TORONTO (Reuters) - Canadian indigenous groups are leading the charge against fossil-fuel development in a country with the world’s third-largest proven oil reserves, using rail blockades as leverage and putting Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in a bind.
Members of the Wet’suwet’en Nation in British Columbia have been fighting the construction of TC Energy Corp’s planned Coastal GasLink pipeline for a decade, but now savvy social media use and years of outreach have drawn allies.
For almost two weeks, protesters across the country have taken up their cause, bringing freight and passenger traffic to a standstill in parts of Canada.
“We made a lot of different relationships with different indigenous groups,” said Molly Wickham, spokeswoman for the Gidimt’en camp, a protest site on Wet’suwet’en land. “That’s really increased people’s solidarity.”
Climate activists are also supporting the Wet’suwet’en. Swedish teen crusader Greta Thunberg has tweeted about the protest.
Greenpeace climate campaigner Mike Hudema called the protests “an indigenous-led moment” that at the same time fostered closer relationships and future cooperation between First Nations and environmental groups.
Canada has vast, land-locked fossil fuel reserves and many believe new pipelines are vital to economic growth.
The proposed C$6.6-billion ($4.98 billion) pipeline would cross Wet’suwet’en land to the coast where a Royal Dutch Shell-led group is building a liquefied natural gas export terminal. In December, private equity firm KKR & Co Inc.’s consortium agreed to buy a 65% stake in the pipeline.
But voters re-elected Trudeau last year partly because of his promise to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050.
The prime minister’s efforts to control emissions while supporting the economy will be tested, with at least two other major projects looming: construction of the government-owned Trans Mountain pipeline and a decision on whether to approve Teck Resources Ltd’s Frontier oil sands project.
“There’s an awakening, not only in our young indigenous people. There are a lot of young Canadian white people who are now joining forces,” Mohawk Council of Kahnawake Grand Chief Joseph Norton said.
Tyendinaga Mohawk protesters, to show support for the Wet’suwet’en, have blocked service along a major Canadian National Railway Co (CN) line in eastern Canada.
The economic consequences are already being felt.
CN is progressively shutting down operations in eastern Canada and temporarily laying off about 450 people. Propane is running short in many places, and farmers cannot get crops to market. Passenger train operator VIA Rail said it was temporarily laying off 1,000 employees until the tracks re-open.
Many indigenous groups support various energy projects, including Coastal GasLink, because they bring jobs and money to their communities. Canada’s Conservative Party opposition and industry leaders point to aboriginal support and insist the tracks be cleared.
Trudeau, who has emphasized indigenous reconciliation, is pushing for a peaceful resolution.
In 2015, he said it was a priority for his government to repair relations with indigenous Canadians, who make up about 4 percent of the population and face higher levels of poverty and violence and shorter life expectancies.
“Clearly this is a pivotal point in our history,” federal Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller said on Wednesday. “We need to be able to look ourselves in the mirror when it comes to indigenous people.”
The Mohawks and their allies see themselves as “the protectors of the land”, Kahnawake Grand Chief Norton said: “We’re defending the environment for the future of Canadians, not just our own people.”
The protests have brought more leverage and unity to indigenous groups, said Grand Council Chief Glen Hare of the Anishinabek Nation, representing 39 First Nations in Ontario.
“We’ve been fighting with nothing,” Hare said. “It’s not 1960 or 1970 anymore. It’s 2020.”
Reporting by Moira Warburton, additional reporting by Steve Scherer, writing by Steve Scherer and David Gregorio