The United Nations is criticizing three large-scale, controversial B.C. energy projects over what it calls the alarming treatment of Indigenous people by corporations and governments.
The UN’s Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination released a decision last month calling for Canada to freeze the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion, Coastal GasLink project and BC Hydro’s Site C dam construction until proper consent is obtained from all communities impacted.
All three projects exemplify some Indigenous groups’ ongoing struggle to protect their traditional territories from environmentally harmful projects that could irreparably harm their rights, culture and way of life.
The committee also highlights the complex divisions that continue to exist in Canada between some First Nations and the players pushing for energy development — corporations and provincial and federal governments, who insist they’ve done the proper due diligence and continue construction in the face of demonstrations and multiple legal challenges.
“The UN has identified that Canada is not toeing the lie about free, prior and informed consent, which should be an embarrassment,” West Moberly First Nation Chief Roland Willson told HuffPost Canada. West Moberly has opposed the Site C dam on the Peace Valley River for years.
“Whether it carries any weight, I don’t know.”
The idea of “free, prior and informed consent” is captured in the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which B.C. has committed to through legislation. It stresses the importance of “early, deep and meaningful involvement of Indigenous peoples” to avoid uncertainty and conflict. The federal government continues to resist accepting the declaration.
The B.C. government said in a statement to HuffPost Canada that it is committed to working collaboratively with First Nations and project stakeholders to provide employment and address cultural concerns.
Alberta, which favours energy expansion, has spoken out against the UN decision.
“With all the injustice in the world, it’s beyond rich that the unelected and unaccountable United Nations would seemingly single out Canada — one of the greatest champions of human rights, democracy and rule of law,” said Minister of Energy Sonya Savage in a statement.
“We wish that the UN would pay as much attention to the majority of First Nation groups that support important projects such as the Trans Mountain and Coastal GasLink.”
While some First Nation communities have reached agreements in support of the energy projects, proper approval of these projects doesn’t come down to a vote where a simple majority wins, said Raven Trust director Ana Simeon. Raven is a charity that helps Indigenous communities enforce their rights and titles to traditional territory.
All Indigenous people impacted must agree to the terms after meaningful consultation, said Simeon. For large projects like the Trans Mountain pipeline there are dozens of communities along the route, and it can be challenging to fight back.
“Part of the problem is there is no easy mechanism for nations to enforce their rights,” she said. “They can go to court for judicial review of the project, but that costs millions and millions of dollars.”
The UN committee said it is “concerned by the refusal to consider free, prior and informed consent” in regards to these large-scale development projects, and “alarmed” by the escalating threat of violence against Indigenous people. It urges Canada to guarantee no force will be used against them.
These concerns were highlighted in a Guardian article in December that reported the RCMP were prepared to use lethal force against Indigenous protesters blocking workers from clearing the Coastal GasLink’s natural gas pipeline route a year ago.
The standoff occurred on the territory of the Wet’suwet’en clan Unist’ot’en in northern B.C. Peaceful, unarmed opponents gathered at a checkpoint to block a bridge and stop construction. On Jan. 7, 2019, RCMP officers carrying rifles moved in and arrested 14 people to enforce a court injunction.
“It’s a memorable day; it goes into our history. It is something we never expected from the government of Canada, the province of British Columbia or the RCMP,” Wet’suwet’en hereditary chief Na’moks said at a press conference Tuesday.
“When all we are doing is protecting rights, titles, freedoms, water, air, land, something that is so vital to all human beings, and to have armed personnel come at you, have our people and our supporters arrested … that is not supposed to happen in a democratic country.”
Watch: A new camp is set up in protest of the the natural gas pipeline route.
This week, hereditary chiefs representing all Wet’suwet’en clans evicted Coastal GasLink employees, according to a statement. They said they will not allow access without free, informed and prior consent.
Coastal GasLink said it plans to resume construction as scheduled, and has reached out to the hereditary chiefs to set up a meeting. Spokesperson Suzanne Wilton said the project was approved after six years of “rigorous review” and support from all 20 First Nations’ elected governments along the route.
“There are many Wet’suwet’en Nation members working on this project today who are directly benefiting from the project through training and employment, and who want to see those benefits continue,” said Wilton.
