The strong public identification of resistance against fossil energy infrastructure with Indigenous groups like the Standing Rock Sioux is casting a shadow over others that support pipeline construction, the National Chief of Canada’s Assembly of First Nations says.
According to Perry Bellegarde, First Nations leaders who support pipeline projects “are afraid to speak out because they have become stigmatized by some protesters,” CBC News reports.
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“We’re divided just like Canadians are divided, and we’re divided just like the Liberal MPs are divided, because it’s a very divisive debate,” Bellegarde said of his members, who are meeting this week in Ottawa to discuss progress on Indigenous issues a year into the Liberal government’s mandate.
But beyond that division, Bellegarde added, “there’s a stigma now attached that somehow you’re not a First Nations person if you support a pipeline.”
Bellegarde spoke with the news service shortly after the federal government approved two major pipelines, including the deeply controversial tripling in capacity of the U.S.-owned Trans Mountain line from Edmonton to Vancouver.
Kinder Morgan, the Houston company seeking to expand the half-century-old pipeline to carry nearly 900,000 barrels a day of diluted bitumen, claimed in regulatory filings that “it has reached agreements with all reserves through which the pipeline will be built, and has signed mutual benefit agreements with 39 Indigenous groups, guaranteeing money and jobs in exchange for their support of the project,” CBC reports. It added that “19 Indigenous communities, mostly from B.C. and Alberta, wrote letters [to the National Energy Board] voicing support” for the line.
“The point is that some of those chiefs are quiet, and yet I know they support” Trans Mountain, Bellegarde said. “It’s about who’s the loudest sometimes.”
Among the loud is Grand Chief Derek Nepinak of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs. “Just as Indigenous peoples are showing unwavering strength down at Standing Rock, our peoples are not afraid and are ready to do what needs to be done to stop the pipelines and protect our water and our next generations,” Nepinak declared in reaction to last week’s Trans Mountain approval.
Nepinak was among First Nations leaders who joined Mohawk Chief Serge Simon of Kanesatake, QC earlier this year in an international Indigenous alliance to halt development of the tar sands/oil sands and stop further expansion of petroleum pipelines. The groups targets include TransCanada Corporation’s proposed Energy East pipeline from Alberta to the Atlantic.
“I don’t want their poison on my territory,” Simon told CBC News in advance of this week’s assembly. “You’re damn right I’m going to stop it. Leave it in the ground.” Simon said he and other chiefs opposed to pipelines planned to walk out when Prime Minister Trudeau addressed the gathering on Tuesday.
Bellegarde said he hoped to mediate between that point of view and chiefs whose nations support the economic development that pipeline proponents promise. According to CBC, the AFN national chief emphasized that Indigenous groups support an accelerated shift from fossil to clean energy, but also called it “unreasonable” to expect to stop tar sands/oil sands development immediately.
“We get it,” Bellegarde said. “Everybody drives vehicles, everybody drives cars, everyone flies in planes, but you can’t just cut it off immediately—you can’t. People are not realistic if they think that’s going to happen.”
During the assembly, Chief Robert Chamberlin of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs called it an “open secret” that Bellegarde strongly supports further pipeline development. “Calling him ‘Pipeline Perry,’ Chamberlin accused Bellegarde of using government talking points on natural resources development and not properly representing voices of dissent,” CBC reports.
“They are throwing shiny nickels and dimes at us rather than providing us with a proper place at the table,” he said, pointing to one-on-one deals Kinder Morgan has signed with 39 B.C. First Nations that support Trans Mountain.