On November 25th and 26th, 2010, representatives of many First Nations gathered in Williams Lake to hold the Save the Fraser Gathering of Nations meeting, adding their voices to the growing chorus of opposition to the Enbridge Northern Gateway Project. Specifically, these Nations came together to discuss the protection of a common resource: the Fraser River watershed. The proposed Enbridge pipelines, which would carry crude tar sands oil and condensate across Northern BC between Alberta and Kitimat, would cross the headwaters of the Fraser River. The possibility of an oil leak into the Fraser would mean a crippling change to the lifestyles of the people who depend on it.
Successfully, the meeting culminated in the signing of the Save the Fraser Declaration, which was delivered to Enbridge’s Vancouver office on December 2nd. In addition to the signing of the Declaration, the meeting provided an opportunity for these Nations to gather and share stories and speak about what the rivers and streams of the Fraser watershed mean to their peoples. West Coast Environmental Law was asked to attend the Gathering, to provide legal information about the options available to Indigenous nations to respond to environmental threats posed to the watershed by the expansion of tar sands pipelines and infrastructure. I had the opportunity to witness the dialogue, and spend some one-on-one conversations with a few of the chiefs, band councilors, and community members of the nations, and hear them share their concerns and fears about the threat of the Enbridge Northern Gateway Project.
A recurring theme of the talks was how important the Fraser River is to everyone who lives near it. Chief Fred Robbins of Esketemc First Nation, put it well: “We’ve always lived by the river, always survived by the river, all of our traditional hunting grounds are down along the river. Anything that happens to that river affects our livelihood as a nation”. The Fraser River and its tributaries serve many purposes for the people that live near it – it is a source of food, it is a place to gather and camp, it is a place for plants to grow that are used in traditional medicine. As many people said at the Gathering - the waters of the Fraser watershed are the lifeblood of their Nations.
It was quite clear that everyone was concerned about a major oil spill into the Fraser watershed. The impacts of the recent BP oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico and the Enbridge pipeline leaks in Michigan and Illinois, and the the Exxon Valdez oil spill closer to home in Prince William Sound over 20 years ago, have resonated loudly, and these Nations do not want to be the next victims of an oil disaster. As Chief Ann Louie of T'exelc (Williams Lake) said: “Look at what went on in the Gulf of Mexico – they destroyed a whole habitat of fish, and people’s way of life. You see those people who have had their lives ruined, they can’t support themselves, they have no income.” An oil leak in the Fraser River system would not only have environmental impacts, but long-lasting social and cultural impacts.
Another sentiment that was uttered many times was the importance of stewardship of the land and water, not only for people today, but for future generations. “I don’t want to be an elder and have my grandchildren growing up and questioning why we haven’t taken care of our land”, said Amy Sandy of the Williams Lake Indian Band. We have the opportunity to speak up and stop this project before it begins, and therefore we have an obligation to do so on behalf of those who will eventually come to depend on the natural environment.
It all came down to this simple principle, which is helpful to keep in mind as a wide range of people - Indigenous and non-Indigenous alike - continue to oppose this project: if we take care of the Earth, the Earth will take care of us. “Saving” the environment is not an altruistic task that is done at the expense of people - to protect the Fraser River is to protect ourselves. In order for us to rely on our environment to provide for us, we must be responsible stewards of our environment.
The signing of the Save the Fraser Declaration (signed by representatives of 61 bands whose way of life depends on the Fraser) means that BC citizens are one major step closer to protecting rivers and the coast from oil spills, and stopping the Enbridge Northern Gateway Project in its tracks. In addition to the Fraser Nations, The Coastal First Nations, the Union of BC Indian Chiefs, and the Chiefs of the First Nations Summit have all officially declared their opposition to this project. The Union of BC Municipalities and a majority of MPs in the House of Commons have voted for a ban on crude oil tankers to protect the north coast from oil spills. It’s time that our elected politicians pay attention to these calls and make decisions that protect the health and livelihoods of all British Columbians.
By Jeanette Ageson, Communications and Donor Relations Officer