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The Aboriginal Movement That Trumps Idle No More

Like Idle No More, the Keystone pipeline battle is a gut-level expression of Aboriginal determination. Unlike Idle No More, it is tightly organized and well defined, with proven staying power and a simple focus: to prevent construction of the $6.5-billion project.

Chief Theresa Spence is back in Attawapiskat and Idle No More has faded from the headlines, but another Aboriginal movement continues to build toward the biggest First Nations stand-off in a generation: the fight against the proposed Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipeline.

The contentious project--a 1,170-kilometre pipeline that would link the Alberta bitumen sands with a supertanker port in Kitimat, B.C.--is a major economic and environmental issue, but it also represents the most significant degree of Aboriginal resistance this country has seen since 1990 when Mohawk Warriors stared down Her Majesty's Royal 22nd Regiment across barricades at Oka.

Like Idle No More, the pipeline battle is a gut-level expression of Aboriginal determination. Unlike Idle No More, it is tightly organized and well defined, with proven staying power and a simple focus: to prevent construction of the $6.5-billion project.

During a visit to First Nations along the proposed pipeline route last August, the half dozen Aboriginal leaders I spoke with between Hartley Bay and Prince George, B.C. all said three things: 1) they oppose the project; 2) there is nothing Enbridge can do to change their minds (that is, they are not just posturing in order to get more money); and 3) they are prepared to oppose the project in the courts and by standing in front of bulldozers.

The responses were as consistent as they were heartfelt.

Russell Ross Jr.--a Haisla First Nation councillor--sat surrounded by leaning stacks of documents about Gateway. His office in Kitamaat Village is a short boat ride across Douglas Channel from the site where Enbridge wants to build its tanker terminal.

When I asked how he would feel if the project were to proceed and supertankers would travel to the heart of Haisla territory, he paused. Then, with emotion brimming in his eyes, he said, "I'd have to move away."

The primary concerns of leaders I spoke with are the risk of an oil spill into a treasured salmon river or a supertanker accident along the coast.

These leaders are not anti-development--the Haisla, for instance, are key players in the multi-billion dollar push to export liquified natural gas--but they do not accept the risk of potentially irreparable harm to their way of life.

The harvesting and use of salmon and other wild foods are an essential part of the economy, diet and culture of First Nations in the area. This tangible, immediate and deep connection to the lands and waters is closely related to the degree of their resolve.

Ross says opposition is unanimous among the roughly 800 Haisla residents of Kitamaat Village.

On they other side of the issue, resolve also runs deep. Both Enbridge and federal government representatives insist the project is in the "national interest." That interest revolves around an estimated $270-billion boost to GDP.

But with waves of opposition and controversy buffeting the project, the big question now is whether Enbridge and government will see the project through to the point of open confrontation with First Nations.

"People ask how far we are willing to go to oppose the project," Wet'suwet'en Hereditary Chief Na'Moks (John Ridsdale) told me, "but I want to know how far Enbridge is willing to go to push it through."

Though many analysts say the project is doomed, late last year Enbridge opened a new Gateway office in Prince George and committed another $150 million to the next phase of engineering.

Since then, federal Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver told reporters he still hopes the pipeline will be built. The feds have staked a lot on Gateway.

Though Ottawa's support has dimmed over the past year, Prime Minister Harper has used the project to test-drive his vision for the country, a vision centred on aggressive expansion of the conventional energy sector within a more amenable regulatory climate. Officially, that test drive is still on track.

I asked Ridsdale if he thinks the pipeline, which would pass through 170 kilometres of Wet'suwet'en territory, will ever be built. Sitting in his office at Wet'suwet'en headquarters in Smithers, B.C., his response was simple: "We are not a defeated people."

Indeed, among his people's victories is the 20-year Delgaamuuk court battle, a landmark Supreme Court ruling that recognized the existence of Aboriginal title in B.C.

Earlier that day, Ridsdale had shown me the stately board table around which the 13 Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs meet--a "trophy" they acquired from the court house after their victory.

Next to the board room, Ridsdale showed me a room full of shelves laden with documents, mostly evidence from the Delgaamuuk case. Among the hundreds of binders, I recognized a dozen with the lime green Gateway spine. It was hard not to see their placement--archived along side documentation of a major victory--as symbolic.

The Wet'suwet'en obviously know their rights. Like other First Nations in the area, they have never ceded or otherwise ceded title to their lands. What is less clear is whether the federal government has considered the prospect of fighting the Wet'suwet'en and their neighbours in court.

Or whether Ottawa is willing to see RCMP officers haul off dozens of respected and articulate Aboriginal leaders and elders in handcuffs while the world watches.

Such a scenario would almost certainly ignite an international swell of support for the First Nations that would make Idle No More look like an opening act. The fact the anti-Gateway movement has a simple objective, established leaders, a geographic centre, reasonable chances of success and appeal well beyond aboriginal circles would likely enable it to mobilize support that would dwarf the rallies of Idle No More.

It may not come to this. The project may be quietly shelved at some point. If not, Canada will face a defining moment.

Enbridge says Gateway is about "nation building," but playing First Nations off against the "national interest" is no way to build a nation. John Ridsdale, Russell Ross Jr. and the people they represent do not sit, somehow, outside the national interest; they are one expression of it. As a country, we must reckon with their views and values, and do so respectfully.

A version of this article first appeared in the Winnipeg Free Press.

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