In October 2015, Canada happily embraced a majority Liberal government, led by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Any non-Conservative voter is elated to have a leader who firmly believes in establishing an honest, accountable government, that uses alternative means of handling national debt and extends a warm and welcoming hand towards every citizen, regardless of their background. Yet, even on the wings of the Liberal party, negotiations and deliberation over the infamous Energy East pipeline remains a clumsy football game hosted between opponent First Nations communities against home team TransCanada Corporation (the company behind the pipeline project) with Trudeau’s government acting as a rookie referee. TransCanada is promising negotiation and collaboration with the opposing Native American councils, but will these rounds of discussions and potential compromises actually benefit Canada’s First Nations? Will these discussions do anything to respect their dignity?
Firstly, a few facts must be clarified: the pipeline would be converted from a natural gas line that runs from Western Canada, carrying Bakken fracked oil. Specifically, this gas line goes from Alberta to an export terminal in New Brunswick. The new pipeline would transport a stunning load of 1.1 million barrels of oil per day. The goal is to expose Western Canada to global markets by carrying its most notable resource out through Eastern provinces instead of paying for expensive exports through Asia. This would shape up an economically depressed Western Canada, who has been facing job-loss and debt due to cheap oil prices. Changes to the route included, this project is now expected to cost $15.7 billion.
The route changes and delayed route planning are the result of First Nations communities and councils leaguing up against TransCanada out of concern for unlawful construction on Mohawk territory, environmental harm and false promises of bringing First Nations communities long-term development. And these communities aren’t afraid to get their hands dirty. On September 23rd, 2015, twenty-six First Nations people interrupted a public consultation over the project in Montreal and later on took to the streets to rally. Amanda Lickers boldly declared that “the pipeline will not pass through sacred Mohawk territory”. Centuries of institutional racism and disregard in Canada have left these communities fed up and determined to take action.
However, today’s nation preaches a different message.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau advocates for building a better ‘nation-to-nation’ relationship with Indigenous Peoples by entrenching them further into the Canadian political process through annual meetings held between the Prime Minister and First Nations, the Métis Nation and Inuit leaders. With that in mind, everything in the Liberal platform has been considered : from launching a national public inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls to increasing funding for the First Nations education system.
Some new developments might suggest that although Prime Minister Trudeau has ‘washed his hands’ on the matter, First Nations communities might have more of a stake in the pipeline’s creation than previously thought by now being able to hold legal power. In early May at a New York City UN conference, Canada indoctrinated the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Ron Tremblay, the Grand Chief of Wolastoq Grand Council believes that the declaration will give Aboriginal communities veto power over resource projects, such as the Energy East pipeline. But Pam Palmater, an associate professor and Chair in Indigenous Governance at Ryerson University, says that this declaration has no bearing and that Canada has been missing the point all along on the legal rights of Aboriginal people.
“We have always had a veto, but Canada and the provinces have violated our rights for so long, they forget their own laws.”
Conversely, Assembly of First Nations Chief Perry Bellegarde contradicts her by insisting that the concept of ‘veto’ is nowhere to be found in the Canadian constitution. The power to sanction a bill through a veto might be a useful tool for future proceedings, but also cannot balance out the damage that centuries of racism, segregation and negligence have done to the identities of Aboriginal people within a national context.
There is big money (about 55$ million CAD in GDP) involved when discussing Energy East and for a country so derelict of responsible fiscal policy, it’s hard for a prime minister as compassionate as Justin Trudeau to ignore the potential payoff. The prime minister is purportedly neither in favour nor against the pipeline, but he denotes that the current approval process for the project is “flawed”. An innovative way around this is to focus on how much research is being put out by TransCanada to back up their claims behind the pipeline’s safety, strength and efficiency. TransCanada has received permission from the Quebec government to produce an impact study of the potential pipeline by June 6, 2016. It is to comply with Quebec’s environmental laws as Premier Ministre Philippe Couillard has been taking a strong stand against the project as of late. Such a short timespan risks TransCanada’s report lacking detail or being inaccurate, which will affect the data available on damage assessment. We may never truly know the full scope of Energy East’s potential environmental damage. The development of this study is suited to fit TransCanada’s needs, and a previous court injunction raised by environment minister David Heurtel is apparently now abandoned in the wake of this report, according to Charles Simard, director general of Nature Quebec.
“The government is doing TransCanada ‘favours’ that other small businesses would not have been able to attain.”.
If Aboriginal communities have to take their demonstration by force and unite to become an intimidating force against the development of this project, it may be necessary to counteract the many politicians that also want to play ball. In the meantime, leaders such as Hugh Akagi, Chief of the Passamaquoddy people in St. Andrews, is happy to celebrate Canada’s changed status on the political power of First Nations communities, but hopes that Trudeau will implement the declaration to allow them a new voice, and a stronger team.
– Samantha Candido
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