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Indigenous Rights

Native Canadians See Way of Life Under Assault

TORONTO, May 29 2012 (IPS) - Canada’s West Coast First Nations are feeling overwhelmed by crises affecting their land rights, economic well-being and health, prompting warnings in one territorial dispute with a local energy company that the country risks a degeneration of Aboriginal-federal government relations to a level unseen in two decades.

Enbridge Inc.’s controversial Northern Gateway Pipelines, a project which will span more than 1,100 km and transport petroleum from Edmonton, Alberta to Kitimat, British Columbia on the Pacific coastline, reached a crescendo this month in a so-called “Freedom Train” made up of First Nations people traveling from their homes in northern B.C. to the oil and gas firm’s annual general meeting in Toronto.

As of now, the Yinka Dene Alliance, comprised of the Nadleh Whut’en, Nak’azdli, Takla Lake, Saik’uz, and Wet’suwet’en communities in northern B.C., have banned the Calgary, Alberta-based company from operating in their territories.

“I think that we’re going to be making a legal challenge before it even gets built,” said Saik’uz First Nation Chief Jackie Thomas, a member of the Yinka Dene Alliance, about the pipeline plan.

“If they try to come on the land . . . I’m standing in front of the bulldozers,” she told IPS. The federal government “better think again because they’re just trying to ram it down our throat, against our will, for the benefit of all of Canada.”

Dismissing the financial promises made to the affected B.C. First Nations, Thomas argued that these benefits can never replace a way of life marked by fishing, hunting, berry-picking and traditional medicine. Following earlier consultations with outside technical advisers, she said her community refused Enbridge’s economic overtures due to concerns over oil-leak damage to waterways, food sources and wildlife.

Community hearings about the fate of the Northern Gateway Pipelines are ongoing. Although a regulatory decision about whether the plan serves the public interest or poses a risk to the environment has yet to be made, Enbridge hopes to have an answer by 2013. With a potential go-ahead to build, the pipeline should be operational in late-2017.

Roughly half of 48 Aboriginal groups based near the future pipeline site in Alberta and B.C. have signed agreements with the oil and gas behemoth in exchange for a 10 percent stake in the project, company spokesman Todd Nogier said, reluctant to identify them. The equity offering is expected to generate an estimated 280 million dollars over 30 years, he said.

Based on years of discussions with Aboriginal groups, Enbridge assembled an economic benefits package which, apart from the “centrepiece” equity stake, includes a 100-million-dollar community investment fund available to Aboriginals and non-Aboriginals in the first three decades of operation; jobs associated with the development of the oil infrastructure (including a target that 15 percent of First Nations comprise the construction workforce); procurement opportunities for certain goods and services; and environmental stewardship programmes in which the nearby communities play a key role, Nogier told IPS.

At this stage, the company is still searching for solutions to address the hold-out groups’ pipeline-related fears about environmental damage, tanker traffic on the coast, the impact on tourism and fishing activities and cultural harm, according to Nogier.

He said Enbridge aims to ensure local communities are “familiar with the levels of risk” connected to the project and the oil firm’s emergency response capabilities.

CEO Patrick Daniel has stated publicly that he hopes the remaining communities will eventually support the project.

However, Nogier conceded, “We would say that industrial projects very rarely, if ever, gain unanimity.”

The development of the Northern Gateway Pipelines comes at a time when Ottawa has pledged to support responsible resource development and secure new trade partners. The 2012 federal budget unveiled plans to proceed with more than 500 major economic projects representing 500 billion dollars in new investments across the country over the next 10 years.

“The export of oil is Canada’s most valuable export,” said the Enbridge spokesman, citing that the country owns the third-largest reserves in the world. He said the United States’ falling oil demand has spurred Canada to seek alternative markets like Asia and the Pacific Rim.

Although other pipelines have been built in Canada through traditional aboriginal lands signed over in previous decades to the government, only a few such treaties have been forged between B.C. Aboriginals and the federal government, argued William Lindsay, the director of Simon Fraser University’s Office for Aboriginal Peoples in Burnaby, B.C.

This fact means most of the land in British Columbia is unceded territory historically belonging to the First Nations people, Lindsay told IPS.

“The land claims haven’t been dealt with,” he said, and the remaining Aboriginals living in the path of the pipeline are “people of the land” who, during the last few decades, have developed “a history of protest” prompting them to stand up to perceived injustice.

National economic needs aside, the uproar surrounding the contentious pipeline plan may swell to the kind of protest witnessed 22 years ago in Quebec if the necessary “buy-in” from local communities is missing, he warned.

Lindsay’s reference is to the 1990 emergency situation embroiling the town of Oka. The 78-day violent confrontation, in which a police officer was killed and the army was ultimately involved, emanated from a dispute between the Mohawk community of Kanesatake and town officials intent on expanding a golf course and residential development on land viewed by Aboriginals as sacred.

The government had previously denied Mohawk land claims involving their ancestral burial ground.

South of the planned Enbridge pipeline marine terminal in Kitimat, down toward Vancouver Island, local groups are battling their own troubles.

In mid-May, the Cowichan Tribes of Duncan, B.C. issued a state of emergency over a record four suicides and 40 suicide attempts between January and April, said Jennifer Jones, the associate health director. As of today, the suicide attempts or alerts have risen to 52, Jones said, adding that most involve distraught youth.

Placing this year’s staggering suicide alerts into perspective, there were a total of 105 attempted suicides between 2002 and 2007; 258 between 2007 and 2011; and 75 between 2011 and 2012, she said.

Leaders blamed the turmoil on an unemployment rate of 85 percent on the reserve, overcrowded housing facilities, a belief that inherent rights like hunting and fishing have been curtailed, and a loss of culture resulting from residential schools.

On a positive note, there was quick reaction to the appeal. The Cowichan Tribes’ community is in the midst of applying for two federal grants to fund programmes raising suicide awareness, while the provincial government will ensure sufficient resources like training for First Nations suicide programs, Jones noted.

While retired psychiatrists have offered their services to the nine counselors who are “getting burned out” by work demands, young patients are reluctant to meet with outside health-care professionals, she said.

Ultimately, she said, the long-term remedy to the widespread despair will be for older generations to impart traditional “cultural teachings” by which young people can live. She pointed out, for instance, that many youth are not taught to fish or hunt and this in part stems from shrinking land access.

Moreover, Jones acknowledged stable funding can empower tribal programmes that subdue a rush to desperate measures.

Yet, she cannot help but lament the encroaching residential properties on her corner of Vancouver Island, a trend raising concerns that “Cowichan is getting swallowed up for the development that’s happening outside the reserve.”

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