Montreal – Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has been widely criticised for vowing to get a multibillion-dollar oil pipeline project built in the face of widespread, indigenous-led opposition that is mounting across Canada.
The prime minister said on Sunday that his government plans to hold a “formal financial discussion” with the proponent of the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion, Texas oil corporation Kinder Morgan.
“We are going to get the pipeline built. It is a project in the national interest,” Trudeau told Canadian media.
But that pledge was immediately shot down by indigenous leaders who have emerged at the forefront of a grassroots campaign against the Trans Mountain project.
The pipeline is proving to be the biggest challenge to Trudeau since his 2015 election, when the now-prime minister ran on promises to protect the environment and build a new relationship with First Nations based on reconciliation.
“[Trudeau is] on the public record saying that governments provide permits and communities provide consent,” said Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, president of the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs.
“Clearly, the indigenous community, as well as the citizens of British Columbia, have not provided consent or social licence for this project to proceed,” Phillip said at a press conference this week, reiterating his opposition to Trans Mountain.
The $5bn Trans Mountain project would twin an existing 1,150km pipeline, allowing it to ship up to 890,000 barrels of oil a day from the Alberta tar sands to the coast of British Columbia (BC), in western Canada, for shipment to Asia and other markets.
Trudeau approved the project in 2016, saying it would bolster Canada’s economy and create new jobs.
Several lawsuits have been filed against the pipeline, however.
Opponents say it endangers waterways and marine ecosystems, threatens the health of communities, will actually lead to a loss of jobs, and violates indigenous land rights.
More recently, activists have been arrested for blocking construction on oil transport terminals in BC and thousands have protested against the pipeline.
While Ottawa says the project was approved after a thorough consultation process, several First Nations along the pipeline route say they remain firmly against it.
“The whole issue of consultation is a red herring. It’s a distraction because … the legal bar has been raised to consent. There is no consent,” Phillip said.
“The answer is still ‘no’. The Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain pipeline will never be built.”
The pipeline emerged at the centre of a national debate this month after Kinder Morgan issued what many critics of the project viewed as an ultimatum to the Canadian government.
On April 8, the company said it would stop allocating shareholder resources to the project and suspend “non-essential activities and related spending” as it seeks “clarity on the path forward”.
Kinder Morgan specifically called out the BC government, which has been a vocal opponent of Trans Mountain, as the main hurdle in getting the project built. It did not mention active indigenous opposition, however.
The company said it would consult stakeholders and come to a decision by May 31.
In response, Canada’s Minister of Natural Resources, Jim Carr, reaffirmed Ottawa’s support for getting the pipeline built and echoed Trudeau by saying the project “is in the national interest”.
“This crucial resource project will expand export markets for Canadian resources and create thousands of good, middle-class jobs and no one should be standing in the way of those jobs and the families that stand to benefit,” Carr said in a statement.
Ottawa said it will seek to reassure Kinder Morgan of the economic viability of the project, but the government has not explicitly said whether it will offer the company financial support, and if so, how much.
“We are determined to find a solution. With all our partners, we continue to consider all available options. As our prime minister has said, this pipeline will be built,” Carr said.
Ottawa has also painted the problem as a struggle between federal and provincial jurisdiction. Under the country’s constitution, the federal government has the final say over national projects that cut across multiple provinces.
Trudeau said his government would consider tabling new legislation to reaffirm that the federal government has jurisdiction over these types of projects.
Provincial leaders, meanwhile, have emerged on opposite sides of the issue.
Rachel Notley, the premier of Alberta, home to Canada’s sizeable tar sands oil reserves, is unsurprisingly strongly in favour of the project.
“The federal government, along with the government of Alberta, has commenced discussions with Kinder Morgan to establish a financial relationship that will eliminate investor risk,” Notley said on Sunday.
For his part, BC Premier John Horgan has been a vocal opponent of Trans Mountain.
The BC government recently proposed a measure to make it more difficult to transport oil through the province, and mayors, federal parliament members and other officials across BC have also voiced their unequivocal opposition to the pipeline.
“The prime minister has failed on this project. He is blowing this into a national crisis because of his mishandling of this file,” said Kennedy Stewart, an MP in Burnaby, BC, which recently hosted a march against Trans Mountain.
The government of Quebec even waded into the fray last week, after a minister published an open letter that criticised the Trudeau government for attempting to impose its will unilaterally on the provinces.
Opposition to other pipeline projects has been particularly strong in the past years in the French-speaking province, which has historically been a staunch defender of rights at the provincial level.
But for indigenous peoples, the Trans Mountain pipeline is just one example of the deeper problem of various levels of government in Canada bulldozing over their rights.
“This land was given to us by our ancestors and it is our responsibility as elected leaders to protect that land for our children and their children,” said Khelsilem, a spokesperson for the Squamish Nation Council in BC, on Monday.
“We have rights as a nation that have not been met or honoured,” he said.
Chief Bob Chamberlin, vice president of the Union of BC Indian Chiefs, said the Canadian government’s support for Trans Mountain also goes against its commitment to respect the United Nations Declaration for the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP).
Canada signed on to UNDRIP in 2016 and the declaration states that countries must obtain “free, prior and informed consent” before undertaking any actions that may affect indigenous peoples.
While the current focus is on the Trans Mountain pipeline, in particular, Chamberlin said the debate stems from a deeper issue.
“The underlying, fundamental issue for Canada is the fact that since the beginning of this country they have system disregarded aboriginal rights, aboriginal peoples, and exploited the lands and resources that our own peoples for others’ enjoyment,” he said.
“When a company from the United States declares that May 31 is the drop-deadline to go forward, this is an ultimatum to the Canadian government to run over and disregard the human rights of aboriginal people in Canada,” Chamberlin continued.
“I want to believe that Canadians find this unacceptable.”