Pipeline protests – how politicians got it all wrong

Terry Glavin
Alex Spence, centre, who is originally from Haida Gwaii, beats a drum and sings during a march in support of pipeline protesters in northwestern British Columbia, in Vancouver, on Tuesday.	DARRYL DYCK / THE CANADIAN PRESS

January 9, 2019

There may be no right way to do fossil-fuel megaprojects at all anymore if we’re going to have a hope in hell of meeting our 2015 Paris Climate Accord commitments, but as far as the massive LNG Canada Kitimat plant and pipeline project goes – with the showdown this week on a remote British Columbia backroad that immediately escalated into protests and marches and sit-ins across the country – the politics, promises and planning seem to have gotten just about everything wrong.    
You could start with the way Prime Minister Justin Trudeau cheered LNG Canada’s announcement last October that the green light LNG got from B.C’s NDP government meant full steam ahead for its long-planned $40 billion project, which is to include a new pipeline from Dawson Creek in the Peace River country to a liquifaction plant and export facility at Kitimat on the B.C. coast.
“Today’s announcement by LNG Canada represents the single largest private-sector investment project in Canadian history,” Trudeau said. “It is a vote of confidence in a country that recognizes the need to develop our energy in a way that takes the environment into account, and that works in meaningful partnership with Indigenous people.”
A closer look at the LNG Canada consortium shows a lot less in the way of private sector investment than you might think. Royal Dutch Shell and Mitsubishi are private companies, but the other partners in the consortium aren’t. The Malaysian government owns Petronas. Petro-China is the listed arm of the Chinese government’s China National Petroleum Corporation. And the South Korean government own the Korea Gas Corporation (KOGAS).
The words “meaningful partnership with Indigenous people” don’t exactly spring to mind, either, in light of that showdown on Monday more than 40 kilometres into the mountains on the Morice West Forest Service Road. A team of Mounties all kitted out in military gear had been dispatched to pull down a blockade that local Wet’suwet’en people had set up to keep TransCanada’s Coastal GasLink pipeline workers out of their territory.
To be fair, it’s not as though TransCanada hasn’t tried to do things at least in the most expedient fashion. Before things got nasty this week, Coastal GasLink had awarded $620 million in contracts to First Nation businesses for right-of-way clearing and other such work. And the company had secured agreements with all 20 elected band councils in the general vicinity of the pipeline route, besides.
The company said it had run out of patience with a group of anti-pipeline Wet’suwet’en activists out at the Unist’ot’en camp, a small protest settlement near Gosnell Creek in the Upper Morice Watershed that had set down roots nine years ago when the now-cancelled Enbridge bitumen pipeline was the thing people were angry about. The Coastal GasLink crews were being prevented from crossing a bridge near the camp, so the company, buoyed by the October LNG announcement, got a B.C. Supreme Court injunction last month that orders the blockade leaders to back off.
It’s the aboriginal rights and title of the Wet’suewet’en people that are at stake here, and that’s the subject that the federal Liberal government, and B.C.’s NDP government, are trying to avoid.

Anticipating the Mounties moving against the Unist’ot’en crew, another group of Wet’suwet’en chiefs set up another roadbock 20 kilometres closer to town on the Morice Forest Service Road, and, armed with an amended injunction order, the RCMP went after that group on Monday, arresting 14 people. “We respect the rights of individuals to peacefully express their point of view, as long as their activities do not disrupt or jeopardize the safety of the public, our employees, our contractors, and even themselves,” Coastal GasLink president Rick Gateman explained Monday. This was a strange echo of a statement from Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale’s office: “The RCMP respects and protects the right to peaceful demonstrations as guaranteed under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.”

The problem here is that the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs were not intending to merely “express their views,” peacefully or otherwise, and the Charter of Rights has nothing to do with it. The Charter comes under Section 25 of the Constitution. Aboriginal rights are protected in Section 35. It’s the aboriginal rights and title of the Wet’suewet’en people that are at stake here, and that’s the subject that the federal Liberal government, and B.C.’s NDP government, are trying to avoid.


The thing is, it doesn’t much matter what those 20 band councils have to say for themselves. What matters is what the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs and their clans and their house groups say, and for several years they have been saying, fairly consistently, thanks, but no thanks, no pipeline, no damn way.

The band councils will do what they think they need to do, so fair play to them. But they’re like municipal governments. In Wet’suwet’en country, the law is the ancient feast system, and the hereditary chiefs are bound to uphold the law. That’s not just some hippie anthropologist’s point of view, either. It’s the view of the Supreme Court of Canada, in its specific findings in the landmark 1997 Gitxsan and Wet’suwet’en case, Delgamuukw versus the Queen. It was the hereditary chiefs who fought and won that court battle. In Wet’suwet’en country, aboriginal rights and title are vested in the hereditary chiefs and their clans and their house groups.

A sign for a blockade check point by the Gidimt’en clan of the Wet’suwet’en First Nation is shown in this undated handout photo posted on the Wet’suwet’en Access Point on Gidumt’en Territory Facebook page.HO / THE CANADIAN PRESS

Whatever the region’s band councils have to say, the Coastal Gaslink pipeline route enters Wet’suwet’en territory at a place called Honeagh Bin, which is under the authority of the Thin House (Yexsowwiten) chief, whose people are members of the Big Frog (Gilseyhyu) clan. The pipeline route then traverses Small Frog (Laksilyu) property held by the House of Many Eyes (Ginehklaiyex), and on and on like this until it passes through the house territories of the Bear/Wolf clan (Gitumd’in), one of whose chiefs, Madeek (Jeff Brown) was a leader at the roadblock the RCMP dismantled on Monday. Eventually, the pipeline route reaches Talbiits Kwa, another Big Frog territory, which is where the Unist’ot’en have been controlling traffic on the forest service road for the last several years. The route then leaves Wet’suwet’en country at Lho Kwah, and enters the Haisla Nation territory. The Haisla are organized mainly into the Kitamaat First Nation, which generally supports the LNG Canada project.

If you think that’s a jurisdictional nightmare, bear in mind that the National Energy Board still doesn’t even know whether it’s involved in any of this, or whether provincial or federal jurisdiction holds higher sway. The NEB will be holding hearings in March to determine whether the British Columbia Oil and Gas Commission gave the whole project the go-ahead unlawfully. If that’s how things shake out, the whole project has to be re-submitted for approval under a formal, dismal, drawn-out NEB process.

The other thing both the federal and provincial governments are trying to avoid is any public scrutiny of Trudeau’s and Premier John Horgan’s eloquent (but oddly imprecise) commitments to First Nations that their consent should be required, as per the United Nations’ guidance, for industrial developments such as pipelines to proceed in areas subject to some degree of aboriginal title.

So go ahead and blame those obstreperous Wet’suwet’en people all you like but it’s avoiding these tougher questions that caused this whole thing to go so wrong in the first place. And that’s without even dealing with whether there is any right way, if Canada is going to come even close to meeting its Paris Accord commitments, to do these sorts of projects at all.

Terry Glavin is an author and journalist.

[Top photo: Alex Spence, centre, who is originally from Haida Gwaii, beats a drum and sings during a march in support of pipeline protesters in northwestern British Columbia, in Vancouver, on Tuesday. DARRYL DYCK / THE CANADIAN PRESS​]