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”Fighting not just for our children, but for your children too ...”

April 8, 2013

A snow storm that blew through central Canada made this year’s March 19 Ottawa’s snowiest on record.  But there was more than weather to distinguish this as a historic date. In the evening, nine First Nations from across North America came together in a ceremony to mark the ever-growing opposition to tar sands pipelines, by signing of the Save the Fraser Declaration and the International Treaty to Protect the Sacred from Tar Sands Projects. Although the storm had kept many witnesses away, those of us who had made it were moved by the ceremony and honoured to be present. 

The ceremony, held at the Jack Purcell Community Centre in Ottawa, was opened by Councilor Claudette Commanda of the Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg First Nation, who welcomed the gathered nations to Kitigan Zibi traditional territory. Ms. Commanda spoke passionately of her grandfather William Commanda and the legacy he had left her community and Canada, and of the responsibility entrusted upon all First Nations to protect the land for future generations.

Following this, Geraldine Thomas Flurer, coordinator of the Yinka Dene Alliance, introduced in turn the representatives of the gathered First Nations – the Nadleh Whut’en, Nak’azdli, Saik’uz, Takla Lake, Tl’azt’en and Wet’suwet’en First Nations of northern BC that comprise the Yinka Dene Alliance, the Tsleil-Waututh Nation of southern BC, and the Ihanktowan Oyate (Yankton Sioux) of South Dakota.

Dressed in regalia, the representatives came forward and shared their experiences and the teachings and prophecies they had received, as well as their nations’ perspectives on why it is imperative to stop the Enbridge Northern Gateway, Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain and TransCanada Keystone XL pipelines and the threats that these and other tar sands projects pose to Indigenous lands.  Chief Martin Louie of Nadleh Whut’en played a drum song, and Wet’suwet’en Councilor Vivian Tom sang a song of hope and healing.

On behalf of the Yinka Dene Alliance, Ms. Thomas Flurer gave gifts to Councilor Commanda, Chief Lane and Ms. Spotted Eagle – a book by her late grandmother Dr. Sophie Thomas and a DVD about her, as well as a t-shirt from the third annual celebration of the Save the Fraser Declaration signing (which took place this past December 13 in Vancouver and was recognized by Mayor Gregor Robertson as “Save the Fraser Declaration Day”).

At a press conference on the day following the signing ceremony in Ottawa, these speakers would further elaborate on why they were reaffirming their joint commitment to stop tar sands pipelines through their respective territories. 

Chief Allan Adam of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation did not arrive in Ottawa in time to attend the signing ceremony, but opened the March 20 press conference on Parliament Hill with strong words about the devastating impacts of tar sands exploitation on his nation, situated at “ground zero” in north eastern Alberta. Approving more pipelines would ramp up bitumen extraction even further, leading to more water contamination and more health impacts for communities already experiencing astronomical rates of cancers and miscarriages. Chief Adam stated that First Nations were ready to blockade in order to prevent further tar sands expansion, promising assembled journalists a “long, hot summer.”

Hereditary Chief Philip Lane, Jr. of the Ihanktowan Oyate (Yankton Sioux Nation) in South Dakota brought the perspective of Indigenous groups south of the 49th parallel to the ceremony and the press conference. Yankton territory stretches across the US central plains and includes the pristine waters of the Ogallala Acquifer, which would be put at risk if the TransCanada Keystone XL pipeline were built.  He told reporters, simply:

“We’re going to stop these pipelines one way or another.” 

His words were echoed by Faith Spotted Eagle of the Ihanktowan Oyate Brave Heart Women’s Society, who described this moment as an opportunity to reverse Indigenous peoples’ exclusion from decision-making and begin to right the legacy of historic wrongs experienced by First Nations across North America.

Chief Martin Louie of the Nadleh Whut’en First Nation spoke on behalf of the six Yinka Dene Alliance nations, recommitting the Yinka Dene Alliance to do “whatever it takes,” including standing in front of the construction machines, to stop the Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline, and also to support their brothers and sisters across Canada and the US.  He explained:

“We cannot be bought off by money.  We’re fighting not just for our children, but for your children too.”

