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Freedom Train 2012: Taking Enbridge opposition Canada-wide

May 16, 2012
March to Enbridge shareholders meeting in Toronto
Photo Credit: Yinka Dene Alliance

The cross-Canada railway has always been a powerful symbol. Over the years it has been celebrated as a “nation-building” exercise by some, while it is remembered as a source of deep injustice by others. Chinese and Indigenous labourers worked to build the tracks in dangerous conditions inferior to those of white workers. The railway itself was a tool of colonization that brought significant change to Indigenous society throughout the West, and hastened the imposition of the British-Canadian legal order with almost no treaties in British Columbia, a history that is the source of continuing legal and political conflict today. Conscious of that history, a number of BC First Nations led by the Yinka Dene Alliance, have transformed those rails into a source of power for Indigenous peoples, as they recently completed a journey across the country to assert their rights and their inherent authority to govern themselves.

Over the past two weeks, you’ve likely heard about the Yinka Dene Alliance’s inspiring cross-Canada Freedom Train journey to defend their decision-making authority and their constitutionally-protected Title and Rights, and to oppose the Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipeline and tankers project that threatens those rights. This year Enbridge’s annual shareholders’ meeting was in Toronto, so the Yinka Dene travelled from their own territories over land, with events and ceremonies in Jasper, Edmonton, Saskatoon and Winnipeg before arriving in Toronto itself for several days of events and the Enbridge meeting. The Yinka Dene led a delegation of over 50 people ranging in age from 15 to 72, that included representatives or members of a number of other First Nations and First Nations groups, such as the Coastal First Nations, the Haida Nation, Tsleil-Waututh, the Wet’suwet’en Nation, Cold Lake First Nations, and the various First Nations members of the Keepers of the Athabasca. West Coast Environmental Law was honoured to be invited to travel with the Freedom Train to witness the many events along the route and to provide legal assistance, as we did last year, at Enbridge’s annual shareholders meeting.

The Freedom Train name was chosen by the Yinka Dene because this journey was truly about their people’s freedom to live according to their own laws and their own governance. As Chief Jackie Thomas of Saik’uz First Nation, a member of the Yinka Dene Alliance, said:

“This is about our freedom to choose our future, our freedom to live according to our own culture, our freedom to govern ourselves and our lands, and our freedom from the catastrophic risks of an Enbridge pipeline oil spill. We are fighting for our very survival. An oil spill into our lands and waters threatens our health, our culture, and our very existence as separate peoples.”

That was the message that the Yinka Dene and the allied First Nations advanced at each stop of the Freedom Train. From Alberta through to Ontario, they received an amazing reception from locals – both First Nations and non-First Nations alike. In Jasper, about 150 people came out to the platform for a rally to send the train off. In Edmonton, a packed feast was put on to welcome the travellers and people honked and cheered their approval as the Freedom Train riders marched through the downtown core to demonstrate their refusal of consent in front of Enbridge’s offices. In Saskatoon, the papers reported about 200 people came out in the early morning to the train station for a 20-minute long rally and ceremony next to the train. In Winnipeg, locals packed a feast and attended three days’ worth of events to support the Freedom Train. And finally in Toronto, the Freedom Train was celebrated with a spectacular Solidarity Concert that carried on with a full house through two o’clock in the morning, the night before a huge rally and march that filled the downtown financial district of Toronto with a diverse array of opponents of Enbridge, gathering outside of the company’s shareholders meeting at a hotel.

Show your Solidarity concert in Toronto

Poster for the Show your Solidarity concert in Toronto on May 8, 2012

As the Freedom Train gathered momentum and steam while rolling across the country, it was quickly apparent just how many people right across Canada are deeply opposed to the Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipeline and tankers project. The opposition to Enbridge, and to the expansion of tar sands pipelines, is a matter of national concern, not a British Columbia issue (and certainly not some odd BC quirk, suggested by former Bank of Canada governor David Dodge who  recently dismissed BC opponents of oil tanker traffic as “looney toons” – while we don’t agree with his suggestion that bitumen should just be pumped east to avoid BC, we agree with his analysis that it will be extremely difficult to get oil pipelines built through BC due to the intense and entrenched First Nations and public opposition). The Freedom Train petition gathered nearly 15,000 signatures over the time of the journey, and thousands of people in total attended events right across the country to support the Yinka Dene in their campaign to protect their rights. Even as the federal government attempts, through the budget bill, to gut environmental protections and to make oil pipelines much easier to be approved, Canadians have been coming out in droves to oppose those pipelines and to stand behind the First Nations who have taken the lead in stopping them. The signatories to the petition and those who came out expressed their agreement that the Indigenous-law-based decision to ban the Enbridge pipeline and tanker project should be respected by the government of Canada. Seeing the remarkable response to the Freedom Train gave us a lot of hope that justice will prevail and that this will ultimately be the case.


