim Antoine of Liidii Kue First Nation in Fort Simpson, Northwest Territories said the pipeline would entail increased production at Fort McMurray and down-river effects on wildlife and humans.

“They’re going to have to ramp it up quite a bit, which will, in turn, increase the pollution that’s going into the Athabasca River, and it flows down the Slave River into Great Slave Lake and it flows down the Mackenzie,” he noted.

Dene Nation Grand Chief Samuel Gargan said, “The future of the North can be summed up in one word: harmony. Development cannot occur unless it is in harmony with the inherent rights of First Nations and the need for a healthy ecosystem,” he testified.

“We want certainty. We have had it with regulators and governments pointing at each other, shrugging the responsibility and using weasel words to avoid taking firm positions with industry. We all want to benefit from development; our people want jobs, business opportunities, although not at any cost."

“The agreements with First Nations on the Northern Gateway pipeline must clearly define clear rules of engagement which will be beneficial to all stakeholders," he said.

“I’m asking you to consider respecting the Aboriginal and treaty rights of all First Nations efforts by this project. Make a decision that protects our social, cultural and biological environment and join with us in urging federal, provincial and territorial governments to quickly come to a fair and just land-clean and self-government agreements with First Nations," he concluded.

These comments and additional testimony were made available by the National Energy Board’s publication of hearing transcripts.

(Talli Nauman is the Health & Environment Editor for the Native Sun News. Contact her at

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