Environmentalists And Indigenous People Flex New Muscle

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Above Photo: Occupy.com.

 In Canada’s Resource Wars

2015 was one of the worst years on record for oil and gas producers in Canada. First, the Keystone XL pipeline project was stopped through the tireless efforts of activists on both sides of the border. Then, unrelated to this, the price of oil dropped so much that the industry’s products, especially bitumen from tar sands, became increasingly unprofitable. The low price of crude brought at least 40,000 direct job losses to the Canadian oil industry and as many as 100,000 overall last year. This is a trend that industry insiders predict will continue through 2016.

For more than a generation, blue collar workers in economically depressed areas of the country have headed west to the country’s oil patch in search of hard but well paid work. Former Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper built his base on oil and other extractive industries when he first came to power in 2006, promising to make Canada an “energy superpower.” As long as prices remained high, his coalition of social conservatives, big business and working class voters seemed like an unstoppable force in the country’s politics.

However, ignoring the possibility that prices would at some point fall may have cost Harper’s Conservatives the last election. Before the federal election in October, Gil McGowan, President of the Alberta Federation of Labor [was quoted](http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/oct/16/canada-election-stephen-harper-fossil-fuel-backfires) saying, “It was a strategy that was bound to fail and it was bound to fail because it was inevitable that oil prices would eventually go down, which is something that anybody who has lived in Alberta for the past 30 or 40 years could have told you right from the beginning.”

Pipeline Pipe Dreams

Despite all this, Canada’s oil industry is still pushing two major pipeline projects to bring tar sands oil to both the east (Energy East) and west (TransMountain) coasts for export to international markets. The plan would give producers – who complain of being landlocked and forced to sell to the U.S. at discounted prices – the opportunity to ship their products via tankers out of North America. However, a fresh roadblock has been put in the way of both these pipelines by new interim rules announced by the federal government, pushing back any decision on either for at least six months.

Another obstacle facing new pipeline projects is strong resistance from many of Canada’s indigenous First Nations, who own or claim much of the land that the proposed pipelines would cross. In Alberta alone, there have been an average of two oil spills per day for the last 37 years, almost half of them from pipelines. Alberta’s First Nations were forced to sign agreements leasing their land to oil companies in the 1960s and, as a result, “they’re dealing with elevated cancer rates, respiratory diseases, and other impacts of industrial pollution that they never had a say over.”

Idle No More

The most vocal opponents of pipeline-building companies like TransCanada and Enbridge have been indigenous activists, stirred by movements like Idle No More and backed by environmentalists across the country. These natural allies seem to have found an additional, powerful advocate: Canada’s newly installed Liberal Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau. Almost immediately upon taking office, Trudeau tasked his Transportation Minister with creating a moratorium on oil tanker traffic off the northern coast of British Columbia. Environmental activists cheered the action, which will likely kill construction of another pipeline, the $7.9 billion Northern Gateway, intended to cut across northern B.C. through many unspoiled lands claimed by indigenous people.

Northern Gateway, proposed by Enbridge, had already created the longest case ever in Canada’s Federal Court of Appeals, where “a group of First Nations, environmental organizations and a labor union argued that the approval process for the pipeline was flawed, did not take environmental impact into account and violated the rights of First Nations.” Indigenous and non-native environmental activists have also fought back with widespread protest and civil disobedience and, as a result of the peaceful actions, they’ve been tarred as extremistsby Canada’s national police, the RCMP.

Despite all this, the oil industry has been trying to cultivate allies in indigenous communities as the debate continues about resource-based development. Recently revealed documents, obtained by the Guardian, showed that former Enbridge employee Jim Prentice’s Conservative provincial government in Alberta tried to get First Nations support for pipeline projects like Northern Gateway and Energy East by offering oil royalties to the cash-strapped communities.

Prentice’s plan was to create a task force incorporating government officials and leaders of Native communities to “work jointly on removing bottlenecks and enabling the construction of pipelines to tide-water on the east and west coasts.” Further, the agreement would have made Alberta First Nations “urge others engaged in litigation against Alberta to withdraw their legal challenges” in the name of Native solidarity. Ultimately, Prentice lost the provincial election last May and his government was replaced by the more environmentally friendly NDP party led by Rachel Notley.

Now, with a federal government in place that for the first time in years seems to be taking environmental concerns and indigenous rights seriously, along with an economic climate favoring a move away from the country’s reliance on extractive industries, Canada seems poised to turn the page on its history of widespread pollution and human rights abuses against First Nations people.

Ironically, experts believe that Alberta is one of the best positioned provinces to power a turn towards building a new renewable energy sectorA recent survey showed that the majority of Canadians want a more diverse economy and are very concerned about climate change.

Yet even as things seem headed in a more positive direction, activists aren’t discounting the threat posed by the country’s resource barons (including foreigners like Warren Buffet), who have a history of using their deep pockets and political connections to keep control of the country’s resource-based economy at whatever the cost.