Indigenous communities against the expansion of Trans Mountain pipeline

In Canada, the government acquired the Trans Mountain pipeline in late August 2018. Expansion of the pipeline, connecting Alberta to the Pacific coast via British Columbia, will triple capacity from 300,000 to 890,000 barrels of oil per day. Despite approval from the federal government, the pipeline project faces strong opposition from indigenous communities.

The project had already been approved in 2016 while it was still owned by Kinder Morgan. However, it was suspended on August 30, 2018 in light of a dispute at the federal level on the grounds that local indigenous communities were not suficiently consulted, and the need for a new environmental assessment by the National Office of Energy. Finally, it was granted approval along with additional recommendations in areas such as maritime safety and greenhouse gas reductions. 

In fact, indigenous communities are still divided about the project. Some groups continue to fight it, while others have signed investment agreements to reap the economic benefits. The Alberta government approved the plan which will benefit its oil industry, while British Columbia rejects it as it goes against its climate commitments. British Columbia’s primary concerns pertain to possible oil leaks both on land and in the waters off the Vancouver coastline where, in particular, a threatened species of killer whale resides. In addition, pipeline expansion will considerably increase maritime traffic as the passage of tankers will go from one per week to one per day.

When the expansion was first approved in 2018, four communities (Coldwater, Squamish, Tsleil-Waututh and Ts’elxwéyeqw) challenged the decision before the Federal Court of Appeals. The decision was overturned in August as consultations were « inadequate ». In fact, in Haida and Taku River in 2004 and in the First Nation of Cree Mikisew in 2005, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that there is a duty to consult when Canada considers an action likely to have harmful effects on rights granted to indigenous peoples (e.g. right to self-determination, recognition of ancestral lands).

A second consultation was conducted between August 2018 and June 2019, after the project was approved for the second time. Work was then authorized in places where the necessary conditions had been met, and where the detailed route had been approved. As of today, 70% of the detailed route of the expansion has been validated. However, the indigenous communities again contested this decision, but the case was dismissed at in February 2020. This time, the judges unanimously agreed that the consultations were in fact « adequate ».

The communities concerned seized the Supreme Court of Canada, requesting that the decision of the Federal Court of Appeals be overturned and the decision by the Justin Trudeau-led government be annulled. We already know that it is very unlikely their case will be heard, especially given that there is very strong opposition between the stakeholders and the power balance remains uneven.

It should be noted that at the present time, work has already started on the project and, despite general restrictions following the Covid-19 epidemic, is still on-going. The government claims to have taken all the necessary precautions. However, indigenous peoples are vulnerable populations who do not have the necessary resources, burdened by both social and health inequalities. The Assembly of First Nations has shared its concerns on this matter. In addition, it is not the only pipeline project that persists in this time of crisis. Aboriginal leaders in British Columbia have also called for a halt in construction of the Coastal GasLink project due to the risk of contamination.

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