Save the Salish Sea: Respecting Indigenous rights means stopping tar sands tankers

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I am, like most of you, a strong supporter of First Nations land and title rights. Increasingly, the international community is waking up to the rights of Indigenous people and their justified desire for sovereignty and self-determination.

This struggle is playing itself out very publicly as First Nations on the west coast of Canada have drawn a line in the sand regarding dangerous pipeline projects. That is the context for the canoe gathering this weekend in the Vancouver harbour, organized by the Tsleil-Waututh Nation and the the Squamish Nation. 

Protecting the waters is a sacred trust

This Saturday, starting at 1p.m., canoe families will paddle through Burrard Inlet, from under the Lions Gate Bridge to past the Second Narrows Bridge. It will be a beautiful ceremony based on the local Indigenous people's relationship with this water, which stretches back to time immemorial. The peaceful canoe journey will contrast starkly with the tar sands export infrastructure of tankers and pipelines in the Burrard Inlet, and with the massive storage tank facilities along the waterfront. 

Both the Tsleil-Waututh and the Squamish recently signed the Save the Fraser Declaration, joining over 100 other First Nations Chiefs banning the export of tar sands oil through their territories. Given that this is unceded land, the groundbreaking declaration -- under the authority of the Indigenous legal order -- should be taken very seriously.

Tsleil-Waututh means “People of the Inlet,” and they see the water not only as a source of food, transportation and recreation but as fundamental to their ceremonies and spiritual beliefs. The Tsleil-Waututh consider protecting the inlet to be a sacred trust, and they have now set up a Sacred Trust Initiative focused on stopping the Kinder Morgan pipeline proposal

In the footsteps of Chief Dan George

The spirit of Chief Dan George seems to still be very much alive in this community. There is something poetic about the descendants of one of the most famous and beloved Indigenous people in the history of what we call Canada being so central to this epic struggle for First Nations rights.

Recently, a touching CBC special on Chief Dan George from the 1960's was being circulated, featuring a clip of the Oscar-nominated Chief sounding very much like his grandchildren Chief Justin George and Rueben George. These men have taken the lead on this campaign in their community, and it's striking to see the consistency in the passionate defence of this sacred trust over the generations. 

As a non-Indigenous person who was born in Coast Salish territory, I feel we have so much to learn from the local First Nations people. Working closely with the Tsleil-Waututh and the Squamish Nation on this campaign has enriched my life in many ways.

Save the Salish Sea Festival this weekend

We have organized the Save the Salish Sea Festival on Sunday, September 2, the day after this historic canoe journey, as a way for non-Indigenous folks to show their appreciation and support for the Coast Salish people protecting their land and water from the risks associated with the export of tar sands oil. I invite you to please help spread the word about these important events, and bring your friends and family to attend. 

Reading the words of Chief Dan George in his famous speech on Canada's 100th anniversary sends a chill down your spine when you realize their prescience: "Like the thunderbird of old I shall rise again out of the sea...So shall the next hundred years be the greatest in the proud history of our tribes and nations."

This weekend may be one of those moments that we all look back on as a critical juncture, not only in our recognition that we need to kick our addiction to dirty oil, but as a turning point for Indigenous rights.


Ben West is the Healthy Communities Campaigner with the Wilderness Committee. is a media sponsor of the Salish Sea Festival, taking place this Sunday. 

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