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LINE IN THE TAR SANDS
Canada's First Nations flex their sovereignty
Members of the Yinka Dene Alliance protest the Northern Gateway pipeline in Edmonton, Alberta. | Photo courtesy of Jen Lash/Sisu Institute
Whatever the fate of the Keystone XL pipeline, Canada's tar sands oil producers are determined to expand their operations and get their product to market. An alternate proposal called Northern Gateway would pipe the oil west over the Canadian Rockies to British Columbia. (See "Battling Big Oil by Land and by Sea," May/June 2012.)
While the fight in the United States against tar sands development is led by the Sierra Club and other environmental groups, Canadian opposition has strong involvement from the country's aboriginal communities, whose territories the proposed pipelines would cross. That struggle has become entwined with the larger grassroots protest movement for aboriginal sovereignty Idle No More, which began last November. Since then, thousands of members of Canada's First Nations have protested across the country, sometimes blockading highways and rail lines.
The movement was sparked, in part, by federal bill C-45, legislation that some Canadian natives say impinges on their constitutionally protected treaty rights and paves the way for environmentally damaging projects. Under the new law, for example, energy developers no longer need to prove to the federal government that proposed pipelines will not damage bodies of water they cross, thus opening the way for projects like Northern Gateway. It also reduces the number of proposed projects that would require environmental assessments and allows Prime Minister Stephen Harper to overrule decisions made in the review process. "Bill C-45 kicked open the door for big oil companies," says Clayton Thomas-Mueller, the codirector of the Indigenous Tar Sands Campaign of the Polaris Institute, an Ottawa-based think tank.
Now two aboriginal bands in northern Alberta are testing their treaty rights in court. The Beaver Lake Cree say that tar sands development is violating their treaty rights to fish, hunt, and trap, while the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation charges that the government has not adequately consulted with them regarding Shell's application to double the size of its tar sands operation.
When it comes to stopping tar sands development, Thomas-Mueller says, "the native rights-based approach has become the last and best approach, not just for native communities, but for all Canadians." —Jocelyn Edwards
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