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On Saturday, July 7, a ceremony and celebration took place on the North Vancouver shores of Burrard Inlet that will help to define politics in British Columbia for years to come. It was a calm, sunny summer day that saw the Tsleil-Waututh First Nation, the 'People of the Inlet,' and the Squamish Nation sign the Save the Fraser Declaration.
Now signed by well over 100 bands and chiefs, the Declaration is a clear and eloquent statement of Indigenous opposition to the proposed Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipeline and, in fact, to all new proposed projects that seek to export more bitumen from Alberta's tar sands.
This drive for more tar sands exports across B.C. includes the proposed expansion of the Kinder Morgan pipeline, with its terminal on Burrard Inlet behind Burnaby Mountain. Kinder Morgan, a massive Texas-based energy corporation, has quietly been expanding exports of bitumen through tankers out of Vancouver's narrow harbour. Now, Kinder Morgan has ambitious expansion plans that involve twinning the pipeline and a huge increase in the number of tankers in the Inlet.
The signing by the Tsleil-Waututh and Squamish represents the extension of a powerful wall of opposition from First Nations now stretching from northern to southern B.C., joined as well by other impacted Indigenous people in northern Alberta and the Northwest Territories. The Declaration was initiated in 2010 by the Yinka Dene Alliance, which consists of six nations (Tlazt'en, Wet'suwet'en, Takla Lake, Nadleh Whut'en, Nak'azdli and Saik'uz).
The July 7 signing took place on Tsleil-Wauthuth land, directly across the waters from the Kinder Morgan terminal. Tsleil-Wauthuth Ceremonial Sundance Chief Rueben George explained that this day was a celebration a long-time in the making, "We gave an opening to a celebration of the Save the Fraser Declaration back in December , and we said then that we intended to sign and to honour the Yinka Dene in our traditional ways on our territory."
This steadfast and broad First Nations opposition to tar sands exports across B.C. and out via the Pacific coast is far from alone. They are joined by concerned local communities and the myriad organizations and groups motivated by values of environmentalism and social justice.
So, like it or not - and it's clear that the big oil companies and their friends in government don't like it - these issues will be fundamental in the provincial election which is coming down the pipeline in the next year.
Christy Clark, whose approval ratings are floundering and whose party trails the NDP badly in the polls, has of late been trying to stay out of the fray about Enbridge. So, last week Opposition leader Adrian Dix called her out. In an opinion piece first published in The Tyee, Dix called Clark "absent without leave" on the issue, noting that her government had, in fact, failed to submit anything to the National Energy Board's Joint Review Panel - unlike the NDP and the government of Alberta and Canada, who have all made official submissions.
Dix then assailed the premier for her confusing and contradictory earlier comments about Enbridge: "Premier Clark has refused to take a position on the pipeline, even though she has admitted that - to use her own words - B.C. is taking ‘100 per cent of the risks' yet ‘gets about the same benefit as Nova Scotia.' At the same time, the premier has stated she is ‘pro-pipeline.'"
At the time of publication, Clark had issued no rebuttal. Meanwhile John Cummins, leader of the upstart right-wing Conservative Party, has expressed his support for the Enbridge pipeline. It seems an odd stance for someone who made his name on issues to do with B.C.'s wild salmon fishery, given the risk to fish stocks by pipeline or tanker spills.
So, the electoral battle lines in B.C. are being drawn by these proposed pipeline routes and the opposition they have provoked. But it's much bigger than a vote, and it's much bigger than just these particular pipelines.
The debate around Enbridge and Kinder Morgan is actually a debate about what direction B.C. and Canada will take over the next generation, and about how, or if, there will be restitution and justice for the First Nations of this land.
To understand what's really at stake, we can look back 45 years to the words of Chief Dan George - grandfather to Rueben George and the current chief, Justin George - an important Tsleil-Waututh leader who gained global notoriety after acting in Hollywood films late in his life.
Chief George was nominated for an Academy Award for his role in Little Big Man with Dustin Hoffman. But his most important ever appearance on stage may have been a presentation he delivered at a centennial Canada Day event at the Old Empire stadium in Vancouver, just across the water from the Save the Fraser signing. On July 1, 1967, Chief Dan George gave an impassioned soliloquy that was part lament and part prophecy.
He began by denouncing the history of colonialism in Canada. "When I fought to protect my land and my home, I was called a savage. When I neither understood nor welcomed his way of life, I was called lazy. When I tried to rule my people, I was stripped of my authority."
Chief Dan George ended his remarks with a call to action, and a hopeful prediction: "Oh God! Like the thunderbird of old I shall rise again out of the sea... and build my race into the proudest segment of your society... So shall we shatter the barriers of our isolation. So shall the next hundred years be the greatest in the proud history of our tribes and nations."
In their struggle to defend their land and their waters against multinational corporations like Enbridge and Kinder Morgan, the First Nations are not alone - their isolation has been shattered. For the sake of our collective future, we all owe them our unyielding support in their efforts to stop the expansion of the tar sands.
An earlier version of this article was first published in The Source / La Source, a bilingual Vancouver newspaper.