The First Nations leaders said they will argue the proposed pipeline and its recent approval by the federal government is a constitutional violation of their aboriginal land rights in their respective territories, particularly in light of the Supreme Court of Canada victory last month by the Tsilhqot’in First Nation.
Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs Grand Chief Stewart Phillip said he was aware of at least nine separate legal actions being launched by various First Nations, as part of a co-ordinated effort to stop the project.
Phillip ruled out any sort of deal with Enbridge that could see the project go ahead for a share of the revenue or a cash payment.
Traditional chiefs from the Heiltsuk First Nation in Bella Bella lead a 2010 protest rally outside National Energy Board review panel hearings in Kitimat, B.C. on the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline project. (Robin Rowland/Canadian Press)
“When I am standing out on the land shoulder to shoulder, it’s not going to be for a better deal. It’s going to be to protect the land and the environment,” said Phillip.
Ellis Ross, chief councillor for the Haisla, said compared with the efforts of the provincial government in B.C., the federal government has failed to properly consult with First Nations.
“That day and age of us being ignored is over. This is a tremendous waste of taxpayers’ money when we are all trying to build an economy.”
“It is a shame we have to go to court, not to establish case law, but to uphold existing case law,” said Ross.
Martin Louie, chief councillor of the Nadleh Whuten, said the majority of British Columbians and many people across Canada support their fight to block the pipeline.
“We call this beautiful B.C., and that is what we want to keep it as,” said Louie.
Clarence Innis, acting chief councillor for the Gitxaala, said his First Nation filed a court action Friday.
“Canada has a duty to consult and that hasn’t happened. Gitxaala will protect its rights. Eighty per cent of our food comes from our territory,” said Innis.
Jessie Housty, councillor for the Heiltsuk, said her First Nation was applying for a judicial review of the federal approval of the project.
Peter Lantin, the president of the council of the Haida Nation, said they plan to challenge the project’s approval by the federal government, because the mandate of the joint review panel excluded meaningful consultation with First Nations.
Tsilqot’in ruling outlined aboriginal title
In last month’s landmark ruling, the Supreme Court of Canada recognized the Tsilhqot’in First Nation’s aboriginal title over a wide area to the south and west of B.C.’s Williams Lake, which it considers its traditional territory.
The court also established what title means, including the right to the benefits associated with the land and the right to use it, enjoy it and profit from it.
However, the court declared that title is not absolute, meaning economic development can still proceed on land where title is established as long as it has the consent of the First Nation, or where the government can make the case that development is pressing and substantial.
The court also made it clear that provincial law still applies to land over which aboriginal title has been declared, subject to constitutional limit.
Other First Nations have also been quick to push forward their claims on traditional lands in light of the ruling.
The Gitxaala First Nation, with territory on islands off the North Coast, have already announced its own plans to file a lawsuit in the Federal Court of Appeal challenging the Northern Gateway pipeline.
Last week the hereditary chiefs of the Gitxsan First Nations served notice to CN Rail, logging companies and sport fishermen to leave the 33,000 square kilometres they claim as their territory along the Skeena River by Aug. 4.
And the Kwikwetlem First Nation also raised the ruling in its claim to title of all lands associated with the now-closed Riverview Hospital in Metro Vancouver along with other areas of its traditional territory.