In Kitimat, Canadians fight to save their oil and their water

Broadly speaking, traditional First Nations voices are not large in climate policy and decision-making. Why? Because First Nations have long been at the bottom of the scale, fighting to survive, out of poverty, hopelessness and fear that comes from the brutality and violence of life on their land.

However, oil and natural gas extraction in the land they call home is killing the very air they breathe, and the forests the bow-dowses hunt.

I spoke with Yinka Dene Alliance Vice Chair Hazel Tamayo recently about her fight to hold Canada accountable.

Tamayo is a mom and grandmother of three from the Northern BC Gitxsan First Nation near Fort St. John, British Columbia. As the president of the Housing and Better Housing Committee of the Gitxsan, her community has been subject to intense scrutiny and scrutiny by First Nations communities and members who realize that living among the oil wells, pipelines and other development that goes with oil development is no safer for the environment.

As Tamayo tells it, “There’s an almost termless battery of B.C. government regulations and permits that are being applied by various entities as part of the oil and gas development in the Northern parts of the country.” The process has been painfully slow and has created a significant rise in housing prices, making homes out of reach for local families and driving many North, including Tamayo, to leave their communities.

Meanwhile, oil companies across Canada are breaking federal oil and gas laws, Tamayo said. The company Enbridge is engaged in taking First Nations’ rights to build or maintain sustainable housing off their land, and native communities throughout Canada are concerned that oil companies are allowing key social infrastructure to be destroyed.

Tamayo says First Nations are communicating that their lands and resource development are “not just about polar bears and seals, but it’s about existence and the human element for the first nations communities.” That is why TAI, with the support of B.C.’s provincial government, is “trying to get those little violations” of the First Nations land claim (signed more than 90 years ago) corrected to allow First Nations “to have a voice in these decisions.”

Tamayo talked about ways that First Nations can work together to find a way to implement universal access to clean water. When you consider the number of fires, spills and land degradation caused by Shell Canada’s $1 billion tar sands project at the proposed Rosebank mine site, it becomes clear that water infrastructure is a major problem in these developing nations.

When First Nations talk about water, they are talking about hydropower, which is what Enbridge’s proposed $6 billion oil tanker port at Kitimat, B.C., needs to meet its annual demand for crude oil.

First Nations leaders are arguing that this “manifestly unacceptable from a constitutionally guaranteed right to clean water,” as Tamayo says. Many of the Kitimat proposal’s supporters, however, maintain that fossil fuels are essential to moving Canada forward, and that even the pipeline itself is an economic development opportunity that will create jobs.

Kitimat’s proponents are sometimes described as patriots who put their lives on the line to free Canada from colonization and imperialism. However, the current government in Canada has been so strongly opposed to this idea, it has been pummeling First Nations with lawsuits for their land claims. As Tamayo said, “This is part of the problem that we have in Canada right now.”

Kitimat’s struggle is also showing the futility of building pipelines under First Nations’ rights, according to Tamayo. In her words, “I want to make sure, like I say, Kitimat is doomed, and that’s why we’re fighting these damn pipelines and all of the terrible things that are going on there.”

That’s one way of putting it.

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