The Gathering of Nations in Kitamaat against pipelines and oil tankers

KitamaatNo2Enbr.jpgOn May 29th, 2010 the Haisla and Gitga’at First Nations held the Solidarity of Nations Gathering in Kitamaat Village to reaffirm their opposition of the Coastal First Nations to the Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipeline.  West Coast Environmental Law was formally invited to witness and to participate in the event in recognition of our work to support Coastal First Nations in their efforts to stop oil tankers in their waters.  West Coast representatives at the event included Jessica Clogg (our Executive Director and Senior Counsel), Josh Paterson (Staff Lawyer), and 3 of our legal interns.  Emma Hume, one of our legal interns, gives her account of the Solidarity of Nations Gathering, and shares her perspective below.  

On May 27th, 2010, the day the BP Gulf of Mexico oil spill was declared to be worse than the Exxon Valdez disaster, Enbridge Inc. filed for permission from Canada’s national regulators to build a pipeline from the Alberta tar sands to Kitimat, a small coastal community in northern BC. Crude tar sands oil would then be shipped through narrow fjords on BC’s coast and across the Pacific in 225 supertankers each year.

Two days later, on May 29th, over 1,000 First Nations leaders and community members, concerned citizens and environmentalists gathered in Kitamaat Village (the Haisla Nation community that is the neighbour of the town of Kitimat) for a Solidarity of Nations Feast. Their message was clear – “We say No to Enbridge oil.”

The Solidarity of Nations Gathering was called for by the host First Nations – the Haisla and Gitga’at peoples – to reaffirm the commitment of Coastal First Nations, and First Nations in the interior, to stopping the Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipeline and the oil tanker traffic it would bring to coastal waters. The gathering followed on the Coastal First Nations’ ban on tar sands tanker traffic through their waters, an action based in those First Nations' own laws and customs that was declared on March 23 of this year, and which has a strong basis in Indigenous, Canadian and International law (as described in West Coast’s legal commentary on the Coastal First Nations tanker ban).

KitamaatFood.jpgThe gathering highlighted all that is at risk on the coast if the pipeline were to go ahead. The Coastal First Nations, whose traditional territories span the coastline, have a rich culture and way of life that is intimately connected with the world around them. Testament to this was the incredible meal offered to all those in attendance – cockles, crab, salmon, halibut, herring roe, sea weed, sea cucumber and seal – as well as an exchange of sea weed and eulichan oil between the two host First Nations, the Haisla and the Gitga’at.

Dr. Riki Ott, a marine biologist and toxicologist whose community in Prince William Sound, Alaska, experienced the Exxon Valdez disaster first hand, explained the threat of oil spills to ecosystems and all that is connected to them. She spoke of ‘the day the water died’ in Alaska and how people’s lives were changed forever by the devastating spill that killed masses of sea life and continues to impact the environment and local population 21 years later.

Hermann Meuter, whale researcher and President of the North Coast Cetacean Society, suggested that even if a spill were not to occur the immense amount of tanker traffic would pose significant danger to humpback whales and orcas, exerting more pressure on already fragile populations.

One thing is clear – no matter how stringent the safety measures Enbridge promises to put in place are, opening the coast to crude oil supertankers creates the looming likelihood of a coastal oil spill. There is no technology on Earth that can stop a spill from occurring (and as we’ve sadly witnessed in the Gulf of Mexico, it is next to impossible to clean an oil spill up once it hits land). The question is not if, but when, a spill will occur in BC. As Dr. David Suzuki told all in attendance, “anyone that tells you there will be no accidents or major spills as a result of this pipeline going through is either unbelievably stupid or deliberately lying to you.”

Some of these presentations are excerpted in this video news report.  W

It is because of this risk that First Nations gathered. Representatives from the Haisla, Gitga’at, Haida, Heiltsuk, Wet’suwet’en, Gitxsan, Nadleh Whut’en and many other First Nations gave impassioned speeches pledging to defeat the Enbridge Northern Gateway project and the threat it poses to their traditional territories and way of life – using all the legal and political means at their disposal. Grand Chief Stewart Phillip of the Union of BC Indian Chiefs promised his support and that of First Nations province-wide for the struggle against the Enbridge pipeline and tankers. 

KitamaatCopper.jpgAt the end of the night Gitga’at, one of the host First Nations, presented a copper shield, one of the most prestigious ceremonial object in northwest Indigenous culture, to the crowd. The copper was then cut up into hundreds of pieces and distributed to everyone in attendance with the promise that one day they would all come together to celebrate the defeat of the pipeline and tankers project, and put the copper back together. This act unified the diverse crowd in attendance, showing the world that First Nations, community members and environmentalists are going to fight to protect the ecosystems, culture and economy of the Pacific Northwest. They realize the fight will be tough but they are committed, collectively, to making sure not one drop of oil from the tar sands is spilled on their coast.

 A Legal Intern’s Perspective

The struggle against the Enbridge pipeline proposal, in the wake of the BP Gulf spill, highlights the importance of creating a more sustainable economy – one where the choice between our environment and jobs is not so stark.

Enbridge is currently trying to paint a picture of a pipeline that creates jobs and strengthens BC’s economy. They say the environmental risks are tiny because of their stringent safety measures and that the economic benefits of the project far outweigh the risks. Although the Solidarity Gathering in Kitamaat Village sends a clear message that even the most minute risk of an oil spill is intolerable, there are many people, including political leaders, who are desperate to grow our economy whatever the risk. The clashing of these perspectives creates a continuous project-by-project battle that pits the environment against the economy.

KitamaatFlag.jpgBut who says we have to choose between protecting the environment and having a strong economy? Surely we have the ability to create a different economy for ourselves, one where we can have both jobs and a healthy environment. Unfortunately the more we favour projects like the Enbridge Gateway Pipeline, the more difficult that transition will become, as it keeps us shackled to the old reality. A good first step for our leaders in Victoria and Ottawa would be to listen to First Nations in BC and stop the pipeline dead in its tracks. A legislated ban on oil tankers would be a good place to start. But we need to go beyond that, because once the Enbridge pipeline is defeated another development will be proposed with another battle just around the corner.

As someone whose livelihood is not directly tied to the coastal ecosystem that will be imperiled by the proposed pipeline, the recent gathering in Kitamaat Village reminded me that while we continue to fight environmentally destructive projects it is important to remember the big picture - imagining a day when the growth of BC’s economy is not the only item on the agenda but is only one component of a healthy society that puts equal value on sustaining the environment. The Coastal First Nations seem to have figured that out, why are the rest of us so scared?

EmmaH.JPGBy Emma Hume, Legal Intern, West Coast Environmental Law.