According to the Chinese Zodiac, 2014 is the Year of the Horse; according to the calendars of Canada’s First Nations, 2014 is the Year of Increased Litigation. As a nation we can only hope that the federal and several provincial governments, whose popularity at the polls have waned significantly over the course of the last year or so, have an equally potent agenda, one that will provide equity, guarantee equality and open a new and meaningful dialogue with all of Canada’s Indigenous peoples. The writing, it appears, is on the wall for all to see and 2013 is a year that could go down in infamy if something isn’t done to right the wrongs that Canada’s government continues to perpetrate against its Indigenous citizens.
Last year the federal government made changes in legislation, announced cutbacks to important and progressive youth programs and implemented numerous bills that remove critical safeguards to invasive industrial growth that is threatening First Nation communities. The popularity that Harper once enjoyed is quickly slipping away. although the latest polls don’t indicate just why the new Conservative Party has plunged more than 40 points in the past 15 months, it is becoming more obvious that
the government’s willingness to continue its quest to assimilate Aboriginal Canadians has something to do with it. The proof is in the pudding; Canadian companies, unions and individuals are stepping up to the plate and they are helping to make a difference. When foreign countries and companies, well-known celebrities and individuals from around the world find it important enough to donate time, money and legal support to Aboriginal causes in Canada, Canadians pay attention. In doing so they are learning more and more about the plight of Aboriginal peoples in this country and many are stepping up to make their presence known.
On December 6, 2013 the largest private sector union in the nation came to the support of First Nations and said they’d add their membership to the picket lines if and when the Northern Gateway Pipeline project gets to goahead. That union, Unifor, (Union for Canada) increased its membership to more than 300,000 members when the Canadian Auto Workers and the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union of Canada merged last Sept. Unifor has signed a new solidarity accord with more than 130 First Nations, an undertaking that marks the union’s third anniversary of involvement with the Save the Fraser Declaration. That Declaration is designed to ensure that both oil tankers and pipelines are banned from crossing the province of British Columbia or across the ocean migration routes of Fraser River salmon. Signing the agreement on behalf of Unifor was B.C. Area Director Gavin McGarrigle, who talked about various issues including the need for the province to invest in creating green jobs and improving public transportation. He criticized the controversial pipeline project, noting that “the Enbridge Northern Gateway Project seeks to massively increase oil exports as if climate change wasn’t real. It proposes to travel through our communities and First Nations with profit as the first motive instead of respecting our environment and social obligations to each other. It creates few jobs in Canada compared to its scale and exports more of our natural resources even faster.”
In November last year Unifor drafted a position paper that calls for a Canada-wide moratorium on oil and gas fracking, noting that it is concerned about safety and environmental risks as well as a lack of informed consent by First Nations. In his interview with CP McGarrigle promised to stand in civil disobedience with First Nations and others who reject the new legislation. “We signed in solidarity, so we’ll be there in solidarity to support them,” he said. “We support lawful and peaceful protest. We know what solidarity means: It means you stand together with a sense of purpose. We have a saying in the labour movement: We’ll be there one day longer.”
Other individuals and groups in British Columbia, including BC Council of Film Unions Executive Director Tom Adair, health organizations, local tourism industries, conservationists and political party opposition members have added their names to the growing list of those concerned about Canada’s future. Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation lawyer, Larry Innes summed up 2014 on January 2 this year when he told the Canadian Press that: “All litigation, all the time, is what I see on the horizon.” That’s definitely the case in Alberta, where some 20 First Nations have professed their determination to convince the court to have legislation on access to public lands thrown out. Ottawa’s newly entrenched environmental assessment legislation is also on the front burner for First Nations who see the new legislation as little more than a government ploy to circumvent the courts so it can continue to arbitrarily violate First Nations and treaty right and federal laws.
Every First Nation in the region of Alberta’s oilsands development are rejecting the province’s plan to centralize and control the way in which First Nations are consulted when industry wants to move into their territories. The Lubicon are also back in court where they continue to seek recognition of their rights to a land base and the royalties that come with it. The Joint Oilsands Monitoring Program is also under fire; touted as a viable provincial/federal initiative to monitor environmental change, the program has not only been faced with scrutiny, but has also seen the Fort McKay First Nation pull out of the deal. First Nations and various environmental organizations have also expressed their dismay with new federal rules governing who will be and who will not be required to provide environment assessment and reviews.
The Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency recently announced the type of projects that no longer need the federal government to conduct environmental assessments. These include heavy oil and oilsands processing facilities, on-shore pipelines, electrical transmissions not already being regulated by the National Energy Board, potash and other mines (salt, asbestos, gypsum, limestone, graphite and gypsum), and industrial facilities such as paper mills, steel mills, smelters, tanneries and textile mills. The climate and energy campaign coordinator for Greenpeace, Keith Stewart, told media recently that his organization is very concerned about the repercussions of not maintaining ongoing routine environmental assessments of oilsands development projects. His concerns grew after watching a couple of million litres of bitumen leak into the land near rivers and lakes after an accident at the Canadian Natural Resources Ltd. site near Cold lake.
Stewart noted that “Environment Canada released (a) report which projected that by 2020 this type of oilsands development will be generating more greenhouse gas emissions than all of the Maritime provinces put together,” emphasizing that Ottawa is “exempting themselves from environmental oversight over what’s going to be the biggest source of new pollution in the country in coming decades.” And what’s worse is that neither government nor industry knows what to do or how to react when spills of this magnitude take place.
By John Copley