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February 19, 2015

The Political Power of Native Treaties to Stop Environmental Degradation.

North America Fracking

“““2015 fracking sites in North America

People don’t understand the political power Natives have as sovereign nations to stop fossil fuel projects in both the U.S. and in Canada.

In 2013 and 2014 the Mi’kmaq, Maliseet and Passamaquoddy First Nations of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia protested for many freezing months against fracking for shale gas in solidarity with many non-natives, who joined them on the barricades against the seismic testing, and who protested along the highways, thus uniting Indigenous, Acadian and Anglo people.

The Elsipotog Nation of NB said that no treaty gave the Canadian government the authority to radically alter their ancestral lands. Their right to hunt and fish would be violated by fracking and threaten the health of their lands and waters. As Gary Simon of the Elsipotog explained, “our treaties are our last line of defense to save the clean water for future generations.”

He was joined by David Coon, head of the Green Party of NB, who said, “This is not just a First Nations campaign. All the major peoples of this province—English, French, and Aboriginal—come together for a common cause…They want to protect their common lands, water, and air from destruction.”

And united together they won against the Texas company at the center of the showdown: fracking is now banned in both New Brunswick and in Nova Scotia.

The Idle No More movement in Canada, which burst onto the scene in 2012 and spread south of the border, was sparked by the Conservative government attacks on Indigenous sovereignty—in particular an assault on existing environmental protections for water. The government was trying to pave the way for tar sands expansion, more mega-mines, and pipelines. Previously, virtually 100 percent of Canada’s water bodies were protected. But with two new Conservative omnibus bills, that was slashed to less than 1 percent, with pipelines simply exempted at the request of the pipeline industry!

Soon the Idle No More movement was attracting support from trade unions, university students, and much of the general public.

Thus some of the most marginalized people in Canada, many survivors of the abusive residential schools, were taking on some of the wealthiest and most powerful corporate interests on the planet! Their heroic battles are not only their people’s best chance for a healthy future; it’s the best chance for all beings to enjoy a climate hospitable for life! It’s a battle of rights versus might.

Many non-Native people are starting to realize that Indigenous rights—if backed by court challenges, direct action, and mass movements demanding that these rights be respected—may represent the most powerful protection versus climate chaos for all of us. This is because the original Indigenous treaty negotiators in much of North America had the foresight to include the protection of native rights to live off their traditional lands in traditional ways.

Thus people in British Colombia who live within sight of the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline are grateful to their First Nations partners in the struggle against the pipeline because First Nations have the legal weight. The proposed pipeline is to be built on un-ceded native land. But in 2011 more than 130 First Nations signed the Save the Fraser Declaration, pledging to prevent the Northern Gateway pipeline and any other tar sands project from accessing BC territory. They are united by the long Fraser River (1,400km) and the salmon that move through fresh and saltwater and back again. This was a declaration of love for the river and for their water-dependent way of life, even more than a protest.

Similarly anti-coal activists in Washington State rely on the treaty rights of their Lummi partners as their “ace in the hole” should all other methods of blocking the export terminals fail.

And importantly, the Lakota Nation announced in 2014 that they considered the Keystone XL pipeline construction “ILLEGAL”, for the proposed pipeline would pass through Lakota treaty-protected territory, violating treaty rights and boundaries.

Meanwhile the Northern Cheyenne continue to be the biggest barrier to coal development in SE Montana.

The fact is that no one has more legal power to halt expansion of the tar sands than First Nations living downstream. Their treaty protects their traditional hunting, fishing, and trapping grounds.

Similarly, no one has more legal power to halt drilling under the Arctic’s melting ice than the Inuit, Sami, and other northern Indigenous tribes, whose livelihoods –fishing in particular—would be devastated by inevitable oil spills in the icy waters.

Furthermore, the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples declares that, “Indigenous peoples have the right to the conservation and protection of the environment and the productive capacity of their lands or territories and resources.”

Still, governments and corporations push ahead with extractive projects without the consent of these Indigenous people who rely on those lands. Especially in the US, Canada, and Australia these rights are usually ignored.

Why?—because isolated and impoverished Indigenous peoples lack the monetary resources to enforce their rights. The costs of taking on multinational extractive companies in court are enormous. That is why this is such an opportunity for non-Natives to join them in resisting the addiction to fossil fuels.

And their movements against extreme energy extraction are more than just struggles versus specific oil, gas, and coal companies, and even more than pro-democracy movements. They are opening up a chance for genuine reconciliation between Indigenous peoples and non-Natives.

When what is being fought for is a culture, a beloved place that people are determined to pass on to their grandchildren, and that their ancestors may have paid for with great sacrifice, there is nothing companies can offer as a bargaining chip. No bribe will be enough.

Thus Indigenous land and treaty rights, when joined with non-Native legal knowledge and financing, are proving to be a major barrier for the extractive industries, for these rights represent some of the most robust tools available to prevent ecological crisis.

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Author: Linda V. Lewis

Editor: Caroline Beaton

Photo: Digital Journal

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