13 Between a Rock and a Hard PlaceCanada’s Carbon Economy and Indigenous Ambivalence
Indigenous peoples have a long and complicated history with settler colonialism and resource extraction in Canada. While there has certainly been a lot of opposition to some of the more egregious forms of resource extraction, some Indigenous communities have also tried to work with corporations and settler governments for a myriad of reasons—not only because of dire socioeconomic circumstances but also as a way of asserting their right to self-determination and of influencing management decisions regarding environmental sustainability. These efforts have been contentious, both within Indigenous communities and among some Canadians, particularly environmentalists. In this chapter I look at Indigenous opposition to, and participation in, energy extraction and transportation projects. My intent is not to set up a simple binary of those for and those against development, or those who have “sold out” and those who have “remained true” to their Indigenous values. Contemporary Indigenous resource management is more complicated and warrants a critical examination and nuanced analysis that places the dilemmas of leaders within the contexts of settler colonialism, neoliberal capitalism, environmental politics, and the ongoing struggles for Indigenous self-determination. I argue that these contexts in particular are critical to understanding Indigenous ambivalence with respect to oil and gas extraction and management in North America.
Māori scholar Linda Tuhiwai Smith (2005, 19) writes, “Imperialism frames the indigenous experience. It is part of our story, our version of modernity.” Indigenous peoples all over the world have struggled with various iterations of imperialism and colonialism for centuries. Of particular interest here is Canadian settler colonialism. A number of scholars, including Patrick Wolfe (1999, 2006), Carol Elkins and Susan Pedersen (2005), and Lorenzo Veracini (2010, 2011), have greatly expanded our understanding of settler colonialism as a distinct structure and not merely a historical event. Put simply, settler colonialism arose when European colonists did not leave or relinquish power and instead continued to occupy Indigenous lands, setting up Euro-Canadian political and economic institutions. Although, like Australia and New Zealand, the United States of America and Canada transitioned from British colonies into independent states, albeit in very different ways, these newly formed states maintained asymmetrical colonial relations with the continent’s Indigenous peoples. As Zapotec scholar Isabel Altamirano-Jiménez (2011, 107) points out, “Settler colonialism … focuses on claiming land and on creating permanent settlements that replicate social, political, economic, legal and cultural structures of settlers’ homeland over the new territories and the colonized.” With regard to Canada, James Tully (2000), Emma Battell Lowman and Adam Barker (2015), and Taiaiake Alfred (2005) concur with this description. They all stress that colonialism in Canada is not simply a legacy but a persistent reality that Indigenous peoples still endure.
The ramifications of settler colonialism do not, however, emanate only from the occupation of Indigenous lands and waters, the alienation of Indigenous peoples from their territories, and the pillaging of resources. The negation and suppression of unique cultures, ways of being, governance, and economies has also had profound and ongoing impacts on Indigenous people today. Nuu-chah-nulth legal scholar Johnny Mack (2011, 293) writes of his peoples’ experience: “For 150 years efforts have been taken to change the way we related to each other and the territory to which we belong. We would be wise to acknowledge that these efforts have been somewhat successful in their aims.” This statement might seem controversial, especially in Indigenous communities, but Mack and I believe that our experiences with settler colonialism warrant critical honesty to better understand our present predicaments. In Canada, the structure of settler colonialism that specifically oppresses Indigenous peoples includes the legacy of Indian residential schools, religious indoctrination, the Indian Act, and other government legislation and policies, as well as neoliberal capitalism. Settler colonialism in Canada frames our experiences and constrains our options.
