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First Nations leaders gather in Ottawa to strengthen legal case against oil sands development

The Yinka Dene Alliance and indigenous leaders from across Canada and the US will spend the rest of the week working to build partnerships both within the government and without

Chief Phil Lane Jr and Faith Spotted Eagle
Chief Phil Lane Jr and Faith Spotted Eagle in Ottawa on March 20. Photo courtesy of Rueben George

First Nations leaders from across the US and Canada converged on Parliament Hill this morning to meet with politicians and add their signatures to two anti-oil sands documents, the Save the Fraser Declaration and the International Treaty to Protect the Sacred From Tar Sands Projects

Organized by the Yinka Dene Alliance, a coalition of First Nations in northern BC, the signing and subsequent press conference was intended to strengthen the two legal documents as well as create an opportunity for discussion between leaders and members of parliament.

Geraldine Thomas-Flurer, Enbridge Coordinator for the Yinka Dene Alliance, said the organization extended invitations to numerous MPs and government officials of all political stripes, and though the overall response has been strong, they have yet to hear from any members of the Conservative party.

The delegation of 13 people spent the day in back-to-back meetings and they will continue to meet with officials until the end of the day Friday. 

“We’re meeting with a variety of MPs and different caucuses to talk to them about our position on everything.” 

In spite of the silence from conservative MPs, Thomas-Flurer was pleased with the outcome of the visit so far. 

“We’re very happy and I think coming here to Ottawa was very productive.”

The speakers used the opportunity to address Minister of Natural Resources Joe Oliver’s decision to appoint an envoy, an announcement indigenous leaders are less than thrilled about. Oliver revealed yesterday that Vancouver lawyer and chief federal negotiator on land claims in BC, Doug Eyford, has been appointed special advisor on First Nations consultation, speaking directly to First Nations groups affected by resource development—primarily the Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipeline—and report directly to the prime minister.

Oliver said over email that the government is committed to protecting the environment and supporting First Nations people.

“The natural resources sector currently supports 32,000 Aboriginal jobs across Canada, an increase of 1,000 from last year, and will result in opportunities for thousands more. Our Government respects our duty to consult with Aboriginal people,” he said. “In the meantime, we continue our work with Aboriginal groups to increase jobs, economic growth and prosperity.”

Thomas-Flurer said she believes the envoy is redundant, especially since Oliver has said Eyford won’t interfere with the Joint Review Panel hearings on the Northern Gateway Pipeline, or the hearing process of any other projects. 

“What’s this person’s mandate? If you look at the time lines he’s given, they’re very unrealistic,” she said, adding that many of the chiefs present at today’s gathering see the appointment as little more than a tactic to appease First Nations. “We’re just going to keep remaining focused on what we’re doing and we’re not going to be deterred.”

Rueben George, Sundance Chief of the Tsleil-Waututh First Nation is also skeptical about the value of the new position.

“Why do they want to consult when we’re already opposing? We’re already saying no.” George also takes issue with the way some media reported on the conference, citing the CBC broadcast of the event that characterized the speakers as angry and harsh.

“There are relatives in Alberta that are getting sick, that are getting cancer,” he said. “They can’t bathe their children for more than a few minutes because the water’s so polluted.” He said discussing these issues in public is less about anger and more about painting a realistic picture of life in the areas affected by the oil and gas industry. 

“Those are the harsh facts. We encourage all Canadians to know the truth.” George said he has been working closely with Burnaby-Douglas MP Stewart Kennedy, and has plans to meet with members of the NDP opposed to the pipelines tomorrow to discuss plans for the future. 

“Our next step is to continue to educate Canadians, continue to look at our legal strategy.”

Phil Lane, hereditary chief of the Yankton Sioux people of South Dakota, said the display of unity between nations and the addition of new names to the Save the Fraser Declaration and the new treaty drafted in January in opposition to tar sands development mean the gathering was a step forward. 

“There was really a very, very united front,” he said. “As this unity becomes more apparent and has more people signing the International Treaty to Protect the Sacred From Tar Sands Projects, it just has a lot more weight.” He said leaders are currently in the process of registering the treaty with the United Nations.

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