Dissent in the Inlet: How an aboriginal group is determined to stop Trans Mountain’s expansion

Written by Jeff Lewis and published June 13, 2014 in the Financial Post

TSLEIL-WAUTUTH FIRST NATION, B.C. — The Destiny condo development sits high above Burrard Inlet east of Downtown Vancouver.

From here, amid neatly kept yards and freshly paved streets, a visitor can see Chevron Corp.’s Burnaby refinery on the opposite side of the waterway. A tanker slips by, laden with crude oil transported from Alberta along Kinder Morgan Canada Inc.’s Trans Mountain pipeline.

The industrial vista is one Carleen Thomas, 53, has looked upon since childhood. “I remember as a teenager my grandparents told us not to eat out of here” because of pollution, the resident of the nearby Tsleil-Waututh First Nation said on a recent afternoon, gesturing at the inlet.

The scene is the backdrop for a high-stakes battle over the fate of Kinder Morgan’s $5.4-billion plan to boost capacity on the Edmonton-to-Vancouver oil pipeline to 890,000 barrels a day, from 300,000 today.

The Destiny condos are part of a sprawling residential complex called Raven Woods. Built in phases by Takaya Developments, a property developer majority-owned by the aboriginal group, its website advertises a “peaceful community life with the amenities of a bustling metropolitan city.”

But just across the harbour, a plan that would see up to 400 oil tankers a year call on an expanded marine-loading dock is gathering momentum. A decision on the pipeline expansion won’t come for another year, with start-up not slated until 2018. Ms. Thomas, who leads an aboriginal effort called the Sacred Trust Initiative, is determined to stop it. She fears the consequences of an oil spill, she said.

“It’s not even about trying to halt or stop an economy,” she said in an interview overlooking the harbour. “It’s about the health of humans, of the land, of the water, of the air and everything. We all depend on that, so why would we willingly put those at risk?”

Her resistance is a window into long-simmering tensions that now threaten to stall Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s goal of making Canada an “energy superpower.”

With court cases looming against Enbridge Inc.’s rival Northern Gateway pipeline, Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain project has been touted as a more viable option for breaking the energy industry’s reliance on the U.S. export market, where the bulk of Alberta’s crude is sold at a discount to North American and global prices.

But the project remains deeply unpopular with the Tsleil-Waututh, whose name translates to “The People of the Inlet.” The aboriginal group has a population just shy of 300, but it claims much of Burrard Inlet as traditional territory.

Its leaders have refused to meet with Kinder Morgan officials, arguing it’s the federal government’s job to first consult with aboriginal communities potentially affected by industry, as set out in a 2004 decision by the Supreme Court. (The issue is the subject of a legal challenge launched by the band against the National Energy Board and federal government over their handling of the Kinder Morgan file).

However, the law doesn’t say how consultations should proceed or when the obligation is fulfilled. As well, many First Nations land claims in B.C. remain unsettled, complicating negotiations over resource development, legal experts say.

Doug White, an aboriginal lawyer and former chief of the Snuneymuxw First Nation on Vancouver Island, said the federal government has relied too heavily on regulators and project proponents to consult with affected aboriginal groups, jeopardizing business decisions.

“There’s a huge level of business uncertainty now because of the Crown’s impoverished approach to consultation and engagement with First Nations,” said Mr. White, who is also director of the Centre for Pre-Confederation Treaties and Reconciliation at Vancouver Island University.

The approach “does nothing but create conflict,” he said. “And that conflict isn’t good for anyone. It’s not good for First Nations, it’s not good for the Crown, and it’s not good for companies like Kinder Morgan.”

The Tsleil-Waututh hold particular sway with regard to the Trans Mountain expansion because of their proximity to the project, he said. “It’s right in their front yard,” he said. There “would have to be an element of consent on the aboriginal side” if the expansion were to proceed, he said. But, he added: “Consent is not necessarily a veto” on the plan.

Kinder Morgan is eager to engage with the coastal aboriginal group, Ian Anderson, president of the company’s Canadian unit, said in a recent interview. “To date we have not been invited into that conversation,” he said, adding discussions are ongoing with other First Nations in the region.

The federal government last month said it would establish a major projects management office in Vancouver and a forum to facilitate “meaningful engagement and ongoing dialogue” with aboriginal groups, the B.C. government and industry. Mr. Anderson said the move “is an important signal” that shows the federal government is listening to local issues.

For the Tsleil-Waututh, however, the gesture may have come too late.

“If they really want to move forward in this province, because of the lack of treaties, they just have to scrap whatever plans they have and start from the beginning again, and start in an earnest, sincere and honest way,” Ms. Thomas said.

She said the aboriginal group is not against development — it recently partnered with the Aquilini Investment Group in a $60-million real estate deal. Nor is it looking to veto industrial projects, she said.

“We’re just saying, ‘Hey, we need to be part of this process. We need to work with you. You need to work with us to figure out what the long-lasting impacts are going to be.’”


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