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Federal Politics
Election 2021

As O’Toole Attempts to Peddle Northern Gateway, Who’s Buying?

Conservative leader alienates northwest by touting defunct pipeline project as model for Indigenous partnerships.

Amanda Follett Hosgood 17 Sep

Amanda Follett Hosgood is The Tyee’s northern B.C. reporter. She lives in Wet’suwet’en territory. Find her on Twitter @amandajfollett.

When Erin O’Toole recently promoted Enbridge’s Northern Gateway pipeline as a way to build relationships with First Nations, it’s unclear where the Conservative leader was trying to win votes.

But First Nations on B.C.’s north coast say it wasn’t with them.

The project, first proposed more than a decade ago, would have placed a 1,177-kilometre diluted bitumen pipeline across northern B.C. to Kitimat, bringing up to 220 oil tankers to the northwest coast every year.

The federal government quashed the project after a 2016 Federal Court decision found it had failed to adequately consult First Nations.

But that appeared to be lost on O’Toole.

“The thing I liked most about the proposal for Northern Gateway was the economic partnerships for Indigenous communities,” he said during a campaign stop. “I would like to see an intergenerational transfer of wealth and opportunity after generations of trauma transfer.”

The comments were made in the Greater Toronto Area — a region hotly disputed between the Conservatives and the Liberals — and repeated on CBC’s Radio-Canada, where O’Toole said that oil pipelines in Western Canada are “mes priorités.”

When pressed by the nation’s French-language broadcaster about Energy East, a bitumen pipeline previously proposed to carry crude oil through Quebec on its journey between western provinces and refineries in the East, O’Toole said it was not on his agenda.

“We will target Trans Mountain and Northern Gateway only,” he said, adding that any decisions would be made in partnership with the provinces. In a later conversation with Quebec Premier François Legault, O’Toole said that Energy East was "not on the table."

Heiltsuk Nation elected Chief Marilyn Slett, K̓áwáziɫ, said framing projects like Northern Gateway as a road to reconciliation comes as a slap in the face to coastal First Nations who have fought oil tankers in their territories for decades.

“Right back to the oil tanker port discussions that were happening in the late ’70s, our community has raised red flags around having oil ports here in the territory,” she said. “All of those same concerns are as relevant today as they were 45 years ago.”’

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Heiltsuk Nation elected Chief Marilyn Slett, K̓áwáziɫ, says developing meaningful relationships with First Nations and working to address systemic racism would go further for candidates trying to win favour with Indigenous communities than reviving an oil pipeline that threatens the northwest coast. Photo submitted.

The Conservative platform also promises that an O’Toole government would repeal the tanker ban on B.C.’s north coast.

Unlike Coastal GasLink, the 670-kilometre natural gas pipeline currently under construction between B.C.’s northeast and Kitimat on the coast, Northern Gateway faced a near-solid wall of opposition in the northwest.

It was proposed as a twin pipeline that would have shipped gas condensate from Kitimat to the Alberta oilsands, where it would be mixed with unrefined bitumen — a thick, tarry substance — and the resulting “dilbit” shipped back to Kitimat for overseas export.

The project would have been the first to open up B.C.’s north coast to oil tanker traffic, despite decades of opposition.

“Pipelines and supertankers, all of these things, they’re not underpinned in the values that we have as Indigenous people here on the coast. The risk would be borne on us,” Slett said, adding that things like this year’s extreme wildfire season and declining salmon stocks should offer a warning to decision-makers.

“Going backwards and looking at things like Enbridge Northern Gateway as something that we should support as economic reconciliation does not sit well with our community. Economic reconciliation is around sustainable economic developments that will not hurt future generations and will help to sustain what we have here,” she said.

While Coastal GasLink divided neighbouring First Nations like the Haisla, which supports LNG development, and the Wet’suwet’en, whose opposition has led to two police actions against Indigenous land defenders in recent years, fears over oil spills caused by supertankers largely united the region.

There were isolated exceptions. In 2012, the Gitxsan Nation overwhelmingly voted to reject Northern Gateway after one of its treaty negotiators signed a backroom deal with Enbridge.

In 2016, after the project had been cancelled, the Haida Nation stripped two hereditary Chiefs of their titles for supporting the oil pipeline, saying the deals were struck in secret.

In an email to The Tyee, Haida Nation President Gaagwiis Jason Alsop said the nation’s position hasn’t changed.

“Attempting to revive this project is harmful to reconciliation efforts as many Indigenous nations are opposed to the pipeline,” he said. “The federal and provincial governments need to work together with Indigenous nations on renewable solutions to the climate crisis together rather than continue to add to the problem.”