But the hereditary chiefs — traditional leaders who hold historically and culturally significant positions — maintain they also need to give their permission, as band councils don’t have authority over territory outside of the reserves.
The B.C. court recently granted another injunction against protesters and the RCMP is ready to enforce it with officers patrolling the area. The hereditary chiefs are demanding they leave.
The RCMP “will take the actions necessary, using a carefully measured and scalable approach, should there be any criminal activities that pose a threat to individuals or property,” said spokesperson Cpl. Madonna Saunderson.
An RCMP senior commander has been in contact with representatives from Coastal GasLink, Indigenous communities, including hereditary chiefs, and the province to ensure protests are lawful, peaceful and safe, Saunderson said.
The West Moberly and Prophet River Nations have remained steadfast against BC Hydro’s third dam along the Peace River, which will flood 5,500 hectares of the surrounding valley, destroying old growth forest and wildlife habitat.
They are currently preparing for a civil trial in March 2022 against BC Hydro, the provincial government and Attorney General of Canada.
They argue that the dam is unnecessary — electricity could be generated through less environmentally destructive means, such as solar, wind or geothermal infrastructure — and violates their treaty rights, said Willson. Treaty 8 was signed in 1899 and contains promises that the state will protect their way of life. In the meantime, construction on the dam is allowed to continue, although it won’t be completed until 2024.
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This is the second time the UN committee has expressed concern about the dam and its consultation process. It calls for a halt to construction until an agreement is reached with the West Moberly and Prophet River Nations.
BC Hydro has been working with First Nations since 2007 and reached agreements with the majority, said spokesperson Tanya Fish. These agreements include cash payments, land protection measures and business opportunities.
West Moberly maintains it was not properly consulted, and only met with a Canadian minister once for half an hour, said Willson. “BC Hydro says we have agreements in place, but they were made after the dam was already approved, and jammed down the throats (of the participating First Nations).
“Conceding is not consenting.”
The federal government declined to comment on this project as it falls under provincial jurisdiction.
B.C.’s Ministry of Energy, Mines and Petroleum Resources spokesperson Kent Karemaker pointed to BC Hydro’s consultations with First Nations that ended in “beneficial agreements” with the vast majority.
The UN committee has concerns about the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion, as well.
In its decision, the committee said it was “alarmed” by the arrest of a First Nation defender in October who was demonstrating against the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion in northern B.C.
The incident involved two people, Kanahus Manuel and Isha Jules, who were both charged with mischief and intimidation, according to APTN. Construction road crews had complained they were being disrupted.
Tiny House Warriors, a group opposed to the pipeline construction, reported the pair were telling workers they weren’t allowed in the area without Secwepemc consent. They were mistreated by the RCMP during and following their arrests, alleged Tiny House Warriors.
In response to the UN decision, Manuel said in a statement, “They are not only condemning Canada, they are ordering that Canada cease major resource developments on Indigenous lands.
“We are asking for the world to step in to help us to oppose the dirty oil pipeline on our land and to fight against Canada’s criminal behaviour.”
The Trans Mountain project faces continued opposition, including court challenges by the Tsleil-Waututh Nation, Squamish Nation and Coldwater Indian Band. There was a three-day hearing in December about whether the federal government’s second round of consultations with these Indigenous groups was sufficient. The court ruled in 2018 that the first round fell short.
“An expanded pipeline export facility within our territory and this part of the world doesn’t make sense given the risks that are imposed and the lack of meaningful respect of the federal government for the rights of the Squamish people,” said elected Squamish Councillor Khelsilem at a news conference Dec. 16, 2019.
“We will continue to challenge this using our rights protected under the Canadian constitution. That is what is asked of us as leaders by our people and by future generations that are praying we are standing up for the environment that we will hand down to them one day.”
Watch: Indigenous groups say they weren’t adequately consulted on Trans Mountain pipeline expansion. Story continues below.
Canada’s Ministry of Natural Resources said in a statement to HuffPost Canada that its core responsibility is to get Canada’s natural resources to market and support jobs, while balancing Indigenous and local concerns, and climate change action.
“The federal government recognizes that Indigenous communities have diverse views about natural resource development in their territories,” the statement said. “We continue to engage with Indigenous communities and our partners to ensure major resource projects — like the Trans Mountain Expansion Project — move forward in the right way, every step of the way.”