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First Nations leaders shocked by oilsands

Tour aimed at scuttling Enbridge pipeline project

BY GEMMA KARSTENSSMITH, EDMONTON JOURNAL JULY 23, 2012

A visit to northern Alberta last week left councillors from three B.C. First Nations feeling physically, emotionally and spiritually exhausted.

“My eyes are burning and my head’s spinning and I’m nauseated,” said Timothy Innes, councillor of the Gitxaala Nation on Porcher Island south of Prince Rupert, after three days of touring the oilsands north of Fort McMurray. The tour was organized by Nikki Skuce of ForestEthics, whose job as senior energy campaigner is to stop the Enbridge pipeline project.

BC First Nations Chiefs shocked by oil sands.

The Gitxaala Nation is one of several First Nations whose traditional territory would be affected by Enbridge’s proposed Northern Gateway pipeline. The $5.5-billion, 1,172-kilometre pipeline would stretch from Bruderheim outside Edmonton to Kitimat on B.C.’s northwest coast, from where tankers would take the product to Asian markets.

Innes has been opposed to the project from the beginning, but wanted to see where the oil carried in the pipeline would come from, so he joined Marilyn Slett, chief of the Heiltsuk First Nation in Bella Bella, and John Ridsdale, Chief Na’Moks of the Wet’suwet’en First Nation near Burns Lake, to explore the oilsands developments.

The visitors were surprised by the size of the operations.

“You can read as much as you want, listen to as much as you want, but until you see it, you won’t believe it,” said Ridsdale, whose title means head chief of the First Nation.

“You can smell it, you can taste it when you’re out there,” Slett added. “I was actually quite shocked by it.”

Enbridge has said they are engaging indigenous communities in designing the proposed pipeline, and have signed protocol agreements with some First Nations, including the Paul First Nation west of Edmonton.

But opposition from other indigenous groups has been staunch, and not everyone believes the pipeline will bring prosperity to the First Nations along its route.

“There’s lots of money coming out of there, but the people there, they’re common people. They’ve got nothing. They’ve been left out,” Innes said. “And money is not going to bring back what’s going to be lost.”

Seeing the effects oil operations have had on the traditional lands of the Fort McKay First Nation north of Fort McMurray was devastating for Slett.

“They don’t have their cultural way of life anymore,” she said. “To hear from an elder in Fort McKay that they can’t eat the fish there, they can’t hunt, berries don’t grow – it really hit home for me.”

First Nations people get their power from the land and the sea, Ridsdale said, and changing the landscape for a pipeline would destroy that special bond.

“What you’re doing is allowing them to commit cultural genocide,” Ridsdale said. “Without your culture, you have nothing.”

Ridsdale said Fort McKay elders warned him that allowing Northern Gateway to go ahead would open a Pandora’s box his community would never be able to close because the operations would continue to expand indefinitely and pipeline failures could occur.

L a s t we ek, E nbr id ge acknowledged safety concerns about the Northern Gateway pipeline, and pledged to invest $500 million in additional measures for the controversial project, including thicker pipeline walls at water crossings and more inspections.

“We have often been asked if we could guarantee that we would never have a significant pipeline failure over the years on Northern Gateway. These initiatives will put the project closer than any pipeline system in the world to providing that guarantee,” Enbridge vicepresident Janet Holder said in a statement.

The changes don’t change Slett’s opinion because spills could still happen.

“They don’t mitigate our concerns,” she said. “An oil spill would be catastrophic for our community.”

Last week, B.C. Premier Christy Clark also expressed doubts about the project, telling Postmedia News the pipeline poses a very large risk to her province with few benefits.

“The statements by Enbridge have overstated the benefits for British Columbians,” Slett said.

But the B.C. government has been too quiet for too long when it comes to the pipeline, she said, leaving environmental groups and First Nations to fill the gap.

Innes, Ridsdale and Slett say their voices will only get louder after visiting the oilsands.

“Coming here made us stronger in our resolve,” Ridsdale said. “We’ve always spoken the truth and now we have a little bit of sugar to put on, too.”

“We’re going to fight harder, going to keep saying no, until they understand what no means,” Innes said.

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