On July 2nd, Canada’s Supreme Court dismissed an appeal against the proposed Trans Mountain oil pipeline expansion. The appeal, made by British Columbia’s First Nations Indigenous groups, represented a major opportunity for preventing the controversial project. Since its purchase in 2018 by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government, the pipeline’s proposed expansion has been repeatedly delayed by opposition from First Nations groups and British Columbia’s provincial government.
This latest appeal was made by a combination of the Coldwater Indian Band, Squamish Nation, Ts’elxweyeqw Tribe, and Tsleil-Waututh Nation. They opposed the project on grounds that it would cause damage to their lands and waters. Their concerns were far from unfounded, considering the Trans Mountain pipeline’s most recent spill occurred just nineteen days before the Supreme Court’s decision. June 13th’s spill resulted in between 150,000 and 190,000 litres of crude oil being released into the environment in Abbotsford, B.C.
The Supreme Court quietly released the decision on its website, without further comment. Hopes of a repeat of 2018’s Federal Court appeal, which temporarily halted approval of the project on the grounds that Ottawa had improperly consulted affected First Nations groups, were quashed.
Expansion of the pipeline would almost triple the flow of oil from Alberta to the Pacific coast to a capacity of 890,000 barrels per day. Proponents of the expansion point to the oil industry’s key role in Canada’s national economy. For this reason, despite promising to both reduce greenhouse gas emissions and improve relations with Indigenous peoples, Trudeau’s government continues to pursue the project.
Chief Leah George-Wilson of the Tsleil-Waututh Nation spoke to the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network about the intention to continue fighting the pipeline’s expansion, stating it is the “responsibility to protect our land and water that never changes.”
In response to the court’s decision, Canada’s Natural Resource Minister, Seamus O’Regan, issued the following empty statement: “To those who are disappointed with today’s SCC decision – we see and hear you. The Government of Canada is committed to a renewed relationship with Indigenous people and understands that consultations on major projects have a critical role in building that renewed relationship.”
This ‘renewed relationship’ follows a typical story of Indigenous peoples’ treatment by colonizing nations, who have displaced them from their lands and continuously persecuted their people. Historically, when Canada founded its nation on top of Indigenous territories, it relegated Indigenous land ownership to reserves held in trust by the Crown. Even then, Canada continued to find ways to annex pieces of land or lease them out to logging and mining companies. The Trans Mountain pipeline represents a modern continuation of this process.
First Nations peoples in Canada have consistently been victims of cultural genocide. In the past, this took more overt forms such as the banning of Indigenous cultural practices and religious ceremonies, as well as forced sterilizations and deliberate political non-representation. Closer to the present, the forced attendance of assimilating “Indian” residential schools (the last of which closed in 1996) ensured generations of trauma, as well the fracturing of communities and the erasure of Indigenous languages and traditions.
Trudeau pledged a “sacred obligation” to the “renewed, nation-to-nation relationship with First Nations peoples” as a cornerstone of his 2015 election. Despite this promise, First Nations peoples continue to lag behind the non-Indigenous population in income levels, education, housing and living conditions, overall health and food security. They are also over-represented in the criminal justice and foster care systems. While there has been some improvement in these areas under Trudeau, his continued stance on the Trans Mountain pipeline exposes the flimsy diplomacy at the heart of his so-called “sacred obligation.”