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Idling No More

Changing the course of Canada, and the planet -- before it's too late.

By Ian Gill, 23 Mar 2013,


People in Vancouver protesting Enbridge's Northern Gateway Project. Photo by chrisyakimov in Your BC: The Tyee's Photo Pool.

[Editor's note: This essay appeared online in the Toronto Star on March 17 and a shorter version of it appeared on the opinion page of the Star on the same day.]

Several years ago, sitting in my office in Vancouver where I was heading up Ecotrust Canada -- a West Coast conservation and community development organization -- I received a call from Alberta from a senior communications executive at Shell Canada.

Shell, at the time, was at the early stages of a coal-bed methane exploration program in northern British Columbia, specifically in Tahltan country, in and around Iskut. The natives, it seems, were restless. Shell had provincial permits to develop lands in a region called the Klappan, adjacent to the Spatsizi wilderness area and had been trying to get trucks and drill rigs in place to pursue its legal authority to assay the abundant gas reserves there. It had sunk three test wells, but that's as far as it got.

A rump of recalcitrant and disobedient natives had blockaded the one easy road in and signs that said "Get the Shell out!" and their like were showing up on the news.

Ecotrust had a hard-earned reputation for working well with First Nations to help them map their resources -- or what was left of them -- and map their social, environmental and economic futures in a rapidly evolving socio-political and legal environment that was finally waking up to the importance of Indigenous rights and title.

The Shell guy claimed the company had the support of most Tahltan people, but there was a noisy minority that was skewing local opinion and endangering the community's chances of reaping manifold economic benefits from Shell's willingness to invest heavily in the industrialization of the region.

Would Ecotrust, he asked, be willing to undertake a land-use mapping project for the Tahltan? With good maps and good information, the reasoning apparently went, all Tahltan people would come to see Shell's plans to use some of their territory for gas extraction as being in the community's best interest (along with Shell's, obviously).

Who would pay for this exercise, I asked? Well, Shell, came the reply. And under whose authority was Shell proposing to undertake this exercise? Well, Shell would sponsor the work with the agreement of the Tahltan, or at least that part of the community that was already onside. Would all Tahltan be equally represented in the land-use study? Would all viewpoints be on the table? If the mapping inquiry were to entertain all possible outcomes, would one outcome -- admittedly out there in left field -- contemplate that there be no industrial development at all?

In other words, if an honest examination of the Tahltan's options were to uncover widespread opposition to Shell's use of their land, no matter how many permits the company had on paper, would Shell honour that finding and surrender its "rights" to exploit Tahltan resources for private gain? Was Shell, at least in theory, prepared to walk away if the Tahltan withheld their permission?

Seeking more of BC's natural gas bonanza

I asked these questions not to be provocative but to get clarity about whether the company really was prepared to negotiate, or if their starting assumption was that Shell would develop the gas resources to some extent, the limit of which might or might not be determined by local opinion, or, more likely, by enforcing court orders against the protesters. Oh, and just to be clear, Ecotrust would not work for Shell. Were we to do any analysis, the community would be our client, which was our only surety that the community supported the process. If they accepted Shell's money to underwrite the analysis, that was their business -- but it would not influence how we did ours.

The man from Shell was a smart and fair-minded guy, as I recall, but he was a realist, too. He told me there was no way he could sell his executive on an exercise that in any way entertained the notion that the company would abandon its leases. Shell intended to develop its tenures, which had been issued under provincial government authority. The issue at hand was whether or not a land-use mapping exercise would facilitate the community agreeing to Shell's plan, which at best would be modified by local input, perhaps even allowing for an increase in local benefits. In Shell's corporate mind, there was never any doubt that it would one day drill not just three test wells in Tahltan country, but two or three thousand gas gushers in one of the most pristine corners of what is left of British Columbia.

I politely demurred.

Standing up for the Sacred Headwaters

A few months later, I was invited to attend a meeting of First Nations leaders and their supporters from across northern B.C., who rallied in favour of protecting what had then come to be known as the Sacred Headwaters. One afternoon, at the site of the continuing blockade, a large map of Tahltan territory was displayed by the elders. Which part of the territory is important to the Tahltan, someone asked? An elder took a marker and drew a line around the outside edges of the map. All of it, he said, and no one disagreed. Where did the elders think Shell should operate? On none of it, they said, and no one disagreed. That was in the summer of 2006.

