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First Nations exercising treaty rights to fight tar sands and Site C development

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Peace River Valley, 2020. Image credit: Garth Lenz. Used with permission.

In December, we at rabble.ca asked "What are the organizations that inspire you? Who are the activists leading progressive change? Who are the rabble rousers to watch in 2021?" And you responded. Over the next while, we'll be running both print and audio features about the people and organizations you nominated. Follow our rabble rousers to watch here.

Canada built its prosperity on the exploitation of environmental resources.

We now know how devastating our extraction economy is. Nevertheless, we still keep trying to build pipelines that carve through fragile ecosystems, develop tar sands that devastate the environment, build factories that spew chemicals into communities, and cut down forests that tear down rare and precious natural habitats.

First Nations have been meeting with some success as they use the Canadian legal system to exercise their treaty rights to stop these devastating projects.

Fighting back means going to court and to public hearings, lobbying and intervening in government processes, conducting impact studies, and waging awareness-raising communications campaigns to build support -- and it is very expensive.

This is where RAVEN (Respecting Aboriginal Values and Environmental Needs) comes in. They are the only Canadian NGO whose mission is to raise legal defence funds for Indigenous peoples to defend their treaty rights and the integrity of their traditional lands and cultures. Over the past 12 years, they have raised $5.8 million and have had significant wins. While impressive, this is not nearly enough.

In the spring of 2022, the West Moberly First Nations will begin a 120-day trial, standing against BC Hydro to halt Site C and restore the Peace River Valley to its natural state. In Alberta, RAVEN s supporting the Beaver Lake Cree as they take on the Crown to fight against the cumulative impacts of all the tar sands and industrial development on the environment and their treaty rights.

These two cases are truly groundbreaking -- imagine all of Peace River restored so the caribou herd eventually return and the fish are eventually safe to eat again. Imagine the Crown being forced to halt unsustainable tar sands development.

The fact that the courts have agreed to hear both these cases is an accomplishment in itself. However, with adversaries like the oil companies, Crown corporations, and the provincial and federal government, continuing these fights will be arduous. Currently RAVEN Trust is supporting six such groundbreaking cases.

RAVEN Trust was nominated as a "rabble rouser to watch" in January 2021, and, in February, I interviewed Andrea Palframan, who is director of communication and engagement at RAVEN Trust, to find out more about how RAVEN Trust works and about what they are working on right now.

First let us start with an explanation of Aboriginal rights. Since the 1600s, European settlers have been signing treaties with Indigenous communities which conferred rights and land title to them. After centuries of self-serving interpretation of the treaties, in the 1970s there were three monumental court decisions which led the government to announce that it was willing to negotiate land claims based on outstanding Aboriginal title.

In 1982, First Nations, Inuit and Métis organizations organized and succeeded in having the recognition of existing Aboriginal and treaty rights enshrined in Section 35 of The Constitution Act, 1982. The responsibility for defining the extent and scope of these rights and directing government policies and programs so that they respect these rights and prevent any infringement of them has fallen to the courts.

A win in the courts or in government hearings can be monumental, but it is also time consuming.

When RAVEN Trust was first established in 2009, it was supporting two cases, one to stop a proposed open-pit copper mine in tin Tsilhqot’in territory (near Williams Lake, B.C.) and the second to support the Beaver Lake Cree case in the tar sands.

In May 14, 2020, 11 years later, the Supreme Court of Canada upheld the federal rejection of the open pit copper mine,  ruling in favour of the Tŝilhqot'in First Nation. The mine project was stopped, but now the company, Taseko Mining Ltd., is pursuing a major exploratory drilling program with provincial approval in the same area.

The extensive drilling would severely damage Teztan Biny and the surrounding area. Therefore, the Tŝilhqot'in have launched a civil action against Taseko and B.C. for infringement of Aboriginal rights. This is the only way Taseko's exploratory permits can be quashed. As mentioned before, the tar sands case continues 11 years later and is heading to the Supreme Court.

RAVEN Trust has mapped groundbreaking legal cases defining Aboriginal rights from coast to coast to coast. Indigenous organizations and their supporters have spent millions of dollars on these and other cases.

How does RAVEN Trust do its work? RAVEN is a fundraising organization. It responds to Applications for Support from Indigenous Nations across Canada, which are then rigorously examined by a legal advisory panel and internally vetted in view of the time commitments of the organization.

When a project starts, RAVEN works collaboratively with First Nations to shape a campaign. Together, they engage in public education and outreach centred around Indigenous people's stories of what's at stake -- for communities and for the environment.

If you visit their website, you will get a small sample of their expertise at setting up digital campaigns and events. According to Andrea, "what I love most about what we do is the creativity people bring, the joy that working in solidarity creates. Our actions, our awareness-raising events are about raising support and funds and about having fun while changing the country."

Join their network: donate, fundraise and organize events to stand up for the rights of First Nations together. 

Maya Bhullar is the Activist Toolkit coordinator at rabble.ca. She has over 15 years of professional experience in diverse areas such as migration, labour, urban planning and community mobilization.

 Image credit: Garth Lenz. Used with permission.

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