While uncertainty surrounds the final outcome of a blockade that has halted construction of an important natural gas pipeline in northern B.C., be assured that the protest by a small group of Indigenous leaders and environmental activists has zero chance of jeopardizing completion of the project.
There is simply too much at stake, not the least of which is Canada’s international reputation for resource development – which is not great as it is.
The rest of Canada has become inured to environmental confrontations in British Columbia. There is a long, sharp history of them, one that continues to shape the nature and scope of the crusades we are witnessing today. They have become intertwined more recently with court decisions that have handed Indigenous groups more power than they’ve ever known.
But contrary to what many want to believe, these rulings have not handed Indigenous parties sovereignty over every endeavour that may affect them. And despite the fear-mongering that has accompanied the B.C. government’s recent move to enshrine the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) into law, the legislation does not give First Nations veto over industrial relations activities.
As is the case in many of the disputes, the current impasse we are witnessing does not have a simple backstory. Coastal GasLink has been contracted to build a $6.6-billion natural gas pipeline that will connect to the $18-billion export terminal being built in Kitimat by LNG Canada. Construction on various aspects of the undertaking has been underway for some time. Coastal GasLink has signed benefit agreements with 20 elected First Nations councils along the route.
However, a small group of unelected hereditary chiefs of the Wet’suwet’en Nation oppose the project, even though the nation’s elected council supports it. (It’s complicated.) A year ago, the chiefs and a group of protesters blocked Coastal from using a logging road, access to which is necessary to continue construction on the pipeline. The RCMP made 14 arrests, amid international media coverage. Eventually, a truce was reached and construction resumed.
But recently, the chiefs kicked the company out of the area again. Coastal sought, and received on New Year’s Eve, a court injunction that insists the chiefs desist from their activities and allow the company to resume its work. They have refused. They have been given 72-hours notice, which means the RCMP will likely have to move in Friday or sometime this weekend, to take down the blockade so Coastal can get back to work.
The confrontation has been framed by some as some sort of intractable quandary for the B.C. government and NDP Premier John Horgan. Of course, not long ago, Mr. Horgan was being hailed by First Nations leaders across the country for heading the first government in the country to bring UNDRIP into law. He’s also made Indigenous reconciliation a major part of his government’s overarching governing philosophy. So it’s assumed this dispute presents a major dilemma for his government.
The five hereditary chiefs opposing the project amount to a splinter faction among the First Nations groups that are ultimately affected by the project. There is a solid consensus among these communities that the pipeline is in their economic interests. They want it. They are counting on the benefits it will bestow on them.
If Mr. Horgan truly wanted to anger Indigenous communities in northern B.C., he would capitulate in the face of opposition from the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs, and stop the pipeline company from commencing construction.
That’s not going to happen.
There is also the not-so-small fact that construction on the terminal in Kitimat is well underway. That single project has helped create a boom in a town that has seen some really tough times in recent years. There is no greater supporter of the project than the members of the Haisla First Nation, which is based in Kitimat. The Haisla are counting on the terminal to help raise them out of poverty.
Does anyone honestly believe that, with all that on the line, John Horgan is going to put his hands up and say: “Okay, we’re calling a halt to all this because five hereditary chiefs don’t want it”? Not a chance.
There is also something else to remember: This LNG project represents billions of dollars to the provincial treasury in the form of royalties, taxes and other revenue streams. Mr. Horgan would love to be the head of the government that took advantage of that good fortune, a bounty that would be the envy of the country.
No, the outcome of this dispute is inevitable. Construction on this project will resume soon – as it should.
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