One week before Christmas 2012, the B.C. government announced a permanent ban on oil and gas development in the Sacred Headwaters. "As part of a tripartite agreement, Shell Canada is immediately withdrawing plans to explore for natural gas in the Klappan by relinquishing its tenures," the province said in a statement. "In addition, the Province of British Columbia will not issue future petroleum and natural-gas tenures in the area."

"Today is a huge milestone," said Annita McPhee, chair of the Tahltan Central Council, which governs the Tahltan First Nation. "I am just beyond words about how deeply moved I am about Shell giving up its tenures in the Klappan."

Karen Tam Woo, a campaigner with ForestEthics Advocacy, one of the environmental groups that spearheaded the international campaign to protect the Sacred Headwaters, was jubilant. "Days like today are few and far between," she said. "It's a big deal when small communities can stand up to one of the biggest corporations in the world and win."

Shell, which reportedly spent $30 million and a decade going nowhere in the Klappan, was rewarded with $20 million in development credits in the province's northeast and, after removing its test wells and remediating the area, will leave the Klappan for good.

Opposing Enbridge's pipeline proposal

Enbridge should be so lucky. It is reportedly spending $250 million promoting a project that will no doubt win National Energy Board approval in the coming months, although almost certainly to no avail. The informed consensus is that its Northern Gateway pipeline is dead because too many First Nations communities oppose it. Perhaps out of fear of setting a precedent, the company persists -- as does the government -- in a doomed approvals process that no one seems to know how to call time on.

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Good Riddance to Enbridge: Rally and flotilla in Victoria.Photo by Professional Recreationalist in Your BC: The Tyee's Photo Pool.

First Nations and community groups who are opposed to the pipeline are forced to spend countless hours and millions of dollars locked in successive rounds of futile hearings, while drawing the ire of Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver, who characterizes anyone opposed to industrial development as a "radical." In early February, a key coastal First Nations intervenor finally gave up; its paltry funds simply no match for Enbridge's quarter-billion and the inexhaustible resources of government.

When Enbridge, like Shell before it, abandons its project, it will no doubt seek to be compensated for its failed efforts. First Nations and environmentalists won't be compensated, but will otherwise feel rewarded with another "victory" against industry. But there will be plenty of new battles to lose, as Canada continues to encourage investments in an old industrial paradigm that has long-since run its course. Maybe we'll ship tar-sands products east, not west! Maybe Keystone will take them south! And if we can't find investors here at home, we can always sell off nationally crucial energy assets to countries like China, which will be happy to extract resources in a foreign country when it can exploit that country's weak environmental laws.

That irony alone should give serious pause to Canadians. Certainly, it adds more fuel to Idle No More, given that First Nations are at the front lines of just about every attempt -- large or small -- to develop Canada's natural resources in this, our climate-change century.

Lying down in front of bulldozers

Coming back to Canada after almost three years abroad, it is hard not to conclude that this is a lousy way to run a country. The reflexive response from many people is to demonize the Conservatives and blame Stephen Harper for everything. Mere hours after arriving back in Vancouver last fall, I found myself in the middle of what has become a constant, unofficial (and admittedly unscientific) disapprovals hearing. At the grocery store, a mother and teenage daughter buttonholed me to tell me they will lie down naked in front of bulldozers if construction of Northern Gateway is ever attempted (well, I actually think the teenager was humouring her mother, as I doubt she'd really lie down in the buff in front of a bunch of pipeline workers).

Over dinner, people who have never evinced even the slightest interest in aboriginal issues now side with First Nations' opposition to Bills C-38 and C-45. In the news, the premier of B.C. and the Opposition leader are in rare, pre-election agreement that Northern Gateway ill-serves British Columbia. On a trip to Toronto, decidedly unradical, un-environmental Canadians tell me that they are ashamed of the country's addiction to oil and its treatment of aboriginal people and, unprompted, make a causal link between the two.

I'm asked about Australia, where I lived and worked most recently, and the news from there isn't really any better. Canada is not alone in suffering from a split personality when it comes to managing the demands of a growing and greedy society in an era of fiscal austerity and rapidly accelerating environmental stress -- let alone dealing fairly with its Indigenous people. Australia, precariously ruled by a government that is the antithesis of the Harper Conservatives, is in precisely the same bind. Sure, Prime Minister Julia Gillard has brought in a carbon tax and, with the Greens holding the balance of power in the Senate, has been forced to accommodate a plethora of demands that not even the wettest Chrétien or Martin Liberals would have tolerated in their most progressive years.

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