Canada extends olive branch to First Nations amid escalating pipeline tensions

Hilary Beaumont

As a tense court case resumed Friday morning, the Trudeau government extended an olive branch to a First Nation that accused the federal government of failing to consult them on Kinder Morgan's controversial Trans Mountain pipeline.

The Tsleil-Waututh First Nation also argued in court that the National Energy Board (NEB) erred when it failed to adequately assess the impact of increased tanker traffic, which the nation argues will inevitably lead to a devastating oil spill.

The court case resumed the same week NEB hearings for the pipeline marched forward, amid protests. In the packed court that overflowed into a second room, the Attorney General of Canada asked to pause the court case for three months to consult with Tsleil-Waututh on a nation-to-nation basis — a major campaign promise by the Liberals during the election. Vancouver's Federal Court of Appeal granted the motion in part, giving the government a chance to revamp its strategy.

"For Tsleil-Waututh, this is something that we welcome — the opportunity to engage on a nation to nation basis with the new government."

"For Tsleil-Waututh, this is something that we welcome — the opportunity to engage on a nation to nation basis with the new government to have a conversation about what this process should look like, but more specifically what this project will be," the First Nation's lawyer Eugene Kung told VICE News during a break.

Pipeline politics have reached a boiling point in Canada, and any move by the new government could tip the scales. The Liberals inherited the previous Conservative government's position of pipeline cheerleader — a stance that has led a long list of First Nations, including Tsleil-Waututh, to mount court challenges against the government's pipeline review arm, the NEB. Meanwhile, activists aren't waiting for court decisions; instead they're sabotaging vital infrastructure.

Related: Protesters Accuse Trudeau of Broken Promises as BC Pipeline Review Forges Ahead

Friday's court case comes days after an activist who claimed to be from Tsleil-Waututh boarded a drilling barge operated by a Kinder Morgan contractor. The RCMP arrested the protesters, and the First Nation hastily distanced itself from the activists.

The barge borders weren't alone in their actions. Since December, at least three separate groups of activists turned off the valves of Enbridge's Line 9 and Line 7 pipelines that run through Quebec and Ontario. Three protesters were arrested and charged with mischiefafter they tampered with a Line 9 valve on December 22.

Line 9 was also the target of a court appeal last year by Chippewa of the Thames First Nation, which argued the NEB and the Crown had failed in their duty to consult them. The First Nation lost its appeal, but has applied for leave to appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada.

Another First Nation has vowed to do whatever it takes to stop oil exploration in Canada's north. Clyde River in Nunavut lost their appeal to the NEB after they argued it had failed to properly consult them about seismic testing in the far north. Clyde River Mayor Jerry Natanine told VICE News in November the First Nation would do whatever it takes to stop the seismic testing, which involves loud blasts that could negatively impact marine animals and dramatically alter the community's way of life.

Tsleil-Waututh has made similar arguments about what the $5.4 billion Trans Mountain expansion could do to the Burrard Inlet, where the pipeline would terminate. The First Nation commissioned a study that found a worst-case oil spill in the inlet could kill up to 500,000 birds and make as many as one million people sick.

Rueben George, manager of the nation's Sacred Trust, told VICE News Friday that the First Nation "will do whatever it takes" to stop the project, which would see nearly three times as much oil — specifically, viscous and tough to clean up bitumen — pumped from near Edmonton, Alberta to Burnaby, BC.

Related: Three People Locked Themselves to a Canadian Pipeline and Shut It Down

Like Clyde River and Chippewa of the Thames before them, if Tsleil-Waututh loses the court case, George vowed they would try to take it up to the Supreme Court of Canada.

As the First Nation's case returned to court, questions about the government's review of Trans Mountain remained unanswered. Minister for Natural Resources Jim Carr issued a statement this week saying the new government has "committed to transition plans for important natural resource projects" including Trans Mountain.

Citing an unnamed government source, Bloomberg reported the Liberals want to overhaul the NEB process as per their election promises, but would have to pass a new law to do so.

Further clarity on the transition plans will be announced in coming weeks, Carr promised.