There are literally hundreds of thousands of articles and books about capitalism, engaging in countless debates about its definition, origins, stages, or presumptive demise. I am most interested in what Geoff Mann (2013) describes as “actually existing capitalism,” which is distinguished to a certain extent from its theoretical foundations. I am interested in how capitalism plays out on Indigenous lands and waters and in the lives of Indigenous peoples. It is impossible to know with certainty if capitalism will remain as resilient as it seems in the present moment, but, as the work of the Russian economist Nikolai Kondratieff demonstrated, “capitalism’s tendency is not to collapse, but rather, to mutate” (Mason 2015, 34). Here, I focus on the present era of neoliberal capitalism that is so hegemonic that some people no longer even refer to it as capitalism. Canadian-born economist John Kenneth Galbraith (2004, 3) felt that the term had lost favour among proponents, coming instead to be known by the rather benign sounding “market system.” And while more people are talking about the growing inequities and precariousness of our capitalist market system (see, for example, Piketty 2014), its core tenets of private property, competition, and endless economic growth roll easily off the tongues of politicians, Indigenous and settler alike. Collectively, we experience capitalism as ubiquitous and everlasting.
There are specific concerns about neoliberal capitalism that I want to address. The neoliberal era began roughly during the tenures of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and neoliberalism continues to spread around the globe. It is marked by government austerity, deregulation, enhanced market penetration into more and more spaces, and a hyperdeveloped focus on individualism. But, as scholars have recognized, neoliberalism as a governing paradigm is more than simply economic policies meant to favour corporations. Neoliberalism alters individual and communal subjectivity in profound ways. Jeff Shantz and José Brendan Macdonald (2013, xvi) warn of “the creation of neoliberal subjects for whom neoliberalism is regarded simply as a ‘way of life,’ the only possible world,” echoing Margaret Thatcher’s infamous summation: “There is no alternative.” It is this sense of inevitability that is disconcerting—that the march of neoliberal capitalist progress has necessarily led us here, with no other options. Altamirano-Jiménez (2004) suggests that this neoliberal subject transformation grants Indigenous peoples only “market citizenship.” While neoliberal discourse allows for a certain shallow recognition of Indigenous cultures, it conceives of Indigenous citizenship purely in terms of participation in the mainstream market economy rather than viewing citizenship as flowing from the legal and territorial autonomy of Indigenous nations.
Not only does neoliberal capitalism reframe our (settler and Indigenous) conceptions of citizenship; it tells us that if we fail, we have only ourselves to blame. As African American scholar Lester Spence (2016, xxiv) observes, “The neoliberal turn, the gradual embrace of the general idea that society (and every institution within it) works best when it works according to the principles of the market,” produces “a society that increasingly shirks its responsibilities to those perceived to be losers in an increasingly stark competition over material, social, and psychic resources.” Under neoliberalism, social problems are individualized and pathologized. David Harvey (2006, xiv) writes, “If conditions among the lower classes deteriorated it was because, it is said, they failed, usually for personal or cultural reasons, to enhance their own human capital through dedication to education, the Protestant work ethic, submission to labour discipline.” Wendy Brown goes further, stating that neoliberalism renders people “as human capital, not simply having it to deploy or to invest or to enhance.” Consequently, some people are “credit-worthy,” while others are “disposable” (Cruz and Brown 2016, 80). Elsewhere, Brown (2016, 3) adds that the effects of neoliberalism “generate intensely isolated and unprotected individuals, persistently in peril of deracination and deprivation of basic life support, wholly vulnerable to capital’s vicissitudes.” To clarify, Brown is speaking primarily of people in democratic societies. I argue that Indigenous people and peoples are especially vulnerable to the effects of neoliberal capitalism because of historical trauma and the contemporary dynamics of settler colonialism.
Having laid out the contexts of settler colonialism and neoliberal capitalism, I want to shift to the realm of environmental politics, on which much of the debate over resource extraction focuses, especially with respect to Indigenous peoples. Indigenous people in Canada are often confined to stereotypical caricatures that obscure the totality of their diversity and depth. These stereotypes include the drunkard, the princess, the noble savage, and their multiple iterations. Included in the noble savage stereotype is “the ecologically noble Indian,” which Paul Nadasdy (2005) has already deftly critiqued and complicated. He writes of Indigenous peoples,
They are simply people with a complex set of beliefs, practices, and values that defy standard Euro–North American schemes of categorization. To be sure, they sometimes make use of environmentalist rhetoric, because it confers on them a degree of legitimacy and power in certain political contexts. But in my experience, they seldom do so cynically; more often they genuinely believe that their own practices are more environmentally benign than those of the dominant Euro–North American society. Their claims to this effect must be considered on their own merits, rather than as part of a larger general debate over their ecological nobility. (322)
I would argue that these matters are not straightforward and that we must use caution when applying dominant Western conceptions of the environment, economy, or governance when seeking to understand Indigenous communities.