Freedom Train whistlestop rally at Saskatoon Train Station
Photo Credit: Yinka Dene Alliance

Inside the AGM

Yinka Dene and other First Nations representatives had the right to speak at the Enbridge annual meeting, and to directly question the CEO, as they were assigned proxies by individual Enbridge shareholders. Those shareholders delegated their right to the Chiefs and representatives to attend speak on their behalf at the meeting. After the march reached the hotel where the meeting was taking place, the representatives of the Yinka Dene, Haida, Wet’suwet’en, and Aamjiwnaang First Nations attempted to enter the hotel to attend the meeting. There was a police and security cordon to allow only certain people into the building who were approved to attend. Half of the delegates were admitted, but there were some tense moments as Enbridge had lost the record of the other half’s proxies. Some of the chiefs were thus stopped at the door amid an explosion of press flashes and tv cameras. After about 20 minutes of investigation, Enbridge’s officials found the proxies for the remaining representatives and they were admitted.

Inside the meeting, the shareholders voted on executive and board pay, and we heard a presentation from the CEO, Patrick Daniel, on Enbridge’s results and plans in which he spoke encouragingly of a growth in tar sands oil production. Mr. Daniel repeated his statement from last year to the effect that if you use energy for anything – frying an egg, taking your kids to school, whatever – you should therefore stop complaining about the expansion of tar sands and tar sands infrastructure projects like their Northern Gateway pipeline and tankers project. Of course, our entire society needs to both use less energy and transition away from fossil fuels, but it is of course pure fallacy to suggest that if you use energy then you are a hypocrite to complain about the lack of sustainability of its source, or the dangers of its transportation in pipeline and tankers. We all have changes to make. Building the Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipeline (and the Kinder Morgan expansion for that matter) is a step in the wrong direction.

The CEO was questioned by First Nations representatives. Chief Na’Moks of the Wet’suwet’en stated that there would be no approval for their pipeline in Wet’suwet’en territory. Chief Martin Louie put it the question to Mr. Daniel: “how far are you willing to go to destroy our land?” Ron Plain of the Aamjiwnaang First Nation near Sarnia, Ontario, referred to the oil refineries in their traditional territory, fed in part by Enbridge pipelines, and played on Enbridge’s own statement that they are an “enabler”. Mr. Plain said “you are an enabler – you’ve enabled my community to become the most polluted place in North America.” April Churchill, Vice-President of the Haida Nation, made clear that the opposition is not about money, and that shareholders and investors should make no mistake: “money will not change our minds.” For Enbridge’s part, the CEO responded that he didn’t want to “force” the project through, and that he hoped to get First Nations onside. But when pressed on whether this meant that they will drop the project in the absence of First Nations’ consent to the pipeline and tankers project, Mr. Daniel did just as he did at last year’s meeting in Calgary. He said the he refused to speculate and acted as if this were a purely hypothetical question (see our blog after last year’s annual meeting).  Mr. Daniel’s avowed wish not to force the pipeline through was at odds with the company’s statement in its response to a shareholder proposal about First Nations legal risk (see below), in which the company stated that, in its opinion, First Nations support is desired but not required, that their rights are “not absolute” and that they can be violated if the government can “justify” the infringement.  These written statements appear to be those of a company that is prepared to push forward in spite of First Nations opposition, rather than respect the decisions of Nations who have decided not to permit their pipelines and tankers into their lands and waters.

The First Nations representatives in the meeting took up the better part of an hour with their statements and questions, and left little doubt as to the intense legal and financial risks facing the project if Enbridge decides to proceed in spite of their refusal. This was picked up by numerous media including the financial media.

It became clear that many Enbridge shareholders are also concerned about the legal risks facing the company on account of opposition to the Northern Gateway pipeline. A shareholder proposal asking the company to report back to shareholders on these risks and the measures being taken to mitigate them received the approval of more than 1 in 4 shareholders – a high rate of approval for a proposal that management recommended that the shareholders vote against. This proposal was brought forward by Northwest and Ethical Investments and was not an initiative of the First Nations attending the meeting.

After the meeting had concluded, the First Nations representatives left the hotel to the cheers and drumming of the First Nations people and Torontonians who were still gathered, after hours in the rain, outside of the meeting on the street. They had kept up their singing, drumming and chanting to support the Yinka Dene and others who were facing Enbridge directly inside the meeting.

The powerful words of the Chiefs inside the Enbridge AGM, and at gatherings across the country last week left little doubt that First Nations can and will continue to enforce their Indigenous-law based declarations definitively banning tar sands crude oil tankers, pipelines and infrastructure from their territories, using every lawful means at their disposal. But perhaps even more significantly, the hundreds of people who came forward to show their support at every stop right across the country, and the thousands of people who have added their names to the Freedom Train petition, leave little doubt that the risks associated with the Enbridge Northern Gateway tankers and pipelines project are matter of profound national concern to people of all walks of life.

Freedom Train Feast in Edmonton
Photo Credit: Yinka Dene Alliance


By Josh Paterson, Staff Lawyer