At the terminus of Highway 27, far into the northern interior of British Columbia, Fort St. James seems to belong to a remote Canadian hinterland. But this town, mostly remembered for its history as an old fur-trading post, on February 2 found itself at the centre of political negotiations about the future of Canada.
Located on the southeastern shore of Stuart Lake, Fort St. James rests in the heart of the territory inhabited by Dakelh (or Carrier) people. The Dakelh have never signed treaty nor ceded their claim to their traditional territories. Nonetheless, the company Enbridge is proposing to build a pipeline through the heart of Dakelh territory to carry bitumen from the Alberta tar sands to port.
As the federally appointed panel reviewing the proposed Enbridge Northern Gateway tar sands pipeline convened in Fort St. James, the Dakelh people joined with supporters to rally in opposition to the proposed project. Leading the protest were the people of Nak’azdli.
Adjacent to Fort St. James, the very name of the Dakelh community of Nak’azdli attests to the long history of the Dakelh people defending their lands. Nak’azdli translates to “when arrows were flying,” a reference to a historic battle at the mouth of the river that flows out Stuart Lake. This lineage of fierce defence of Dakelh lands remained in evidence in the streets of Fort St James.
More than a hundred people gathered outside the Chief Kwah Memorial Hall to march together to the Legion hall where the review panel hearing was taking place. Drummers greeted the early morning sun with the sound of resistance, and Nak’azdli elder Charlie Sam offered a prayer to initiate proceedings.
As the assembly marched onto the highway a call-and-response led by Terry Teegee echoed through the streets. “When I say no, you say Enbridge. No, Enbridge. No, Enbridge. When I say no, you say pipelines. No, pipelines. No, pipelines.”
Local vehicles honked in solidarity and drivers waved in support to the passing assembly. The eruption of protest into the everyday rhythms of rural life found resonance in common northern concerns about the potential impact of an oil pipeline on local lands and waters. Logging trucks loaded with timber paused in recognition of the public demonstration.
At the close of the march, on the steps outside the Legion where the review panel hearing was being held. Terry Teegee, Vice Chief of the Carrier Sekani Tribal Council, began by rebuking Natural Resource Minister Joe Oliver’s suggestion that “radical groups” were seeking to block the pipeline. Amidst cheers from the crowd, Teegee pronounced, “We are not radicals, we are protectors of the lands.”
Grand Chief Stewart Phillip of the Union of BC Indian Chiefs, who drove 11 and a half hours with his wife Joan from Penticton to attend the protest, addressed the crowd. “It is Indigenous people,” he said, “the Yinka Dene and all of our Indigenous brothers and sisters across this great land that are the stewards and the caretakers of the land and must be consulted with respect to any projects that are contemplated.”
“Because we are from the land, our sacred responsibilities and obligations go to the land and the waters. It was a sacred trust that was handed to us from our ancestors through their sacrifice and hard work.” He explained, “We now carry the torch and bear the burden of that responsibility. And I am so proud, I am so proud to stand here today in solidarity with all of you to carry on that proud tradition of standing up to protect the land and everything that it represents.”
Phillip also acknowledged the important role of non-Indigenous people, “our friends and neighbours who are also part of this very important struggle. We share this land together, we bear that stewardship responsibility together.” Together, Phillip argued, “we march through the streets, the towns, the cities to give expression to our opposition to this absolutely ludicrous project.”
Joan Phillip then addressed the crowd, expressing the solidarity of the Penticton Indian Band with the struggle of the Dakelh people against the pipeline. Nak’azli elected chief, Fred Sam expressed that this solidarity between nations as well as between neighbours would ensure that the Prime Minister of Canada, Premier of British Columbia, and President of China know that “these lands are not for sale.”
Invoking the terms of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Sam stated his commitment to stand by the principle of “free, prior, and informed consent.” Expressing the meaning of this principle, Saik’uz Chief Jackie Thomas explained, “we need to be free to say what we want in our country.” This principle of consent represents the principle that those Indigenous people most impacted, most threatened by a project, possess the right to say no.
Elder Charlie Sam questioned the government’s inability to understand this principle. “What part of no do they not understand. Our people said no. This is our land.” He explained, “We rely on the water. We rely on the fish that come here every year. When we say no, we mean no.”
Recently released Canadian government strategy documents obtained through freedom of information requests list First Nations as adversaries to tar sands development. However, the words of Dakelh elders and leaders demonstrated how First Nations are the true allies to this land.
The resistance to the Enbridge pipeline is growing, with Alberta and Northwest Territories First Nations being the most recent signatories to add their names to a declaration opposed to the pipeline. “We are not alone,” Jackie Thomas explained. “This is not just for our Indigenous brothers and sisters. This is for everybody. We all need to have water. It is the basis of life.” It is on the basis of this vital shared concern that the resistance will continue on.
Photo credit Sarah Panofsky