While some might readily accept the simplistic narrative of Indigenous peoples as “natural” environmentalists, the political-economic contexts introduced here must be considered to develop a more accurate and nuanced understanding. In critiquing the environmental movement of the 1990s, Bruce Braun (2002, 2) challenges the binary logic that pits “pristine nature” against “destructive humanity.” The reality is that Indigenous peoples have had contentious relationships with environmental activists and corporate and government representatives alike. Braun reminds us that in 1994, in the aftermath of the “War in the Woods” in Clayoquot Sound, Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council chairman George Watts accused the environmental movement of “neocolonialism,” and in 1996, the tribal council “banned” Greenpeace (107–8). As Nadasdy has pointed out, Indigenous people have made use of environmentalist rhetoric and have even genuinely allied with environmental NGOs to fight the more destructive forms of resource extraction, but these actions primarily take place, I argue, within the context of Indigenous self-determination.
As Chippewa scholar Duane Champagne (2007, 2) observes, “The indigenous self-determination movement is about maintaining land, culture, institutional relations, government, and self-sufficiency under terms compatible with indigenous cultures and beliefs.” Champagne writes mostly about Native American tribes, and in this case he is also referring to Indigenous community survival via “tribal capitalism” within the contexts of American settler colonialism and capitalism. Indigenous self-determination is widely discussed and debated in academic and political circles with common terms such as sovereignty, nationhood, self-government, and autonomy. Here, I am referring to the persistent belief in, and struggle for, the right of Indigenous peoples to exercise the authority of self-determining nations with clear corresponding rights, entitlements, jurisdictions, and responsibilities. Article 3 of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples states, “Indigenous peoples have the right to self-determination. By virtue of that right they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development” (UN General Assembly 2007, 8). Although the declaration has been adopted by all UN member states, it has yet to resonate in the daily lives of most Indigenous people.1 Of particular interest to Indigenous peoples is the principle of free, prior, and informed consent with respect to laws, lands, cultures, and economic development including resource extraction and environmental hazards outlined in articles 10, 11, 19, 28, 29, and 32. I will expand on this below in the examples of oil sands and pipeline development in Canada.
The struggle for Indigenous self-determination in Canada is older than the country and remains ongoing. I do not have the space here to present the entire history of Indigenous-colonial settler relations, but I do want to make a few key points regarding the matter of land. Altamirano-Jiménez (2011, 107) writes, “Settler colonialism presupposes that the annexation and colonization of new territories is based on terra nullius or unoccupied, empty lands.” The concept of terra nullius has provided a theoretical foundation for the theft of Indigenous lands and resources under settler colonialism, but it was based on a false premise. Indigenous peoples with their own complex languages, cultures, and political and economic systems already inhabited North America. Indigenous peoples also had their own land tenure systems and relationships with land and non-human life forms that were distinct from, and often befuddling to, European understandings (Stark 2012). Even those who did not ignore Indigenous presence in what would later become North America argued that Indigenous societies were not advanced enough to maintain legitimate claims to the lands that would be devoured by European colonialism. Here, I am thinking of John Locke and his labour-based theory of land ownership ( 2003, 288): “Whatsoever then he removes out of the State that Nature hath Provided, and left in, he hath mixed his Labour with, and joined to it something that is his own, and thereby makes it his Property.” Settler colonialists believed that Indigenous peoples did not improve the land through their labour and therefore could not be said to truly own it. Many still believe this to be true. They cannot comprehend why some people would want to leave resources in the ground. We will now look at some background and examples of Indigenous resistance, before also considering examples of cooperation that defy stereotypes but nonetheless represent Indigenous efforts to assert agency.
