The indigenous communities of Canada have to face challenges protecting their land and resources of survival from time to time. They have to fight the government and international companies to stall projects that could have negative environmental impact and damage their livelihood.
The recent opposition against the $4.5 billion Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain pipeline reminded the local communities of Tofino and Ucluelet about the historic Clayoquot protests of the early 1990s. It was one of the most significant acts of civil disobedience and an even when the whole world stood with the indigenous communities to protect their forest land from logging activities.
The Clayoquot protests were held to protect the magnificent Clayoquot Sound located in British Columbia. The 265,000 hectares of rainforest is home to over 45 threatened, endangered and vulnerable species. It has significant ecological importance with geographical variations such as islands, valleys, and mountains.
The area is also home to Nuu-chah-nulth First Nations. The area became UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve after a long battle to protect itself from deforestation which would have threatened the existence of wildlife and the indigenous communities.
The last of the intact rainforests in the world, Clayoquot Sound faced threats of large-scale logging in the early 1990s. Many stakeholders came together to oppose the move and comprised of environmental groups such as Greenpeace, the indigenous communities and First Nations of the region and the public.
Many grassroots protests were organized and the largest of them saw the participation of over 800 people from various walks of life. After the massive protests and mounting international pressure the 1999 Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) was signed by First Nations, environmental groups and Iisaak Forest Resources Ltd which is completely owned by First Nations.
For more than a decade, Iisaak Forest Resources have been operating in the area keeping a balance between logging and tree cover in the area. The MOU and suggestions from governmental science board for reform of logging have been able to conserve a large part of the Clayoquot Sound.
Apart from environmental benefit, the protests also had the economic impact. Data from Statistics Canada reveal that employment and income of the indigenous communities and First Nations remained steady over the period of 1991 to 2011. Local communities such as Tofino and Ucluelet faced the initial drop in employment but soon grew to reach the level of other forestry sectors employment in coastal areas. It has also given the Nuu Chah Nulth Nations an opportunity to manage and access 100,000 cubic meters of harvesting area per year.
The anniversary of the Clayoquot protests is still celebrated in the region remembering the courageous protestors. They honor the contribution of the indigenous communities and noted environmentalists who joined the protest such as Karen Mahon, Elizabeth May, Valerie Langer and Tzeporah Berman.
Canada has seen its share of protest campaigns and court ruling over projects that involve territories belonging to indigenous and aboriginal communities and ecologically rich environments. Just back in 2016, the Northern Gateway Pipeline Project was scrapped by the Trudeau government citing reasons of ecological harm and threat to the survival of indigenous populations.
However, now the First Nation is backing the Eagle Spirit pipeline which has been developing for the past five years. The proposed pipeline is said to have the backing of the indigenous groups and will seek to receive approval from all communities before it is put out for approval.
But the $16 billion project could run into trouble in the face of the Oil Tanker Moratorium Act which bans the movement of tankers in the North Coast. Till now Canada didn’t have any formal legislation that bans the movement of tankers through a Coastal First Nations ban and an informal ban existed. The proposal is currently making its round in the Canadian parliament and can become a new legislation by the end of the year.
The ban will put an obstacle to any northern pipeline project and the case is same with Eagle Spirit pipeline. If the oil tankers are banned from North Coast, then there will be no transport system to access international waters and deliver the product to other countries.
It may seem surprising, but the First Nations is actually looking forward to battle the ban in court. The project already has their backing and now they are going to formally challenge the tanker ban proposal.
The chief counsel of First Nations said in a press release that they were fighting the new law because the move was facilitated by lobbying by foreign-funded ENGOs. They also didn’t consult the First Nation as required by the constitution before passing the law. It was the same reason used by the court to disapprove the Northern Gateway Pipeline as they failed to consult the First Nations properly.
The group formed by more than 30 First Nation communities is looking to raise money for filing the suit. Calvin Helin, chairman of Eagle Spirit, said that they need $1 million to fund the suit and they are ready to take the case to the top courts in Canada. Helin is a lawyer and member of a First Nation tribe living near Prince Rupert.
The group posted a proposal on the GoFundMe platform to raise money for their protest campaign. They have put up a bill which says that the group has always prioritized the environment while balancing economic development. The tank ban will restrict the export of cargo to foreign markets and is not at all desirable.
It is to be seen how the next developments will be since the tanker ban proposal does seem to have far-reaching effects.
The Northern Gateway Pipeline project proposed to construct twin pipelines to deliver natural gas between Alberta and British Columbia – something that the government believes will help Canadians get better access to natural gas at a lower price. The project headed by Enbridge Inc. would enable it to export natural gas products through the marine port at Kitimat and also send it to the west.
If realized, the project would have contributed $32 million to the Canadian GDP and generated 4,000 jobs. The government would have also earned another $2.6 billion in form of tax revenues if the operations commenced. But the Northern Gateway Pipeline project ran into controversy over its impact on the environment and the native population of Canada including the First Nations and other Aborigine groups.
The pipelines if constructed would have passed through the land and territories occupied by over fifty tribes. The communities of the aboriginal groups and First Nations depend on the forests and related resources for their survival. The project would have made a negative impact on their livelihood affecting their survival.
The pipelines would also pass through 785 rivers including the important watersheds such as Skeena, Fraser, and Mackenzie. Apart from that, the pipes would have passed through areas prone to landslides and earthquakes. The local communities depend on the fishes and rivers for their livelihood and any devastation could lead to incidents like oil spills. Such events would threaten the local salmon habitats and affected the ecologically rich areas like Great Bear Rainforest. Marine life that depends on coastal rivers for survival would also be affected adversely.
The concern over its impact on the environment and the native communities is not baseless- according to the proprietary data of Enbridge Inc., 6.8 million gallons of fossil fuel leaked out in the environment between 1999 and 2011.
The project managed to receive initial approvals in spite of its potential threats. Soon many non-governmental organizations, voluntary groups, and aboriginal groups along with First Nation communities raised their voice against the project.
In 2016, the court overturned the approval of the pipeline project citing that Canada has failed to consult the First Nations on the project. The ruling stated that Canada made a brief and hurried attempt, which did not provide adequate opportunity for discussion and exchange of information about the impact of the project. Canada was not able to engage in a meaningful dialogue with the native communities, which should have been a priority. This has resulted in further delays, which could have potentially been avoided in the first place.
Finally, the government of Canada had to direct the National Energy Board to disqualify the application of the pipeline project. The reason given is that the project was not in the interest of the public and it would have affected sensitive ecosystems such as the Great Bear Rainforest. The project would have caused more environmental damage which was not desired under the prevailing circumstances.