Members of the Yinka Dene Alliance, including Chief Jackie Thomas, right, attend the Enbridge AGM in Toronto on May 9, 2012. Photo by Kevin Konnyu
As the battle over Enbridge's proposed Northern Gateway Pipeline plays out, two key questions about the moral make-up of Canada will be answered. First, will we as a nation respond to climate change with a renewed commitment to conventional energy and conventional economic growth?
Second, will large companies be allowed to bulldoze through unceded Aboriginal territory without local consent?
If built, the $5.6-billion pipeline would carry bitumen from the Alberta oil sands through the territory of dozens of First Nations to the B.C. coast where it would be loaded onto supertankers headed mostly for Asia.
Enbridge spokesman Todd Nogier says the proposed pipeline would be much more than just a pipeline. He describes it as "a nation-building project" similar to other such projects in Canada's history, such as the St. Lawrence Seaway. In response to chiefs of the Yinka Dene Alliance, who spoke against the project at the Enbridge AGM in May, company CEO Pat Daniel "pleaded with them that this project is very important to the country," says Nogier, speaking by phone from Calgary.
Indeed, the stakes are high. Ottawa's branding of project opponents as virtual enemies of the economy, and its weakening of environmental laws in the midst of the pipeline debate, signal that Northern Gateway will be a defining issue for Canada.
Indications are that Aboriginal people will play a major role in that process as their opposition to the pipeline has grown beyond anything seen in Canada for years.
"I'll stand in front of a bulldozer if that's what it takes," says Chief Jackie Thomas of the Saik'uz First Nation. She's not speaking metaphorically. And she's not alone.
"Enbridge picked this battle and we're going to win it," Hereditary Chief Tsodih said at a Winnipeg event in May. He's from the Nak'azdli First Nation, just north of Saik'uz. The two First Nations, along with four others in the B.C. interior are part of the Yinka Dene Alliance which has come together to oppose the pipeline.
They are joined by the Coastal First Nations, a coalition of 10 Aboriginal groups on the B.C. Coast and dozens more First Nations throughout B.C. that have signed the Save the Fraser Declaration in opposition to the pipeline.
While Nogier says about half the 40 to 50 First Nations and Aboriginal communities along the pipeline route have accepted the company's offer of construction contracts and a chance to purchase a combined 10 per cent share in the project -- something that could net them $300 million over 30 years -- the project still faces major Aboriginal opposition.
The primary concerns of opponents are that oil spills could ruin some of the roughly 1,000 rivers and streams the pipeline would cross and that a shipping accident in the narrow channels that lead from the terminus of the pipeline in Kitimat out to the open seas could destroy marine habitat over a huge area.
Nogier says Enbridge has "complete confidence" that the project can be built and operated "very safely," but there are no guarantees. In addition to a recent spill in northern Alberta, Enbridge suffered two major pipeline spills in the U.S. in 2010.
"Knowing the risks that it involves, we have to say no," Gerald Amos said at a February presentation in Winnipeg. Amos is an elder who speaks for the Coastal First Nations. He lives down the road from where the supertankers would dock.
The "no" of First Nations could resound all the way to the Supreme Court. Many of the First Nations along the B.C. portion of the corridor have never signed treaties or otherwise ceded rights to their lands. These rights are recognized in the Constitution and international law.
The UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples says states should not approve projects that affect indigenous lands before obtaining "free and informed consent." Canada has endorsed the declaration.
The stated policy of Enbridge is to "recognize the legal and constitutional rights possessed by Aboriginal and Native American Peoples," but does that mean Aboriginal people have veto power?
"I don't think any one entity has a veto," Nogier says. But he adds that ultimately Ottawa will need to determine "what level of First Nation support they would like to see" before deciding whether to approve the project.
If cabinet approves the pipeline despite a lack of Aboriginal consent, Nogier says it would be up to the board of Enbridge to decide whether to go ahead.
But speaking by phone from northern B.C., Chief Thomas sees the decision being made elsewhere. "It will end up in the Supreme Court," she says. That would take years.
When asked if there is anything Enbridge could to do make the Northern Gateway Pipeline acceptable to her, Thomas doesn't hesitate.
Her message to Enbridge at the AGM was simple: "We don't want this project."
Though Pat Daniel did not say it directly, his plea for chiefs to consider the greater good of the nation suggests that if Chief Thomas ends up in front of a bulldozer in the forests of B.C. she would be standing in the way of Canada's rightful destiny.
Nogier says the plea was "very sincere and heartfelt," but it may be hard to convince Thomas or the Canadian public that the Enbridge board of directors is ultimately guided by concern for national well-being. According to the company website, six of the 13 board members, including the chairman, live in the U.S.
Elder Gerald Amos sees the Northern Gateway issue as a chance for Canada to show the world how to get relations with indigenous people right, by which he means, in part, not subordinating indigenous rights to corporate aspirations.
"If we can't get this relationship straight in a country like Canada," he asks, "where else on earth do we have a hope?"
He recognizes that not everyone will agree with his views but he says "at the very least, we should give ourselves the opportunity to have a conversation about where it is we want our country to be going."
A version of this article first appeared in Canadian Mennonite magazine.