Indigenous Resistance and Adaptation
“Resistance is futile,” Onondaga scholar David Newhouse (2000) once proclaimed. Employing a Star Trek analogy, Newhouse likened the hegemony and power of capitalism to that of the Borg—the cybernetic collective that seeks to assimilate all sentient beings and all knowledge into its hive mind. In Newhouse’s analysis, Indigenous cultures will eventually be absorbed and assimilated into the liberal-democratic-capitalist mainstream. “We have participated at the edges of capitalism, as labourers, as small business people, as debtors,” he writes. “Now we seek to enter its heart. We will be transformed by it. Just as the Borg absorbs cultures, capitalism will absorb Aboriginal cultures. And the moral order of Aboriginal societies will be changed” (153–54). Admittedly, I was angered the first time I encountered Newhouse’s take on capitalism and Indigenous societies, but over time I have, with some sadness, come to understand the astuteness of his position. I still disagree with the conclusion that Indigenous peoples should wholeheartedly embrace capitalism, but I certainly acknowledge the power of capitalism and the way it persists and invades every corner of both the earth and our imaginations. It is a force that Indigenous peoples cannot afford to underestimate or ignore.
Indigenous peoples have had diverse experiences with settler colonialism, yet with respect to timing and pace, we witnessed an alarming decline in traditional and adaptive livelihoods on Indigenous lands and waters at the end of the twentieth century. This was especially pronounced in the more remote and sparsely populated areas that have relatively recently come to the attention of voracious resource-extraction companies. As Indigenous peoples have had their traditional and adaptive livelihoods, we have become increasingly dependent on the mainstream economy for survival. Perhaps more contentiously, I also argue that alienation from traditional territories can have the effect of desensitizing Indigenous people to the adverse environmental impacts that often come with intensive resource extraction.
More than half of Indigenous people in Canada live in urban centres. In the case of my father’s people, the Nuu-chah-nulth, the majority now “live away from home.” Additionally, changes to our main adaptive livelihood—commercial fishing—have been swift and dramatic. The Nuu-chah-nulth commercial fishing fleet dropped from a peak of two hundred boats in the mid- to late twentieth century to only six by 2002. We now find ourselves in the unenviable position of struggling with high rates of poverty (by any standard), a loss of connection to our home waters, including many traditional Indigenous foods, and the ongoing pressure of industrial economic development in our territories. The dominance of neoliberal capitalism, settler colonialism, and rampant resource extraction in Canada truly places Indigenous communities between the proverbial rock and hard place.
The forces of neoliberal capitalism and settler colonialism have left us with very few choices, yet I do not want to completely ignore the ongoing efforts of Indigenous leaders to assert agency in the political-economic decisions in their territories. Since the first days of Captain James Cook’s arrival in Nuu-chah-nulth waters, Ha’wiih (hereditary chiefs) have worked consistently to assert their jurisdiction and authority in their respective Ha’houlthlii (chiefly territories). As the relationships with imperial actors shifted from trade to settler colonialism in the nineteenth century, the agency of Nuu-chah-nulth Ha’wiih became greatly diminished. The story is long and complex, but it begins with the assertion of Crown sovereignty, the endangerment of whale populations by commercial whaling fleets, and the multi-layered and interconnected components of settler colonialism in Canada, which include Indian residential schools, religious indoctrination, the persistent undermining of traditional Indigenous cultures, ways of living, economics, and governance. Even in the current era of reconciliation, Canadian governments refuse to acknowledge or respect traditional Indigenous governing institutions. I argue that all of this has worked to discredit Indigenous ways of knowing and livelihoods generally and traditional Indigenous political-economic governance specifically. This is not only true in the territories I am most familiar with, but a common experience of Indigenous peoples across the country. Overshadowing Indigenous political economies are the paradigms of neoliberal democracy and capitalism.
