Pipelines and First Nations

Can Canada's indigenous communities stop Prime Minister Stephen Harper from turning the country into a petrostate?

VANCOUVER, Canada — On Canada's western coast, where rain-forested mountains dip into gray-blue seas, the political anger is ready to explode. The indigenous people, whose ancestors have fished, hunted, and thrived here since the last ice age, are furious about an energy policy dreamed up in Ottawa that they fear could permanently damage their land and destroy their way of life."Opponents can mock our love of our home as sentimental, but it won't change what we feel," the award-winning indigenous novelist Eden Robinson wrote recently in the Globe and Mail. "[T]he mood in our base is simmering fury."

Robinson lives in Kitamaat Village, a small community some 400 miles north of Vancouver, near where the Kitimat River meets salt water. Its 700 indigenous inhabitants belong to the Haisla nation, one of 630 such recognized "First Nations" across Canada, which has called this coastal region home for thousands of years, going back to long before European settlers first arrived in the 18th century.

Lately the Haisla have had to reckon with a new unwelcome visitor: Calgary-based Enbridge, one of the world's largest fossil fuel transporters. If the Northern Gateway project the company has been proposing for the past decade goes forward, a pipeline pumping 525,000 barrels per day of heavy crude from Alberta's oil sands would end within walking distance of Robinson's home. Tensions in her community are so high, she wrote, that "people will spit at you if they think you support Enbridge."

It's likely they will also spit at someone they think supports Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper. In June, his Conservative government approved the $7.3 billion Gateway project, which would ship oil across the Rocky Mountains to the Port of Kitimat, load it onto supertankers, and sell it for a premium to Asian markets. To reach the Pacific, supertankers must first navigate the winding Douglas Channel. In 2006, a provincial ferry crashed and sank in the channel, and people living in the nearby Gitga'at Nation village of Hartley Bay fear that history will repeat itself -- but on a scale of environmental and cultural damage hard to fathom. They recently stretched a 2.8-mile crocheted rope in protest of Gateway across the Douglas Channel. "Each stitch is shaped like a teardrop," said blockade organizer Lynne Hill, "because this is a very emotional thing for us."

For Harper, Gateway promises a $300 billion GDP boost and the prestige of achieving his most important foreign-policy goal, to remake Canada into a global "energy superpower." But to many First Nations living along the pipeline's 731-mile-long route, Gateway symbolizes "everything that people don't want," Robinson said.

They intend to fight the pipeline in court by arguing for legal authority over land they've lived on for millennia and never surrendered to the federal government. A landmark decision from Canada's Supreme Court on June 26 may have brought groups like the Haisla one step closer to achieving that authority.

Tension between indigenous people and the pipeline project are nothing new. In 2006, Enbridge sent surveyors, chain saws in hand, into the ancient forest near Kitamaat Village to scout sites for an oil terminal. They felled 14 trees that bore living evidence of First Nations history: deep notches made by the Haisla hundreds, or perhaps even thousands, of years earlier. "We compared it to a thief breaking into your house and destroying one of your prized possessions," Haisla Councilor Russell Ross Jr. told me in 2012.

The relationship between the Haisla First Nation and Enbridge only got worse. Five years after the tree-cutting incident, the company offered a $100,000 settlement, which was "almost an insult" in the opinion of Chief Councilor Ellis Ross, as he stated in a letter to Enbridge's president. Even worse was Enbridge's additional offer to make amends with a "cleansing feast." If such a ceremony was practiced widely in Haisla culture, Ross wasn't aware of it.

"I have never witnessed Haisla Nation Council initiate a cleansing feast and I doubt I ever will," he wrote to the firm. "I would appreciate it if your company's shallow understanding of our culture is kept out of our discussions."

All along the Gateway route, Enbridge was making similar cultural flubs. These gaffes, along with a negotiating style Robinson described as heavy on "talking points" and light on listening, had by 2011 caused 130 First Nations across British Columbia and Alberta to oppose the project, many of them not even directly impacted by it. "If Enbridge has poked the hornet's nest of aboriginal unrest," Robinson wrote, "then the federal Conservatives, Stephen Harper's government, has spent the last few years whacking it like a pinata."