Conservative party candidates in B.C.’s three northern ridings — Skeena-Bulkley Valley, Prince George-Peace River-Northern Rockies and Cariboo-Prince George — didn’t respond to The Tyee’s interview requests on the topic.

But Claire Rattée, Conservative candidate for Skeena-Bulkley Valley, told CBC’s Daybreak North last week that she doesn’t support Northern Gateway, despite the party leader’s stance and her support of lifting the tanker ban.

“I think people are pretty well aware that I am not supportive of the Northern Gateway project,” Rattée said. “I believe that what Mr. O’Toole was referencing was looking at ways that we can create more Indigenous partnership in industry, but I do believe that project in particular was a perfect example of how not to do it.”

Communities like Kitimat and the Haisla Nation, strong supporters of LNG development and the Coastal GasLink pipeline, have also opposed Northern Gateway and oil tankers generally in the region.

Earlier this year, when Conservatives attempted to overturn a northwest coast oil tanker moratorium, leaders from the communities said little had been done to allay their fears.

Bill C-229 attempted to repeal Bill C-48, which was passed by the Trudeau government in 2019 and prohibits tankers carrying more than 12,500 tonnes of crude oil from stopping at B.C. ports between the northern tip of Vancouver Island and the southern tip of the Alaskan Panhandle.

C-229 failed in the House of Commons in February.

At the time, Haisla Nation Chief Coun. Crystal Smith said oil tankers wouldn’t be welcome in the territory until the Haisla can be ensured of their safety. “We’re not putting our environment at stake for any type of dollar amount,” said Smith, who didn’t respond to The Tyee’s recent request for comment.

Kitimat Mayor Philip Germuth also confirmed his continued opposition to lifting the tanker ban in February.

Skeena MLA and BC Liberal leadership hopeful Ellis Ross — who previously opposed Northern Gateway as Haisla chief councillor — told The Tyee he wouldn’t rule out a similar project succeeding in the future.

Ross, a vocal supporter of Coastal GasLink, credited the LNG industry with learning from the mistakes made during Northern Gateway’s pipeline push. But he still questioned whether investors would support a project given opposition in the region. “I think there are jurisdictions more open to that kind of investment than B.C. is.”

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Skeena-Bulkley Valley NDP incumbent Taylor Bachrach, shown here campaigning in Heiltsuk territory, says he’s hearing a mix of concern and disbelief about Erin O’Toole’s plan to revive the Northern Gateway pipeline. Photo submitted.

Enbridge itself has shied away from Northern Gateway. In 2019, the company said that it would not pursue the project again and that it would likely have to repeat the regulatory process through the National Energy Board, given how much time had lapsed.

In an emailed response to The Tyee this week, the company said it would not weigh in on the election issue.

Speaking to The Tyee from Prince Rupert, where he was campaigning in the lead-up to Monday’s election, Skeena-Bulkley Valley NDP incumbent Taylor Bachrach said he hears a combination of concern and disbelief from voters in the northwest about the Conservative promise to revive Northern Gateway.

“I think that’s another proof point that they want to bring crude oil to our coast come hell or high water, and it’s something that we have to remain vigilant on,” Bachrach said. “When they talk about economic development, when they talk about climate change, when they talk about just about anything, they talk about how important the oil industry is.”

Bachrach spoke to The Tyee as mayor of Smithers when the region was fighting Northern Gateway nearly a decade ago. At the time, the community had joined Terrace, Prince Rupert and Skeena-Queen Charlotte Regional District in officially opposing the project.

Bachrach said if O’Toole thinks the comments will win him favour with the region, he’s mistaken.

“What I heard him quoted as saying was that the reason he wants to bring it back is because it’s so widely supported by First Nations, which tells me that he’s just not talking to people on the ground in the northwest,” he said. “If he was, he would know that there is no project in the past 50 years that has been so roundly opposed by so many First Nations, municipalities, you name it.”

Bachrach added that while opposition was strongest west of Prince George, there were Indigenous groups and municipalities throughout B.C. that opposed it.

Slett said First Nations’ distrust of government is high right now, as the country reels with increasing awareness of the conditions imposed upon Indigenous children by residential schools, many of whom never returned home.

“It’s a dark history, and people need to understand what happened,” Slett said, adding that developing relationships with First Nations and working to address Canada’s issues with systemic racism are needed rather than empty election promises.

“Getting to know the communities that you’re operating in, the Indigenous communities that are there, and understanding what’s important to them, their values and who they are.”  [Tyee]

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