Commentary | Shut the gates

How resistance to the Northern Gateway pipeline is working

After four years of discussion and intense opposition, on June 17, the federal government approved the Northern Gateway pipeline, a link between the Alberta oil sands and the coast of British Columbia (B.C.) that is intended to improve shipping access to China. Developed by Enbridge Inc., a Canadian pipeline company, the $7 billion endeavor is projected to produce $300 billion of Canada’s GDP over the next 30 years.

Dissenters point to the risk of a spill in some of Canada’s most cherished and fragile natural landscapes, but a federal Joint Review Panel approved the pipeline with 209 conditions. In no time, over 300 scientists from a wide range of disciplines signed a letter criticizing the scientific accuracy of the report.

The section on risk-benefit analysis, they write, focuses on the economic benefits of global markets, but ignores the global effects of greenhouse gas emissions. When judging the scientific rigour of the Panel, the scientists declared that it failed the “justification, transparency, and intelligibility” required of an administrative tribunal.

“The panel […] spent hundreds of hours listening to Canadians and gathering evidence,” responded a spokesperson for the National Energy Board, speaking to the Toronto Star. “[The Panel’s findings were] based on science and fact.” However, hundreds of world-class researchers disagree. For all the talk of listening to Canadians, the federal government has had its ears clogged. The question remains: to which Canadians have they been listening? Certainly not Indigenous communities.

Less than a month after the Panel’s findings were criticized, several of B.C.’s First Nations communities launched nine court challenges to block Enbridge’s pipeline. Ellis Ross, chief councillor of the Haisla nation, announced at a Vancouver press conference that the federal government had failed to consult with First Nations communities. “That day and age of us being ignored is over,” Ellis Ross said. “This is a tremendous waste of taxpayers’ money when we are all trying to build an economy.”

This is a familiar narrative: a crude oil corporation makes demands and the government rolls over. But something extraordinary happened: people are standing up to stop it.

Formed to combat the deforestation of their region, the Coastal First Nations is an alliance of Indigenous communities in B.C. dedicated to protecting their environment. And they’ve resisted the political pressure and financial kickbacks often used by the U.S. oil industry, namely by challenging projects in court, and winning.

This is a familiar narrative: a crude oil corporation makes demands and the government rolls over. But something extraordinary happened: people are standing up to stop it.

This year, the Supreme Court of Canada supported Indigenous land titles and rights, including territories where land claims are not subject to treaties. Indigenous communites may now have de facto veto right over anything to do with their territorial lands.

“We’re serious about our economy,” Art Sterritt, a representative for the Coastal First Nations, told InsideClimate News. “We want to make sure that it’s self-sufficient based on what’s there, and that it doesn’t harm the environment – so it lasts forever.”

For Indigenous communities in the area affected by the Northern Gateway proposal, their livelihood is linked to the land’s health. For the past 15 years, Indigenous groups have invested nearly half a billion dollars to achieve a sustainable economy. One oil spill and thirty-thousand jobs are gone.

For the entirety of its development, Enbridge has touted its pipelines as state of the art, and he said that in the “unlikely” event of a spill, it would mobilize “world-class” solutions. Sterritt and other members of the Coastal First Nations who visited Enbridge spill sites in Alaska, Michigan, and Mexico poked holes through their slick PR. “[Deepwater Horizon] was the biggest oil spill cleanup in history,” Sterritt reported, “and they couldn’t clean it up. That was the death knell for the Northern Gateway for us.”

And the “world-class” solution for a spill? The chemical dispersant Corexit, currently banned from marine use by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans. Upon visiting the Deepwater Horizon oil spill on the Gulf of Mexico four years ago, Sterritt and others noted how “the chemical residue from the dispersant continues to affect marine life in the Gulf of Mexico.”

The pleas from Enbridge and the Conservative government to the First Nations communities of B.C. are rank hypocrisy. With an already checkered history, the federal government continues with its proud parliamentary tradition of messing Indigenous communities around with ineffectual policies. With the Northern Gateway, the statement to Indigenous groups from the federal government cannot be clearer: we will support your people, but only if we stand to benefit.

This political hypocrisy is business as usual, but this time Canadians are tuned in. A recent focus group study carried out by the Department of Finance Canada suggests key government policies, including the Northern Gateway, are not supported by Canadians. The report states that “[t]here is little enthusiasm for the [Northern Gateway] project, even among supporters.”

This is a backlash neither the Conservatives nor Enbridge expected. But ‘backlash’ does not capture the situation; what neither the government nor Enbridge anticipated was that so many would care, or be aware of their actions.

Okay, you say, so the pipeline is an extreme environmental risk, threatening the future of our coastal marine life and the planet at-large, not to mention jeopardizing the livelihood and future of Indigenous peoples, but what about all the money we stand to make?

Well, there’s evidence it might actually cost us jobs. Over the past several years, 627,000 manufacturing jobs have been lost in Ontario and Quebec.

The economic arguments for the pipeline are undercut by a suspicious lack of specifics – which Canadians will benefit from the oil? Certainly not the First Nations communities of B.C., nor the working class of Quebec and Ontario.

Many now think that this project is not going ahead. “To survive,” Jeffrey Simpson writes, “the Gateway pipeline would have to push past the growing opposition of British Columbians in general […] the unanimous opposition from at least some of the [A]boriginal groups along the route and, if all this were not enough, the likelihood of prolonged court battles.” He continues, “why should B.C. take most of the environmental risks for so little actual gain?”

What we might take heart in, is that nothing radical occurred. People stood up for their rights in a court of law, and won.

And why should they? In 2012, the Minister of Natural Resources Joe Oliver wrote an open letter to Canadians. The contents of the letter include typical buzzwords (“diversify our energy markets”), coupled with a curious use of radical language, as he thunderously calls for us to change the “status quo” of our oil production.

“Unfortunately,” Oliver laments, “there are environmental and other radical groups that would seek to block this opportunity to diversify our trade.” Yes, people who are concerned about the environment, scientists, and First Nations communities – all radicals.

But what Oliver doesn’t understand, and what we might take heart in, is that nothing radical occurred. People stood up for their rights in a court of law, and won. “It is a good thing, not a bad thing, that such vast enterprises can no longer simply plough ahead with a prime minister’s nod,” writes Andrew Coyne, political columnist for the National Post.

“Even if this pipeline does not go through, there will be another proposal of the same magnitude appear somewhere else,” Lee Brain, son of an oil executive, testified in front of the Joint Review Panel. “And this will go on and on, until we either address the fundamental root of the issue – or face the slow decline of our civilization.”

Marcello Ferrara is a Geography student. To contact the writer, email