Canada: The creative potential of Indigenous social initiatives

Speech by Art Sterritt, introductory comment by John Riddell

December 15, 2012 -- Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal via -- Speaking in Toronto, on November 17, 2012, at a conference against tar sands pipelines, Art Sterritt (pictured above) of the Coastal First Nations in British Columbia gave a dramatic account of his peoples’ initiatives for ecological justice in the province. Sterritt is among the main spokespersons of the powerful campaign in B.C. against tar sands pipelines.

Sterritt’s talk (below) offers insight into three important issues in current Canadian social struggles:

  • How can a protest movement mobilise the popular support needed to block the destructive plans of government and big business?
  • How can Indigenous peoples begin to change the thinking and actions of settler society — a process that could be called “reversing the conquest”?
  • How can control of a piece of government, like Coastal First Nations, be used to help build mass movements and contest corporate power?

The text submitted to Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal, which follows, also previously appeared in Rabble.Ca and Climate and Capitalism.

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Standing up to Big Oil: How Coastal First Nations built tar sands pipeline resistance

By Art Sterritt

The following talk was given by Art Sterritt, executive director of Coastal First Nations, to the “Tar Sands Come to Ontario: No Line 9” conference in Toronto, November 17, 2012. See also the video of his talk.

Thank you. Good afternoon everybody. I appreciate the introduction. I appreciate everybody coming out, and I am honoured that the local nations have welcomed me into their territories.

I’m born Gitxsan. Basically, Gitxsan means people from the Skeena River. Xsan means the Skeena. I was born and raised Gitxsan and raised Tsimshian. Tsimshian are the people who moved out of the Skeena River. I moved to the coast of British Columbia 45 years ago out of the Upper Skeena. I found a pretty little princess down there and she kept me. We have three children and two more adopted children and sixteen grandchildren living in the Great Bear Rain Forest. And that’s why I do what I do.

My father and my uncle landed along the beaches of Normandy like so many Canadians. They weren’t there exactly on D Day but they were there on the day after. My father is now 99 years old and is still with us but my uncle has left. My mother, on the other hand, was born not in Canada, but in Newfoundland at the time; because it wasn’t part of Canada. My dad is a Gitxsan chief. He’s the oldest one living in Upper Skeena right now.

I’ve been involved in all kinds of court cases from 45 years ago from the Calder Case, which said there was aboriginal title in British Columbia, to the Delgamuukw Case, which told us what aboriginal title was, to the Haida [Gwaii] Case, where the Haida worked with the organization I am now with.

We are 20,000 people in the Great Bear Initiative, which extends from the top of the Vancouver Island to the B.C./Alaska border.

I do describe myself as an artist although I’m on sabbatical doing some political work right now. I have screens in the hall of the Museum of Canadian Civilization that I painted. There are masks in there. There are masks in the Royal Ontario Museum that I carved, and there are totem poles all over the world. Although I haven’t able to do that for awhile because we seem to have a lot other issues that we need to deal with.

I’ve been honoured to have become the spokesman for the Coastal First Nations, in particular around the Enbridge Northern Gateway and pipeline project. I’m going to give you a little bit of the history of who we are and hope that those of you that were here this morning don’t get bored by it because you’ve heard it all already.

The Coastal First Nations came together about 10 years ago as group of people negotiating treaties and having absolutely no success. So Canada was not giving a mandate to their negotiators and British Columbia wasn’t and we were just wasting our time building up a whole bunch of debt.

We decided at that time that all the rights and titles that we had gained over the last 45 or 50 years in court cases in British Columbia, where by the way, there are very few treaties. Unlike the rest of Canada east of the Rockies, which all have treaties on it, in the whole Northern Gateway pipeline area in British Columbia there are no treaties. So we have gone to court over the past four or five decades to prove that, and we have proven that.

In court cases like Haida, we have won cases that said you can’t go and do something in our territory without talking to us, and if you’re going to have an effect on us you may very well have to compensate us, or if it’s going to be really critical and you are engaged in wiping out our rights and our title, you might not be allowed to do this according to the Constitution of Canada, because nobody has the right to erase our rights and our title in British Columbia, except us. And we, actually, we don’t have the right to do that unless we get the approval of all of our constituents.