Chief Louie went on to explain that the Yinka Dene Alliance had decided not to participate in the Joint Review Panel of the Enbridge Pipelines and Tankers Project, after their repeated requests to the federal government for funding to participate in the design of a consultation process capable of addressing First Nations’ concerns were rebuffed. The Yinka Dene Alliance questioned how the federal government was suddenly able to fund a Special Envoy’s position now, just as challenges from First Nations put the future of the Enbridge project in jeopardy.

Finally, Sundance Chief Reuben George of the Tsleil-Waututh First Nation, whose territories encompass much of Vancouver’s Lower Mainland, spoke about his nation’s rejection of the Kinder Morgan pipeline and its commitment to help other nations to advance a greener future. He spoke strongly about the need for the federal government to take a long-term view and to start supporting sustainable energy solutions, instead of subsidizing the oil industry to the tune of $1.3 billion, saying:

“We, as a nation, have to wake up. We have to wake up to the crazy decisions that this government's making to change the world in a negative way.”

Save the Fraser, Protect the Sacred

On the snowy evening of the signing ceremony in Ottawa, as they prepared to affix their signatures to the documents representing their commitments to stop tar sands pipelines, the delegates took their seats at a table draped with traditional blankets and adorned with the sacred pipes of the Ihanktowan Oyate.  Seated in front of a huge banner reading, “No Oil Pipelines or Tankers in Our Lands,” Chief Philip Lane, Jr. and Faith Spotted Eagle signed the Save the Fraser Declaration, while the Yinka Dene Alliance Chiefs and representatives signed the International Treaty to Protect the Sacred from Tar Sands Projects. Councilor Commanda, on behalf of the Kitigan Zibi, signed both documents.

These Indigenous law documents enshrine and recognize First Nations’ sovereign, unextinguished rights to govern and make decisions about their lands and to protect them for future generations.  The Save the Fraser Declaration was created in 2010, driven by the nations that now form the Yinka Dene Alliance, and has been signed by over 160 First Nations from throughout BC and across Canada.  It reads in part:

… in upholding our ancestral laws, Title, Rights and responsibilities, we declare:

We will not allow the proposed Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipelines, or similar Tar Sands projects, to cross our lands, territories and watersheds, or the ocean migration routes of Fraser River salmon.

The International Treaty to Protect the Sacred was concluded in January 2013 between the Ihanktowan Oyate and the Pawnee Nation, in commemoration of a peace treaty signed 150 years before by these two historical enemies.  The Treaty’s seven articles reference other such international instruments as the Save the Fraser Declaration, the Mother Earth Accord and the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and commit signatory nations to enforcing and upholding their collective responsibility to protect their lands. Article V reads:

We affirm that our laws define our solemn duty and responsibility to our ancestors, to ourselves, and to future generations, to protect the lands and waters of our homelands and we agree to mutually and collectively oppose tar sands projects which would impact our territories, including but not limited to the TransCanada Keystone XL pipeline, the Enbridge Northern Gateway, Enbridge lines nine (9) and sixty-seven (67), or the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain pipeline and tanker projects.

Both legal instruments bring home the resounding message that First Nations will not tolerate unsanctioned tar sands projects on their lands. The message that was most strongly communicated that night was not one of rejection, though, but of support – of the mutual support that these nations are prepared to offer each other, of the respect that all those gathered had for the teachings of their ancestors, and of the importance of ensuring that the land and water are kept safe and clean for future generations. And all these messages were brought forward the next morning when the nations gathered again to announce their alliance.

It was inspiring to see this show of strength and unity in the face of continued pressure by the federal government on First Nations to submit to an energy policy created without their input or consideration of the impacts on their communities and the environment upon which we all depend. Many of these nations say they have been put under duress as their federal funding shrinks, making their communities more dependent than ever on the land for sustenance and wild foods. Given that pressure, we should all feel grateful for the risks that First Nations are willing to take to halt tar sands expansion for all of our sakes. In the words of Chief Louie, "We're the ones that are going to save whatever we have left of this Earth."

By Brenda Belak, Staff Lawyer

Photos courtesy of Ben Powless.