Over the course of the last two years, two pipeline projects – Northern Gateway and Keystone – have generated opposition from environmental groups in both the U.S. and Canada. As Rennie of the Canadian Press (June 17) notes, the pipelines have become highly political in both countries. In an article I wrote for Critical Mass, I mentioned that in the U.S., the Keystone pipeline project has posed a problem for President Obama and the Democrats given that environmentalists are against its construction while many others see it as creating jobs. There has been a tremendous push in Congress to get Obama to sign legislation that would allow for Keystone’s construction on the one hand, and Democrats hoping that Obama would veto such a bill on the other. Nonetheless, policy experts seem to believe that the Keystone project would inevitably move forward – if Canada is building a pipeline anyway, why shouldn’t Americans benefit from it? In fact, earlier polls did show that the American public thought energy security was a more important issue than greenhouse gases and a majority favored the pipeline’s construction (although the saliency of the issue among the public has likely varied greatly over the last year).
Despite the Canadian government granting final approval for the Northern Gateway Pipeline a few weeks ago, continued uncertainty around the pipeline remains. While the Harper Conservatives support the construction of Northern Gateway, the New Democrats and Liberals do not. The pipeline has also generated conflict between provinces. Both countries have also seen mobilization by environmental activists against pipeline construction. But, anti-pipeline protests in both countries have by and large struggled to persuade elites and the public to either care more about the pipeline or to change their opinions regarding its construction (see my earlier post “Reactions to Mobilization”).
In Canada however, environmentalists were joined early on by aboriginal communities who mobilized directly and indirectly against the construction of the pipeline. They helped renew public interest in the government’s role in environmental protection and more specifically, in the pipeline project (see my post “Idle No More”). Their role in the Canadian pipeline debate has been critical. First, aboriginal groups generate and coordinate large protest events helping to mobilize public and elite support against the project. Second, First Nations involvement highlights the importance of direct and indirect challenges as well as the use of so-called institutional and extra-institutional tactics in social change projects.
Like the use of direct action, court challenges have been an important part of the pipeline conflict, albeit an indirect challenge to the pipeline by way of aboriginal land rights. Early on, Idle No More activists relied on protest demonstrations and Canadian Supreme Court rulings on aboriginal land rights. And, for good reason: In 1997, the Supreme Court in Delgamuukw v. British Columbia acknowledged aboriginal title; that is, the right to possession of ancestral lands. In January of 2013, following the government’s introduction of two bills believed to reduce government oversight on the environment, the Mikisew Cree First Nation and the Frog Lake First Nation filed documents in Federal Court arguing that this violated treaty obligations to protect traditional aboriginal territory. First Nations leaders turned to the courts because the courts have ruled favorably on past treaty rights cases, and in addition, they saw a court challenge as a way of forcing the Harper government to respond to their challenges – something protests had not been able to do.
In the wake of final Northern Gateway pipeline approval last month, the Gitga’at Nation of British Columbia planned to erect a blockade made of yarn across the Douglass Channel. Lynn Hill, 70, who came up with the idea, said the protest began in Hartley Bay and spread, with supporters sending in crochet links from all over Canada. One woman knit an entire kilometer, she said (Globe and Mail, June 20).
At the same time, last week, the Canadian Supreme Court heard a case involving the 3000 Tsilhqot’in Nation and the government of British Columbia. As Fine of the Globe and Mail (June 25) writes, “The case could be important for the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline, which would carry bitumen oil from Alberta to Kitimat, B.C., and for other development projects wherever aboriginals have not signed away their rights to assert their claims to the land… Although Northern Gateway is not directly at issue in the case, the court’s decision could change the rules of the game for the pipeline. Current law requires that aboriginal groups along its route be consulted and accommodated, but groups that can assert that they have title might have the power to stop the pipeline from going ahead.” These court challenges have found support from other provinces, aboriginal groups, as well as Amnesty International all of which intervened in the case. On the other hand, business groups have also intervened arguing that the Tsilhqot’in’s approach to title threatens the economy.
While the Canadian government gets closer to making the pipeline project a reality, the involvement of First Nations in the pipeline debate showcases how direct and indirect challenges as well as mixed tactics can maintain public and elite interest in this ongoing debate. While it is unclear how their mobilization can stop the current government from moving ahead, it may perhaps stall the project until there is a potential change in government at both the provincial and federal levels.