Despite Newhouse’s Borg-like assessment that Indigenous resistance to capitalism is futile, I believe that Indigenous resistance is both fertile and necessary but also complicated and certainly not inevitable. First, I want to address Indigenous resistance and the ways it is often criticized as being reactionary or unprogressive. The rhetoric surrounding Indigenous economic development in Canada is laced with notions of liberal teleological progress and modernity. Much as in Francis Fukiyama’s (1992) notion of the “end of history,” Canada is often thought to have achieved the pinnacle of human political and economic progress. Ergo, anything that stands in the way of “Canadian progress” must be backward, and many Indigenous people, especially political leaders, have internalized this logic. Here I am thinking of people like long-time Osoyoos Indian Band chief Clarence Louie and Tsimshian lawyer and author Calvin Helin. Louie is known for his inflammatory rhetoric, such as “If your life sucks, it’s because you suck” and “Quit your sniffling” (quoted in MacGregor 2006). Louie has also advised, “If you call yourself a leader, give all your people the chance at the dignity of a job, equal opportunity and the individual responsibility to earn a living” (quoted in Helin 2006, 235). Helin (2006, 30) writes optimistically, “Aboriginals are likely in the best position ever to integrate economically with the mainstream, to partner with industry, and create wealth and opportunities for all.” Notably, Louie and Helin are not really outliers. It is safe to say that many Indigenous leaders in Canada support some form of economic development that inevitably plugs into mainstream neoliberal capitalism.
This is not to suggest that even the most economically minded Indigenous leaders are not concerned about negative environmental, social, and cultural impacts of capitalism, but, as is the case with their settler counterparts, the rhetoric tends to ring hollow in the face of billion-dollar industrial projects and profits. Those who oppose destructive projects are often criticized as being fringe radicals. But Dene scholar Glen Coulthard (2014) reminds us that resistance is not simply a negative reaction within the context of Canadian political, legal, and economic orders; it is also an affirmative action in the context of Indigenous political, legal, and economic orders. When Indigenous people resist and say no, “they also have ingrained within them a resounding ‘yes’: they are the affirmative enactment of another modality of being, a different way of relating to and with the world” (169). This position is often incomprehensible when we prioritize neoliberal Canadian political and economic values or take them for granted as being universal. Some Indigenous people still remind us that there are other, older ways of organizing politically and economically that are divergent from Canadian norms but equally valid. What happens when these older, but equally valid, Indigenous world views come into contact with big oil?
Indigenous Peoples and Big Oil
The issue of Indigenous peoples and big oil in Canada first appeared on my radar with the stirring footage from the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline Inquiry, led by Justice Thomas Berger, between 1974 and 1976. I was particularly moved by the testimony of Frank T’Seleie, then chief of the Fort Good Hope Dene Band, a K’asho Got’įnę community located on the eastern shore of the Mackenzie River in the Sahtu Region of the Northwest Territories. Chief T’Seleie stated,
Let me tell your nation that this is Dene land and we the Dene people intend to decide what happens on our land. Mr. Berger, there will be no pipeline. There will be no pipeline because we have our plans for our lands. There will be no pipeline because we no longer intend to allow our land and our future to be taken away from us and that we are destroyed to make someone else rich. There will be no pipeline because we, the Dene people, are awakening to see the truth of the system of genocide that has been imposed on us and we will not go back to sleep. We do not say we are better or worse than the white man. We are proud of who we are, proud to be Dene and loyal to our nation, but we are not saying that we do not respect you and your ways. We are only asking now, as we asked you then, to let us live our own lives, in our own way, on our own land, without forever being threatened by invasion and extinction. We do not want to have to fight and struggle forever just to survive as a people.2
Chief T’Seleie, and the position he articulated on behalf of his community, inspired generations of Indigenous activists. The 1970s Mackenzie Valley pipeline proposal did not succeed, and neither did the recently revived project proposed by Imperial Oil, ConocoPhillips, and ExxonMobile, but the positionality of many Indigenous communities was markedly different this time around. T’Seleie was also involved in the recent incarnation, but this time as a proponent and as a director of the Aboriginal Pipeline Group, which proposed a 33.3 percent Indigenous ownership stake. He says, simply and unapologetically, “Times have changed” (quoted in Laird 2003). When Imperial Oil announced that it would not go forward with the pipeline (citing low natural gas prices), many Indigenous community leaders were disappointed. Duane Smith, chair of the Inuvialuit Regional Corporation, stated, “I just hope that Canada as a government recognizes the valuable resources that we are sitting on in this region and the potential it provides for the economy of this country as well as to the people of the region” (in Strong 2017). The apparent about-face of T’Seleie and others is partially responsible for my interest in this area of research. Such reactions have become more common. My question is simple: What has changed?