The whacks began coming after Harper's Conservatives won their first-ever majority rule in 2011. Since then, his Conservative Party has made it easier to get oil and gas projects approved, has cut environmental protections, and has proposed contentious changes to indigenous education. "It's felt like the Conservatives have just been hammering us with legislation," Robinson said. Tension with the Conservatives are so widely felt among First Nations that in late 2012 there emerged a protest movement called Idle No More, whose sit-ins, rallies, and hunger strikes brought national attention to the cause of indigenous sovereignty.

This May, a United Nations envoy deemed native distrust of Harper a "continuing crisis." On Gateway, Harper has done little to ease the problem. After the U.S. rejection in early 2012 of TransCanada's Keystone XL, a pipeline that was supposed to link Alberta's oil sands to Texas, the prime minister "expressed his profound disappointment" to U.S. President Barack Obama, Harper's office said in a statement. A week later, at the World Economic Forum, Harper vowed to export oil to Asia instead. Projects like Gateway were now a "national priority," he declared.

For Harper, the economics of the project provide good reason for its priority status. Enbridge estimates that, once completed, Gateway would boost Canada's GDP by $300 billion over the next three decades. Ottawa alone stands to gain $36 billion in taxes and royalties. And there is the issue of Canada's role in the world. One month after the World Economic Forum, in February 2012, Harper traveled to China, where an influential crowd of Chinese business executives that Canada is "an emerging energy superpower" eager to "sell our energy to people who want to buy our energy."

While Harper delivered that pitch in Europe and Asia, his then-natural resources minister, Joe Oliver (now finance minister), was declaring war on Gateway opponents back at home. In an open letter, Oliver lashed out at the "environmental and other radical groups" that in their protests against the pipeline project "threaten to hijack our regulatory system to achieve their radical ideological agenda."

It was a tactical stumble, wrote George Hoberg, a University of British Columbia professor who studies the Gateway standoff, that pushed "many moderates who were offended by the style of the attacks into strong opponents of the pipeline." Oliver's letter was mentioned again and again during two years of federal hearings on Gateway, for which 4,000 Canadians registered to speak.

By the time those hearings finished last December, Gateway had become one of the top political issues in Canada. Much credit for that is due to a sustained media campaign coordinated by British Columbia's major green groups, which deliberately evoked memories of Exxon's 1989 Valdez disaster. On the spill's 20th anniversary in 2009, they declared a "No Tankers Day."

"There will be a sacrifice we're asked to make at some point, and the [ecological] damage will be permanent," said Kai Nagata from the Dogwood Initiative, one of the leading groups in that campaign. "Nobody's come up with a compelling argument about why we should accept those risks."

The continual focus on Gateway's risks -- to one of North America's vastest wildernesses and to the indigenous people living within it -- allowed green groups to broker alliances with First Nations all along the pipeline route. They appeared together at joint press conferences and waged a two-front opposition to Gateway so effective that, by this June, nearly 70 percent of people in British Columbia opposed immediate federal approval of the project, according to a Bloomberg-Nanos poll.

"The reason why Gateway has become such a political albatross for Stephen Harper," Nagata explained, "is he's managed to find a way to align the majority of British Columbians with the majority of First Nations." Not to mention Vancouver's mayor, British Columbia's premier, and Harper's political opponents in Ottawa, all of whom have spoken out against the project.

None of that opposition has deterred the federal Conservatives, though. In mid-June Harper's government officially approved Gateway, deeming it "in the public interest." Within hours of the announcement, a coalition of almost 30 First Nations and tribal councils in British Columbia were vowing to "immediately go to court to vigorously pursue all lawful means to stop the Enbridge project," and promising that "we will defend our territories whatever the costs may be."

Unlike in the United States, where indigenous peoples were conquered and then settled on reservations, few along Gateway's proposed route have ever surrendered territory. What power they actually wield over that territory is legally disputed. Yet a Supreme Court decision on June 26 granting land title to the Tsilhqot'in First Nation gives greater legal standing to native groups with unresolved land claims.

The consequences of that decision, as well as the autonomy it ultimately provides to indigenous people, will be decided if groups like the Carrier Sekani Tribal Council, which represents eight First Nations across central British Columbia, challenge Gateway in court as unconstitutional. "What we'll really be doing is testing our authority and our jurisdiction over the land," said Terry Teegee, the council's tribal chief. "It's really hard to imagine this project going ahead."

