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First Nations in front line of fight against fossil fuels

Protests in 30 Canadian cities, organised by First Nation Canadians of the Idle No More movement, are demanding the right-wing government rescind new laws that breach historic treaties and open the door to land theft and environmental destruction.

The government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper smuggled new measures into a Budget Bill, sparking protests and a hunger strike led by Chief Theresa Spence and other tribal leaders.

The British Crown has a key role, because the omnibus Bill C–45 transfers responsibility for treaty issues and land rights to provincial governments. Yet Idle No More insists the tribes signed national treaties with the Crown, and it is illegal to transfer responsibility away from the national parliament.

C-45 lumps together more than 550 provisions on 30 topics, ensuring that it was impossible to examine it properly before the Conservative Party used its majority to force it through. Measures to protect water and rainforest can be set aside and treaty land privatised.

Campaigner Joe Weasel Child says Bill C-45 “provides the minister of Aboriginal Affairs as well as self-serving or misguided native politicians and unscrupulous lawyers the power to expropriate First Nations’ lands and resources for quick cash, corporate greed and to perpetuate the image of a wealthy Canada.”

It will also be used to facilitate construction of the Northern Gateway pipeline, running west from the Alberta tar sands through British Columbia to the harbour at Kitimat. It would cross rivers and lakes, the Rocky mountains and hundreds of miles of pristine wilderness, much of it treaty land.

Alberta Tar Sands
Alberta Tar Sands

Tankers would collect the bitumen for transportation mainly to China and a leak at Kitimat would pollute not only the ocean but also the Great Bear rain forest, the world's largest remaining coastal temperate rain forest.

Enridge, the company proposing to build it, has had 800 oil spills since 1999, including a 2010 pipeline burst that released 3.8 million litres of toxic tar sludge into the Kalamazoo River, Michigan.

Kalamazoo River, Michigan
A Canada goose covered in oil attempts to fly out of the Kalamazoo River

Idle No More is also springing up in the United States, where American Indian people fought but failed to prevent construction of the Keystone pipeline which runs from the Alberta Tar Sands. It was completed in early 2012 and has already suffered 11 major leaks, including one in May that spilled 21,000 gallons in North Dakota.

This year president Obama must take a decision on whether to allow an extension on a route through South Dakota and across the Nebraska Sand Hills, through Oklahoma and Texas to Port Arthur, where tankers for China will be queuing up. He faces an unlikely opposition that include the Republican governor of Nebraska, American Indian tribal elders, environmentalists, farmers and ranchers.

The Nebraska Sand Hills are a unique eco-system of pristine wetland and prairie. They also form the porous natural cover for the giant Ogallala Aquifer. The fossil water of the Ogallala supplies one-third of the country's irrigation and 82% of the drinking water for people who live within its boundary.

James Hansen, Director of the NASA Goddard Institute, says burning tar sands puts civilisation itself at risk. “The concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has risen from 280 parts per million to 393 ppm over the last 150 years. The tar sands contain enough carbon — 240 gigatons — to add 120 ppm,” he explains.

For historic reasons, the first nations of the America (Canada, US and south) and Australia, find themselves in the front line of the opposition to ruthless extraction of fossil fuels. It is not an exaggeration to say that the struggle they are leading is a life or death one for the human race and life on earth.

Penny Cole
Environment editor
31 January 2013