Actually, I have two questions. The second one is this: What has stayed the same? I am interested in both change and continuity in Indigenous-settler relations generally and in Indigenous community governance and political economies specifically. Not only are Indigenous peoples diverse, but their experiences of settler colonialism have been diverse. Native American legal scholar Robert Williams Jr. (1997) has written about what he calls “the Encounter era,” a period during which Indigenous-settler relations were more reflective of mutual dependence and cooperation than they would later come to be. The Kaswentha, or Two-Row Wampum, a treaty originally negotiated between the Dutch and Haudenosaunee in the seventeenth century, was meant to symbolize not only mutual respect and interdependence but also, importantly, non-interference (Parmenter 2013, 97). Others, particularly in the north and the west, experienced colonialism and development in different ways. Diverse origins and experiences are bound to lead to a diversity of responses to colonialism and contemporary capitalism. How different Indigenous nations navigate settler colonialism varies from place to place, despite many similarities in our collective treatment by federal, provincial, and territorial governments. If some continuity exists within and across Indigenous nations, it is that they have almost always attempted to act in ways that would preserve and perpetuate their political and economic autonomy. How this is manifested looks different depending on the nation, treaties (or their absence), and options and strategies for survival and resilience. There is no template.
Oil and gas pipelines and Indigenous peoples are back in the headlines in both Canada and the United States. Opposition to the Dakota Access Pipeline erupted in 2016 and 2017, particularly in the territories of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in North Dakota. Regarding the resonance and significance of the protests, Eric Steinman (2019, 1070–71) writes, “With grassroots participation by members of other American Indian tribal nations, formal encouragement by many tribal governments, support from Indigenous people from elsewhere in the Americas and allies of all kinds from American society, the historic effort was the most broad-base grassroots social movement campaign that featured or centrally included American Indians.” Opposition leadership to the pipeline originated among Indigenous women and youth, who emerged as “water protectors” to stand in the way of the “black snake” (1081).
Reflecting on the protests, Standing Rock Elder LaDonna Brave Bull Allard commented, “When people want to say, ‘Who started this?’ Nobody. Everybody. There was no one leader. There was no one person. It was everybody. Each with their own journey. In the middle of all of this was the youth, who continued to stand up. Who continued to bring that power, that healing” (quoted in Halpin 2017). US president Barack Obama’s outgoing administration responded to the protests in December 2016 by denying the Army Corps of Engineers a permit required to build the pipeline under the Missouri River, but newly elected president Donald Trump promptly issued an executive order reversing that decision, and the pipeline was completed in April 2017. Even though the pipeline did go through (at a cost of $3.8 billion), Dave Archambault II, the tribal chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux at the #NoDAPL protests, felt that the protests were important expressions of tribal sovereignty and calls for environmental justice. As he stated, “What tribes are doing is saying, we have value, we have worth, we’re still here, and that is exercising your sovereignty” (quoted in McKenna 2017).
Yet not all Native American tribes or citizens oppose oil and gas projects, although this fact receives less media attention. According to a CNN report from November 2016, not all Standing Rock Sioux citizens opposed the Dakota Access Pipeline, and some found the invasion of protesters from all over the world to be a nuisance rather than a help (Ravitz 2016). In this regard, I want to stress two points. First, diversity of opinion in Indigenous communities should be a surprise to no one; however, stereotypical caricatures tend not to allow for an acceptance of this diversity. Second, supporting economic development initiatives, even controversial ones, is also an expression of tribal sovereignty. After seventy years of American oil and gas companies operating on tribal lands, the Diné people formed the Navajo Nation Oil and Gas Company. Headquartered in Arizona, with operations in New Mexico and Utah as well, the company currently employs more than fifty people and generates millions of dollars in income for the Navajo Nation.3 This does not mean I agree with those who support oil and gas projects, but I understand their dilemma, and I certainly think that all political and economic decisions should be debated and critiqued by Indigenous people. Moreover, as illustrated in the Clayoquot Sound example raised by Braun (2002), it is also possible for environmental NGOs to act in neocolonial ways with respect to Indigenous peoples and priorities, especially when the latter do not conform to the preconceived notions of authentic indigeneity by the former. These issues are far from straightforward.