Enbridge is still confident. "We are prepared" for legal challenges, the company's CEO, Al Monaco, said during a recent conference call, in which he contested the notion that people like Teegee speak on behalf of all First Nations. Monaco argued that 60 percent of indigenous people living along Gateway's route in fact want to see it built (a claim called "ridiculous" by the Coastal First Nations group). Those court battles that First Nations do bring, in Monaco's opinion, are likely to be resolved in Enbridge's favor over the next 12 to 15 months. Gateway's construction could begin shortly after. "This is not necessarily an endless process," he said.   

For indigenous people like Robinson, as well as the Unist'ot'en husband and wife now living in a wood cabin built intentionally along the pipeline's path, the fight against Enbridge stands in for a larger cultural struggle. So long as companies and governments continue to view the rights of First Nations "as an impediment to getting what they want," Robinson said, the struggle will surely continue.

Jennifer Castro/Flickr Creative Commons


How to Celebrate a War's Beginning

While Bosnia welcomed EU dignitaries for the official WWI centennial, protesters donned masks of assassin Gavrilo Princip and Serbs erected a statue in his honor.

SARAJEVO, Bosnia and Herzegovina — In the heart of Bosnia's capital city, where Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife were killed in 1914, a young man clad in an imitation of the archduke's military garb opens the door of a car. It is a replica of the vehicle in which the royal pair was riding, parked right at the spot where the assassination occurred. For a small fee, visitors can hop inside, hold a parasol, don a hat, and snap a photo. Some smile gaily, others lean back in mock terror.

The car, which made its debut on Friday, sat over the weekend beside wreaths laid in honor of the would-be heirs to the Austro-Hungarian throne, whose deaths famously precipitated the start of World War I 100 years ago this week. The scene was thronged with hundreds of tourists, milling under a banner proclaiming the spot "the street corner that started the 20th century."

The young man dressed as the archduke, 15-year-old Emir Kapetanovic, said he and his father built the car together, and based on its popularity during the commemoration of the beginning of the Great War, they plan to now offer tourists rides around Sarajevo. "I'm not a historian," Kapetanovic said, but added that he has enjoyed meeting people who came from around the world to Bosnia for the centennial.

His car alone marks a big change from the days before the 1992-1995 war in Bosnia, which pitted the country's three main ethnic groups -- Bosniaks, Serbs, and Croats -- against one another. Until 1992, visitors would often go to the same street corner in Sarajevo where Kapetanovic put his car, but to stand in the footsteps of Gavrilo Princip, an ethnic Serb and Yugoslav nationalist who shot the Habsburg royals in the name of freeing his country from the grip of empire. (Literally, footprints were emblazoned on the pavement.) Visitors could also go to a small museum dedicated to Princip and his co-conspirators, who were celebrated as freedom fighters, and read a plaque honoring the assassination. 

But at the outbreak of the war, Princip's footprints were ripped out of the ground, and the museum was re-branded as one documenting 1878-1914, the years that the Austro-Hungarian empire occupied Bosnia. Historians reassessed: Because Princip was a Serb, and the new war pitted Serbs against other ethnic groups, he was deemed to have been motivated by a desire to found a greater Serbia in which Bosniaks and Croats were subjugated. He was no longer lionized -- at least not publicly and officially. 

The war ended in 1995 with the signing of the Dayton Peace Agreement, which created an ungainly power-sharing constitution based along ethnic lines and which gave broad powers in Bosnia to an international overseer, known as the high representative. Peace has held, but the country still struggles with corruption, political stagnation, and a shattered economy. Earlier this year, there were mass protests against the government across the country, forcing the resignation of several officials.

Many Bosnians, especially those in the ethnic Serb community, blame Europe and the rest of the international community for the country's woes. So today, while some recall the archduke and his wife as symbols of regional stability and European standards to which the Balkans aspire, others are seeking to reinvigorate Princip's legacy: to reinforce the idea of shaking off Europe's yoke. 

