Aboriginal fears flare over Canada pipeline

Indigenous communities say proposed pipeline to ferry oil from energy-rich region may endanger way of life and culture.

Hartley Bay, British Columbia – The sun pierces through thin slices of halibut that lie drying across cylindrical pieces of wood as Christopher Stuart continues to delicately cut more of the freshly harvested fish for the sun to bake.

Stuart, a member of Canada’s Gitga’at First Nation, is performing the task for the first time at the tribe’s annual spring harvest on Princess Royal Island, just off the coast of British Columbia. But it’s not his first time at the seasonal camp called Kiel. He has come every year since he can remember to gather with other Gitga’at to harvest halibut and seaweed.

Helen Clifton, an elder of the Gitga’at, watches him from inside a small house on the rocky shore, as she begins her 70th year at the spring harvest.

“The tide is moving on this coast, up and down,” she says. “The tide does not stand still.”

The ocean is the main source of sustenance for many of British Columbia’s First Nations [Kavitha Chekuru/Al Jazeera]

It’s an apt description for so many situations the Gitga’at and other First Nations, Canada’s indigenous communities, find themselves in, as they work to preserve their traditions while living alongside Canada’s quest to exploit the natural resources of the land that was once theirs. While the tide helps bring in the seaweed they harvest, it could just as easily be the same tide that takes away that food if the waters become Canada’s highway to global energy markets.

Calgary-based energy firm Enbridge has proposed building a pipeline from Canada’s oil-rich province of Alberta to carry crude to the port of Kitimat. From there, the crude would be loaded onto tankers bound for Asia, traversing the forested coast of British Columbia.

First Nations and many other communities in British Columbia and Alberta find themselves in the middle of supply and demand – between Canada’s expanding oil industry, home to the world’s third-largest oil reserves; and the rapidly growing economies in East Asia, particularly China. Enbridge’s proposed pipeline, the $5.5bn Northern Gateway, would be the bridge. But the project would cut through the Great Bear Rainforest, a treasured nature preserve and one of the largest intact coastal rainforests in the world. This, in addition to safety concerns from environmental groups and First Nations, have been at the heart of much of the opposition to the project.

Environmental worries

Trees overwhelm the hilly islands that thread through the waterways here, a stunning confluence of mountain and sea, whales and wolves. The forest had been at risk from logging until 2006 when the provincial government, industry, environmentalists and First Nations came to an agreement to preserve large parts of the forest – a rare alliance between opposing sides.

“It’s a model for the scale of conservation that’s required to maintain ecosystem health, while at the same time supporting communities with revenue and jobs that don’t damage the ecosystem we depend on,” says Caitlyn Vernon, a campaigner with the Sierra Club of British Columbia. “Over a decade of work developing this model would be put in jeopardy by an oil spill.”

Critics of Northern Gateway say far more jobs in fishing and tourism are at stake if there is a pipeline breach or oil spill.

Vernon and other conservation groups say that if oil makes its way into the waters of the forest, it would cause a ripple effect through the intricately connected marine and terrestrial ecosystems. Even if there is no spill, environmentalists say increased tanker traffic could still cause damage by possibly introducing new bacteria from other waters.

The Gitga’at say they know the risks of a spill all too well. In 2006, a ferry boat travelling near their main village of Hartley Bay ran aground and sank. The ship sits at the bottom of the water just south of the bay to this day and still leaks diesel fuel into the waters in which the Gitga’at fish.

“All the promises were made and nothing happened,” says Clifton. “And today it’s still bubbling and burping.”

Enbridge acknowledges the risks of its project, but insists it has taken both the pipeline and tanker routes into serious consideration and can protect both the land and marine ecosystems.

“We’re planning on putting in place a number of risk mitigation factors. On the marine side, that includes that all tankers coming into port will be vetted by third-party experts,” Todd Nogier, an Enbridge spokesman, told Al Jazeera. “All will be boarded by British Columbia pilots who understand the area and how it behaves.” Nogier says there will also be state-of-the-art technology used for the pipeline and navigational aides installed along the tanker route to increase safer tanker traffic.

“It’s a smart way to enable Canada to move forward in an industry that is very important to the country and do something that’s an important priority for the country. And that’s finding a new market for this energy resource.”

But Enbridge faces a number of hurdles in marketing the proposal to British Columbia. One of the main selling points has been economic benefits. The firm says thousands of jobs would be created through Northern Gateway and that the project would contribute $270bn to Canada’s GDP over 30 years. But the majority of jobs would be short-term employment in the pipeline’s construction. Only a few hundred long-term jobs are expected, primarily at the marine terminal in Kitimat. Critics of Northern Gateway say far more jobs in fishing and tourism are at stake if there is a pipeline breach or oil spill.

First Nations concerns

While there has been vocal opposition from many First Nations, Enbridge says it has support from a number of bands in Alberta and British Columbia. The company is also offering communities that would be affected a 10 per cent stake in the project, in addition to a large percentage of the local jobs. It’s still a hard sell to some First Nations, such as the Haisla, who live by the port of Kitimat.

“I think that there’s definitely an area where our people need to take advantage,” says Gerald Amos, a Haisla elder. “We’re no different than other people where we require a way to sustain ourselves in today’s reality. However, there are limits to that.”

“This water was described as the dinner plate of the Haisla people,” Amos continues. “The richness here has been pretty much constant over my lifetime, but we’re now seeing a decline that I’m afraid will lead to extinction for some stocks.” Some species have already seen sharp drops, like the eulachon and salmon, particularly after restrictions on indigenous fisheries and industrial pollution over the past century. With fish as their main source of sustenance and income, the loss of key species has had a pronounced effect on their culture.

“History has a way of repeating itself for our First Nation people,” says Gitga’at elder Helen Clifton [Kavitha Chekuru/Al Jazeera]

“When I’ve got some of my grandchildren out here with me, I’m always tempted to point out the places that were important for our harvesting. And they’ve got Haisla names,” says Amos, as he gestures to the vast waters surrounding his boat and village. “Once we have a generation that doesn’t understand what that is, what else is left? That’s why I’m pretty certain that an oil spill would take away whatever culture we have left.”

Enbridge is obligated to consult with First Nations along the right of way during the project’s regulatory phase. A government panel is currently holding public hearings, which more than 4,000 people have signed up to attend, to assess the environmental impact. The federal government’s recent budget, however, streamlines the review process for natural resource projects and gives the federal cabinet final say over them, including Northern Gateway. With British Columbia’s tribes retaining aboriginal title to their land, lengthy legal battles are likely to ensue if the project is approved.

“There doesn’t need to be a tradeoff,” Nogier says regarding weighing environmental concerns against Canada’s economic growth. “But there needs to be an understanding that our society moves forward by balancing the risks.”

For Helen Clifton, it’s about defining the way society moves forward – and for whom.

“History has a way of repeating itself for our First Nation people,” she reflects. “It started with the fur trade, mining, the highways, railways. This would be practically our last stand as a people. I don’t know how we can possibly exist without the food that we get. It’s in our genes, in our psyche.”

High tide has come outside, and the bright sun that dried the fish and seaweed is now masked by clouds. As grey overtakes the sky with signs of a slowly approaching rain, Gitga’at families on Kiel finish picking up dried halibut before heading inside. If the sun can overpower the clouds and rain tomorrow, they will return at dawn to begin another day’s harvest.

Source: Al Jazeera