This complexity is also apparent in the current dispute over the expansion of the Trans Mountain Pipeline, which is intended to triple the amount of diluted bitumen being transported from Alberta’s oil sands to Greater Vancouver. The pipeline expansion was originally proposed by Kinder Morgan, a Texas-based company, but amid legal objections and extensive protests, the Canadian government announced in May 2018 that it would buy the existing pipeline for $4.5 billion and commit to the project’s completion, estimated at an additional cost of $7.4 billion (Harris 2018).
Much as in the case of the defeated Northern Gateway pipeline proposal, Indigenous people find themselves on both sides of the Trans Mountain fight. Both the Skwxwú7mesh and Tsleil-Waututh Nations (and the City of Vancouver) have opposed the pipeline expansion in court, and the Tsleil-Waututh led a diverse group of protesters on Burnaby Mountain, where Kinder Morgan had been working to expand their tank farm to accommodate the increase in diluted bitumen. Tsleil-Waututh leader Rueben George stated at a 2015 Kinder Morgan AGM, “I am here to let you know that the Tsleil-Waututh will never consent to the Trans Mountain project—because it will destroy our culture, our way of life and our spirituality” (quoted in Kresnyak 2015). The issue is even more complicated because Indigenous communities are not dealing with the open hostility of former Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper but with Justin Trudeau, a Liberal who campaigned on support for Indigenous rights and renewed nation-to-nation relationships. Regarding the federal government’s purchase of the Trans Mountain Pipeline, Skwxwú7mesh Nation councillor Khelsilem stated, “This is a continued betrayal of promises made to us by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.” He went on to clarify the Skwxwú7mesh Nation’s position: “We have a right to practice our culture, our way of life, and to continue our right to self-determination in our territories. This is a right that we have never surrendered, and it is a right we will continue to defend” (quoted in Ritchie 2018). And yet others claim to be asserting their self-determination rights by supporting the pipeline.
Kinder Morgan signed “mutual benefit agreements” with forty-three Indigenous groups along the pipeline route, including thirty-three in British Columbia (Bailey 2018). And since Canada has purchased the pipeline, some people, including Suncor Energy’s CEO and several First Nation leaders, have talked about the possibility of a percentage of Indigenous ownership in the pipeline (Lewis 2018). Suncor previously partnered with the Fort McKay and Mikisew Cree First Nations, in 2017, on an oil-storage facility, with the local Indigenous people owning 49 percent of the project. Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation Chief Allan Adam has stated, “We want to be owners of a pipeline,” which is a noteworthy change from 2014, when he toured with Neil Young and David Suzuki to raise money to legally oppose oil sands expansion (Lewis 2018).
In British Columbia, Chief Ernie Crey of the Cheam First Nation has led discussions about support for and an ownership stake in the Trans Mountain Pipeline. Chief Crey is a long-time advocate for Indigenous fishing rights and has been a key figure in raising awareness about the issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women. He believes that the pipeline is inevitable and that Cheam will be better positioned to accrue benefit and have a say about environmental oversight if they are involved. As Crey puts it, “The pipeline goes through our territories. Our job is to look after our territories and make sure things of value in those territories are taken care of. To do that, we need to be more than advisers” (quoted in Bailey 2018).
