UN report on Canada’s treatment of First Nations has lessons for pipeline projects

Douglas Channel, near Kitimat, BC. (Image from telus.net)
Douglas Channel, near Kitimat, BC. (Image from telus.net)

Conflict has been brewing for many years over the many natural resource projects slated for Canada’s remote regions.

On one side are the resource companies and the people who work for them, along with a very industry friendly federal government; on the other are environmentalists and other conservation groups, along with local residents who are concerned about impacts on the communities and nearby wilderness areas.

The latter group includes a large proportion of First Nations communities — people whose ancestors have lived in their local region for as far back as the Ice Age. Taken together, these groups questioning major development projects are a formidable force. That’s not surprising, given that most of them actually live there, and have a passionate stake in what happens on their traditional land.

The opposition to many projects currently proposed — especially the Northern Gateway and Trans Mountain pipelines that would carry bitumen from Alberta’s oil sands to the BC coast — is rooted in all of the above.

The UN’s special rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, James Anaya, released a report this week, which detailed this crisis in Canada related to how the country is handling its relationship with First Nations. The report was jarring, not so much because it identified a crisis — for many, this has been obvious for years — but because it came from outside Canada, shedding a harsh, objective light on a country at a chaotic crossroads when it comes to natural resource developments.

“From all I have learned, I can only conclude that Canada faces a crisis when it comes to the situation of indigenous peoples of the country,” said Anaya last October, in the lead up to finalizing his report.

Although Anaya’s report was comprehensive in scope — dealing with the persistence of unsettled treaty and land claims, the unsolved cases of missing Aboriginal women and the strained relationship between aboriginal and non-aboriginal Canadians — it also dealt a blow to the efforts of the federal government to push through resource projects opposed by First Nations.

Questioned specifically about the Northern Gateway pipeline, Anaya said that the government should probably block the project, since First Nations along the pipeline route, especially along the coast, remain fundamentally opposed.

Resource conflicts in Canada’s West have a long history. Land treaties have only been signed by small minority of First Nations in BC, and many communities have been engaged in legal battles with governments over their rights and title to ancestral land, enshrined in the Constitution.

The situation became even more adversarial in 2012, when the Harper Government passed its controversial Budget Bill (C-38), designed to speed up the approval process on major industrial projects, by streamlining environmental assessments and limiting the amount of input from residents and others at public hearings.

The government’s effort to quell dissent and opposition has only resulted in more conflict, and will almost surely lead to further challenges in court. In fact, Ecojustice has already taken the government to task over both Northern Gateway and the Trans Mountain pipelines. These legal cases could become the norm if future projects are pushed through without taking local opposition into account.



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