So, Coastal First Nations came together a decade ago and have been working together and have signed government-to-government agreements in British Columbia. The first thing we did, though, as a group is we began to work together and when we did that, coming from working in isolation as individual First Nations, we gained a new kind of power, a kind of political power as a group of First Nations.

Our plan was to breath life into our rights because nobody else was doing it. We figured that would have a 50-50 chance of effecting change within our region by coming together.

When we came together the environmental community and the industry were negotiating what to do with our land. And we didn’t think that was quite right so we went after the environmental community and said, “Hey, either you do it our way, or get the heck out of our territory.” And they said, “No, we’re quite willing to work with you. We recognise that you have rights. We recognise that you have title, and we recognise that you as a government.”

We thought, well that was pretty easy. Now, we have a marriage with a very powerful group of people who can lobby all over the world to stop buying forest products and mining products and all kinds of things. That’s a very different kind of power. They can exert that in the United States, and they can exert that in Europe. And we married that with our aboriginal rights and title in British Columbia. And at that point in time we thought we had a 75 per cent chance of effecting change within our geographic region.

We took a look behind us and here’s the industry, who in the meantime were wanting to log and do different things, and we basically thought, well let’s check and see if these guys want to be a part of this, because now we’re a pretty formidable force and they aren’t going to have much success unless they work with us. So we talked to industry and they said, “By all means.” They put their hands up and said, “We’re with you. We support you. We recognise you as a government and we want to help do a plan for what happens in this region as well.”

We thought, well if it’s that easy, how about the unions? So the unions said, “By all means, we agree with the principles that you folks have put forward and we want to be a part of it as well.” We looked around and there was barely anybody left out of the tent except the municipalities in the region, so we called them in, and all those municipalities agreed to work with us. We came up with a plan for what became known as the Great Bear Rain Forest.

When we did that in 2001, all of us together developed a general protocol. We went to the provincial government and said, “Hey guys, we have a plan for the area, a way to rationalise everything in there, and if you agree to it, then we’re going to go ahead and do it.” And the provincial government said, “Everybody seems to be in your room, so we agree with you. We’ll do it.” So we signed the first-ever government-to-government agreement in British Columbia in 2001. That really breathed life into a whole different process in British Columbia.

In essence, what happened is we did a plan that determined what the economy was going to look like in the region; that it was going to be based on the natural capital that comes out of there. However many trees grow in a year that could be sustained, that’s how much we would cut. However many salmon we could fish in a year and sustain, that’s how much we would fish. So all of those resources, halibut, black cod, crab, shrimp, and everything that’s in the region all got put into this plan. We decided to work together on that.

We ended up down the road a little ways, and then all of a sudden comes a proposal from a company in Alberta to put a pipeline right smack dab into the middle of this plan that all of us on the Coast had arrived at. So here we are, it’s not just the First Nations, this is everybody that lives in the region, all the corporations, all the unions, all the municipalities had agreed to a plan.

And along comes Enbridge and Northern Gateway and says, “We’re going to put a pipeline here and we’re going to run ships through your territory.” And we said, “Well we’re not so sure about that.” We looked around. We did some studies. We didn’t dismiss them out of hand. We said were not so sure were going to let you in here. They actually said to us that time, “If you guys don’t agree with this, we won’t do it.” Oh! This is a pretty good company.

We went out and did some studies. We looked into the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska. And we found out what happened when there was an oil spill up there. And a few months later, after we began this engagement, there was this monster blowout in the Gulf of Mexico, and we went to look at what happened with the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

And just after we started to lose a little bit of traction, there was a spill in Kalamazoo. It was pretty well a foregone conclusion that what Enbridge was proposing to introduce to our environment and the plan that we had for sustainability was a bomb that could destroy everything that we stood for. So we declared a ban on tanker traffic in the Great Bear Rain Forest.

When we declared that, we thought about the lessons that we had learned in Alaska and the lessons that we learned in the Gulf of Mexico. And what we learned from the Indigenous peoples and the local people, the Cajuns, who by the way were the Acadians who got booted out of Eastern Canada. The Cajuns told us that if you ever allow oil into your territory, they will change the culture; they will wipe out everything you stand for. They have no conscience. And that’s what’s happening. The Cajun culture is being eroded, and the Houma Nation culture is being eroded in the Gulf. And that BP spill just about destroyed it completely and there was not enough they could do about it.