Chief Crey is part of the Indigenous Advisory and Monitoring Committee, whose members include representatives of First Nations that object to the pipeline but do not want to be sidelined should it go ahead. While some First Nation leaders appear to be enthusiastic supporters of the oil and gas industry, others do so while holding their noses. Chief Ken Hansen of the Yale First Nation, who felt obligated to sign a mutual benefit agreement with Kinder Morgan because his nation had run out of money, later commented, “When I signed this deal, I felt a lot of shame.” Chief Robert Joseph of Ditidaht, a Vancouver Island First Nation, is another one of those leaders. “At the end of the day, we are not really in favour of any pipeline, but we believe it’s going to go through anyway,” he stated. “They will not listen to anybody and that’s the history of consultation with First Nations people…. They consult and go ahead and do what they were going to do anyways” (both quoted in Paling 2018).
At the heart of this conundrum are several key factors: loss of Indigenous ways of living and subsequent community poverty, relentless industrial development pressures, and hollow relationships with settler governments. In April 2018, Prime Minister Trudeau declared, “We are going to get the pipeline built. It is a project in the national interest…. This project will go ahead” (quoted in Snyder 2018). Despite the fact that the Government of Canada finally adopted the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, it clearly has a different interpretation of both the principle of free, prior, and informed consent and its duty to meaningfully consult First Nation communities. As Chief Joseph stated rather glumly, “Even if it’s the best consultation on the face of the earth, if they do what they were going to do anyhow, what’s the point?” Despite his feelings of shame, Chief Hansen says, “I’m about the people…. Our people needed help and this is one way of getting it” (both quoted in Paling 2018).
In 2016, when the Northern Gateway pipeline proposal was still being considered in British Columbia, the rifts within First Nation communities were shockingly exemplified when one of the Haida Nation’s twenty-two clans held a traditional feast to strip two of its hereditary chiefs of their titles because they had signed a letter to the National Energy Board in support of the pipeline (Lee 2016). Other nations are similarly divided, and while this is certainly cause for concern, I do not want to focus on those divisions themselves as much as I want readers to consider the contexts within which those divisions manifest themselves. And while we may be rightfully critical of any politician’s decisions, I would argue that most Indigenous leaders want to do what they truly believe is best for their communities. Within the constraints of settler colonialism, environmental politics, and neoliberal capitalism, options for Indigenous communities are tremendously limited. Colonialism and capitalism have at times been devastating for Indigenous peoples and lands. That being said, we cannot ignore the current socioeconomic conditions in Indigenous communities or the right to self-determination. If well-meaning Canadians truly seek environmental justice and reconciliation with Indigenous peoples, they must better understand the socio-political-economic realities faced by those communities as well as their rightful assertions for self-determination.
- 1. Notably, in 2016, Canada became the last country to remove its objector status to the declaration, almost a decade after the UN first adopted it, in 2007. And, not surprisingly, the last four countries to adopt the declaration were Canada, the United States, Australia, and New Zealand—arguably the most prominent English-speaking settler states in the world.
- 2. “Dene Chief Frank T’Seleie—MacKenzie Valley Pipeline/Gas Project in 1975,” CBC News video, posted April 5, 2013, available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pohp-gYL1I0. The passage quoted runs from 2:35 to 4:18.
- 3. “What We Do,” n.d., Navajo Nation Oil and Gas Company, https://www.nnogc.com/what-we-do/ (accessed December 9, 2019).
- Alfred, Taiaiake. 2005. Wasáse: Indigenous Pathways of Action and Freedom. Peterborough, ON: Broadview Press.
- Altamirano-Jiménez, Isabel. 2004. “North American First Peoples: Slipping Up into Market Citizenship?” Citizenship Studies 8, no. 4: 349–65.
- ———. 2011. “Settler Colonialism, Human Rights and Indigenous Women.” Prairie Forum 36, no. 2: 105–25.
- Bailey, Ian. 2018. “Some First Nations Seek Inclusion in Trans Mountain Talks.” Globe and Mail, June 6, 2018.
- Battell Lowman, Emma, and Adam J. Barker. 2015. Settler: Identity and Colonialism in the 21st Century. Halifax: Fernwood.
- Braun, Bruce. 2002. The Intemperate Rainforest: Nature, Culture, and Power on Canada’s West Coast. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
- Brown, Wendy. 2016. “Sacrificial Citizenship: Neoliberalism, Human Capital, and Austerity Politics.” Constellations 23, no. 1: 3–14.
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