Indeed, centennial commemorations across Bosnia were fragmented. While official events in Sarajevo generally recalled the assassination as a tragedy and emphasized the importance of a united Europe of which Bosnia is a part, many of the country's Serbs boycotted these proceedings and honored Princip. Other Bosnians staged protests or counter-programming, in Sarajevo and elsewhere.

Less formally, at one moment over the weekend, someone drove by and shot a water gun at Kapetanovic's vehicle, letting out a peal of laughter. The switch from celebrating the assassin to celebrating the assassinated, it seems, is far from complete -- a fact that is arguably more telling about Bosnia's future than it is about the country's past.


The official central event of the 100-year anniversary was a performance on Saturday evening by Vienna's Philharmonic Orchestra in Sarajevo's City Hall, which conductor Franz Welser-Most said was a symbol of peace that sent a message of "never again" to the world. The concert closed with Beethoven's "Ode to Joy," the European Union's anthem. (Bosnia is not yet in the EU.)

Austrian President Heinz Fischer was the guest of honor at the concert in the recently refurbished city hall, which was destroyed by the Bosnian Serb army in 1992. After the concert, he called for "a century of peace after a century of war." Several hundred people watched the event on a big screen set up outside. 

The concert and other official commemorations were organized and funded primarily by European countries, namely Austria and France. But as dignitaries, foreign diplomats, and local politicians hobnobbed in government buildings, a cluster of protesters gathered just across the river that runs through Sarajevo. Some wore homemade paper cutouts with Gavrilo Princip's face printed on them as masks. Others stood facing the city hall holding a banner that read, "We are occupied again -- by nationalism, capitalism, the EU and international community." 

"This concert was absolutely unnecessary," said protester Aldin Arnautovic. "It is strange to commemorate the beginning of any war, and it is precisely the people inside that building who are to blame for our current situation." 

Meanwhile, the country's Serb leaders actively celebrated Princip. On Friday in East Sarajevo, a predominantly Serb suburb of the capital, a statue of Princip went up. It stands over six feet tall. "These fighters for freedom 100 years ago set the course we should follow for the next 100 years," Nebojsa Radmanovic, the Serb member of Bosnia's tripartite presidency, said at the statue's unveiling, referring to Princip and his co-conspirators.

Milorad Dodik, the leader of Republika Srpska, Bosnia's majority-Serb region, said that disagreements over Princip are indicative of a deeply divided Bosnia. "People who live here have never been on the same side of history and are still divided," he told journalists. "We are sending different messages, and that says it all about this country which is being held together by international violence." (He was referring to the 600 European soldiers still stationed in Bosnia.)  

On Saturday, the official Serb commemoration of the assassination took place 75 miles away in the eastern town of Visegrad, on the border with Serbia. The Belgrade Philharmonic played a Vivaldi concert. In the town of Andricgrad, there was a dramatic restaging of the assassination in three acts, written by Serbian filmmaker Emir Kusturica and entitled "Rebel Angels." (A mosaic mural of Princip and his co-conspirators put up in Andricgrad is inscribed with words Princip wrote on his cell wall in the prison camp where he died: "Our shadows will walk through Vienna, wander the court, frighten the lords.") And Princip's restored boyhood home in the northwestern town of Bosansko Grahovo was unveiled on June 28 as a museum, funded by a wealthy Serbian businessman. 

"The Serbs are trying to prove that he is a nationalist, while in Sarajevo now people are against him only because Serbs are for him," Arnautovic said at the protest in the capital, "and all this just perpetuates nationalistic revisionist history."


But Bosnians are divided over more than Princip's legacy. They also disagree about what image their country should project and how Bosnia should interact with the world -- and not just during the centennial.

Speakers at the official commemorations over the weekend were adamant about offering a positive picture of Bosnia. "For the past 100 years, the information that the world has received from here was about war and atrocities," said Ivo Komsic, Sarajevo's mayor. "Now we're sending a different message of peace, love, and understanding." 

But Arnautovic worries that this message will only serve to distract from Bosnia's fracturing and lack of political or economic progress, for which he believes many of the centennial's honored guests bear at least some responsibility. "All the [international diplomats] will go home," he said, "and we in Bosnia will remain with our huge problems, only with the hope that someone will look at us in another hundred years."

Sean Gallup/Getty Image