And they said, what you have to do when you go home, is you have to get beyond the 20,000 people that you represent. You have to go and get all the people in British Columbia. You have to gain enough political power so that you can effect change. And so that’s what we began to do.

So that’s what we began to do. We began to gather intelligence about what’s going on in the region. We already had all the people in the region who took it personal that somebody was trying to destroy what they were doing. We needed to extend that to the rest of British Columbia. So we began a campaign of moving around British Columbia talking to people. And at this point in time, we have support now from 80 per cent of British Columbia to stop the Northern Gateway pipeline.

I’m sharing this with you because I hope that this is a lesson about what you’re going to need to do to stop Line 9. You’re going to have to personalise it. That’s what happened in British Columbia. It became personal.

We have a campaign right now called, “Defend Our Coast.” It’s about all British Columbians coming together to defend our coast, and we’re having a great deal of success.

A couple weeks ago, I spoke to a rally in Victoria. The legislature wasn’t even meeting, but we were on the lawn of the legislature and we expected a couple thousand people to show up. We had 5000 people show up at a rally and basically, I asked them one question. You guys might have seen it on the news. I said, “If Harper approves Northern Gateway, who’s going to lie down in front of the bulldozers and stop this project?" And to a man, woman, and child, they said, “We will!” That was heard across the country.

Not only that, I’ve had another 10,000 pledges online from people saying they will be there with us to stop this pipeline from going ahead when they try to go ahead.

I want to close with one comment. There was a little bit more going on in this. Really, I mentioned earlier on that Enbridge had said to us, “If you guys don’t like this project, we’ll go away.” When we decided we didn’t like it, and we told them. They said, “You’re not the only Indians in British Columbia.” That’s how they said it. “There’s others who might agree.”

So we then canvassed all of the rest of the First Nations in British Columbia: the Union of B.C. Chiefs and the First Nations Summit represent 202 tribes, and they both opposed the Northern Gateway pipeline. We went to Enbridge and told them that, and they said, “Well, there are non-native people. What about the municipalities?” We went to the municipalities, and for the past two years, all the Union of B.C. Municipalities have passed a motion opposing Northern Gateway. That should be the end of the story. There’s nobody in British Columbia that wants the project.

So what’s Enbridge’s answer? “Canada seems to want it.” Stephen Harper, Peter Kent, Joe Oliver say, “We’re still game on.” How the hell are you going to do this based on the fact that nobody in this province wants you?

So what do they do? They begin to undermine the environmental legislation. They changed the Fisheries Act. They do everything they can to set a framework in place to take us on when they finally approve it. What did they do? They had put a panel in place that had the authority to reject this project, the Joint Review Panel, and they changed the law so that panel had no right to do that, and that right went to cabinet. And, they said, cabinet is going to approve it.

So we’re getting ready with legal cases, political cases, and direct action. So those are the very accepted kind of things that we are going to do.

I’ve learned over the last number of years, and I was amazed to arrive at this conclusion. Really, what’s happened here is that there’s a whole different change in our society and what we have got is the richest industry that is ever hit planet earth is trying to take over control of our country. We have oil. There is no other industry that has as much resources, as much money. They took the US government to court and got classified with human rights and what that means in the US is they can spend as much bloody money as they want to get the party elected that they like, or get legislation, or to lobby or do whatever they want.

Guess what’s going on in Canada right now? That’s exactly the same thing they’re doing. They’re going after our legislation. They’re bribing people. They have no conscience. They have no conscience about it. We have a tar sands that is owned by 47 per cent by foreign corporations and countries, and we want to turn more of it over to them!

I think it’s about time that British Columbians, Ontarians, Quebec, all of Canada came up with a plan. That’s what we did in the Great Bear Rain Forest. We need a plan for what we do with our energy that meets our needs before the rest of the world.

Thank you very much.

[Art Sterritt is the executive director of the Coastal First Nations — Great Bear Initiative (CFN-GBI) in Vancouver. The CFN, is an alliance of First Nations on British Columbia’s North and Central Coast and Haida Gwaii, works toward an ecologically and economically sustainable coast now known as the Great Bear Rainforest.]