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Survival Under Threat, Canada's Indigenous Unite Against Tar Sands Pipelines

The Grand Chief of the Mohawk Kanesatake First Nation calls the proposed Energy East pipeline 'risky and dangerous' to indigenous peoples' survival

A climate march in Vancouver, British Columbia, in 2014. (Photo: Chris Yakimov/flickr/cc.)

Indigenous people in Canada are rising up together in greater numbers than ever before to oppose tar sands pipelines on their traditional territory, forming fierce coalitions to oppose pro-oil regional governments and fossil fuel industry officials who are pushing for more tar sands infrastructure.

"An alliance of indigenous nations, from coast to coast, is being formed against all the pipeline, rail and tanker projects that would make possible the continued expansion of tar sands," Grand Chief Serge Otsi Simon of the Mohawk Kanesatake First Nation wrote to the Quebec premier in a letter dated March 9 and obtained this weekend by the Montreal Gazette, which reported on it Monday.

"The Mohawks of Kanesatake will not be brushed aside any longer."
—Grand Chief Serge Otsi Simon
The Mohawk First Nation, located in southwest Quebec, is leading the charge against the controversial Energy East pipeline. The TransCanada pipeline would transport 1.1 million barrels of dirty "dilbit" a day from Alberta's tar sands mines to East Coast ports, making it the largest proposed tar sands pipeline to date.

Simon's letter promised that the Mohawk nation would "do everything legally in its power" to block the pipeline's construction, according to the Montreal Gazette.

The Montreal Gazette reports:

Simon...argues pipeline companies are not to be trusted; their promised automatic spill detection systems have proven unreliable and the number of long term jobs created by such projects exaggerated.

“One need look no further than the Nexan pipeline rupture this past summer, which caused one of the worst spills in Canadian history,” Simon writes, adding sections of TransCanada’s Keystone 1 pipeline are 95 per cent corroded after only two years in operation.

Simon says the Energy East pipeline would pass directly through Mohawk lands including the Seigneury of the Lake of Two Mountains and the Outaouais River in violation of treaty rights. The risk of toxic spill is significant, he says.

The Mohawk nation's opposition to Energy East might feel particularly resonant to Canadian observers, as the First Nation suffered greatly and made international headlines for its opposition to a private project on its territory over 25 years ago. The Quebec government had allowed a golf course to be built atop a sacred Mohawk burial ground and dismissed on a technicality the First Nation's attempt to go through the courts to protect its land. The resulting 78-day armed standoff, known as the Oka crisis, turned the inadequacies of First Nations consultation into a national concern for the first time in Canada's history.

Today, over 100 First Nations from all over Canada, including some as far away as British Columbia—who are deeply involved in their own pipeline battles—have joined the Mohawk Kanesatake in their fight against Energy East, according to social justice group the Council of Canadians.

"We unanimously oppose the Energy East Pipeline Project in order to protect our non-ceded homeland and waterways, our traditional and cultural connection to our lands, waterways, and air."
—Grand Chief Ron Tremblay, Wolastoq First Nation

"Besides the official opposition of the Assembly of First Nations Quebec and Labrador representing 43 Quebec chiefs," the Montreal Gazette reported, "the list against TransCanada’s pipeline now includes the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs...and the Iroquois Caucus regrouping Mohawk nations in Quebec and Ontario."

In February of this year, Grand Chief Ron Tremblay of the Wolastoq First Nation said that "As members of the Wolastoq Grand Council we unanimously oppose the Energy East Pipeline Project in order to protect our non-ceded homeland and waterways, our traditional and cultural connection to our lands, waterways, and air." The Walastoq Grand Council "asserts Indigenous Title over the lands and waters within the entire Saint John River watershed," the Council of Canadian observes.

"The Trudeau government has pledged to fully implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples," writes Brent Patterson, political director of the Council of Canadians. "That declaration acknowledges the right to 'free, prior and informed consent', which extends beyond the 'duty to consult' with Indigenous peoples. But just last week the Canadian Press reported that federal natural resources minister Jim Carr says he shares a 'common objective' with those who want to see the Energy East pipeline built."

Quebec has been holding a series of environmental hearings for the past week on the Energy East pipeline, during which TransCanada acknowledged that it would take five to 10 years to clean up a groundwater-contaminating spill from the proposed pipeline.

The Mohawks of Kanesatake have publicly opposed the pipeline for several years, and in his letter Simon writes that they have still not been approached or consulted on it by TransCanada.

"One thing for sure," Simon wrote in his March 9 letter, "we the Mohawks of Kanesatake will not be brushed aside any longer and we wish to press upon you that we reserve the right to take legal action if necessary to prevent the abuse of our inherent rights."

Simon discussed his First Nation's opposition to the project in depth in a video released in 2014:

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