(Kanesatake Grand Chief Serge Simon holds up a Haudenosaunee Wampum Belt. Photo/Tom Fennario)
APTN National News
The Mohawk community at the centre of the Oka Crisis is leading plans to hold a ceremony aimed at solidifying an Indigenous alliance against the proposed Energy East pipeline.
Kanesatake Grand Chief Serge Simon said the ceremony is expected to take place in British Columbia this coming spring.
Simon said he first raised the idea of the alliance during a September Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs meeting. Simon said the “Indigenous Treaty” would create a “formal alliance between anyone who would be inclined to reject the pipeline proposals going through native territories.”
Kanesatake was at the centre of the 1990 Oka Crisis triggered after the neighbouring village tried to bulldoze Mohawk burial grounds to expand a golf course.
The primary goal of the treaty aims to limit the expansion of Alberta’s tar sands. Simon said the alliance would focus initially on stopping TransCanada’s proposed Energy East pipeline which would ship Alberta-mined bitumen to the East Coast.
Kanesatake would be directly affected by TransCanada’s Energy East pipeline project if approved — a portion slicing straight through traditional hunting territory. The hunting grounds stretch almost 200 square miles to Sainte-Scholastique, Mirabel and all the surrounding areas, said Simon.
The community is one of roughly 155 First Nations communities along the proposed path.
The pipeline is projected to cost $12-billion and traverse 4,600 kilometres from Alberta to Irving oil facilities in Saint John, NB. The pipeline would transport about 1.1-million barrels of crude a day.
Simon said the new treaty would include a traditionally-based Indigenous ceremony. He said the springtime event would feature the exchange of sacred objects to formalize it.
The idea stemmed from discussions among chiefs in Manitoba, Ontario and Quebec, said Simon.
Simon said the exchange objects would include a Haudenosaunee Wampum Belt, a Pacific Northwestern Totem Pole, and a mid-western Buffalo Robe. Simone said these objects represent elements inseparable from the cultural fabric of many First Nations people.
These items have powerful meanings, pre-dating Canadian Confederation by centuries. Their presence is a ceremonial sign, commemorating kinship, honour, alliance, he said.
“The Wampum Belt goes back thousands of years since the great law of the Iroquois, the great law of peace” said Simon. “It’s not only symbolic, it’s at the very heart of our identity as Iroquois people.”
Made from white and purple beads, Wampum were inter-generational communication tools, documenting lineage. Wampum Belts were used as a formal means of establishing bonds between nations, legitimizing important events and upholding the promise of allegiance. They were also used during healing ceremonies.
The Wampum Belt lies at the heart the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, consisting of the Mohawks, Oneidas, Onondagas, Cayugas, Senecas and the Tuscarora people.
Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs Grand Chief Derek Nepinak decided to include the Buffalo Robe.
“They had vision in their nation that someday the Buffalo Robe would come back over the mountain,” said Simon. “That means to them the robe would make it over the Rocky Mountains and into British Columbia.”
Sundance Chief Rueben George of the Tsleil Waututh Nation in B.C. will contribute the Totem Pole, Simon said.
Totem poles are traditionally used to honour ancestral ties and history, marking important turning points and milestones. They depict the crests of corresponding clans, commonly representing animals.
“We bring these together and it’s the power and belief of all of these nations coming together under one treaty,” said Simon.
It has the attention of others, too.
B.C. Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, Grand Council of Treaty 3, encompassing First Nations communities in both Ontario and Manitoba, and chiefs from the Innu Nation are currently considering joining in solidarity.
Kanesatake has a custom political system and does not fall under the scope of the Indian Act.
“I can sign a treaty with whoever I choose,” said Simon. “It doesn’t matter what system I’m under. It would be hugely symbolic, but it would also help First Nations reconnect with their past and use it in the present context.”
The approach is manifold.
“We wish to work in collaboration,” according to a text of the proposed treaty obtained by APTN National News. “With all Canadians and all levels of government in creating a clean, just and sustainable economy, one that will both lead to healthier and more prosperous communities across Canada as well as preserve and protect our way of life.”
Simon said governments and industry should take this treaty seriously.
“It’s to safeguard our rights and to say no, free, prior and informed consent must be had,” said Simon. “If the industry, or the government, or both, decide to strong arm a First Nation who steadfastly says ‘no,’ then that First Nation can rest assured that they’re not alone.”
Obtaining “free, prior and informed consent” from Indigenous people before development projects receive the go-ahead is incorporated into the United Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
Indigenous and Northern Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett has said Indigenous people in Canada will not be excluded from federal decisions that could objectify their land and inherent rights.
Ottawa is now facing increased pressure to approve the Energy East pipeline following the rejection of TransCanada’s Keystone XL pipeline by the White House earlier this month.
The Justin Trudeau government has openly admitted to “supporting” the Energy East project.
TransCanada officials have said they consulted many First Nations and Metis communities along Energy East’s proposed route.
“They (Indigenous people) need to be an integral part of everything we do at TransCanada,” said TransCanada spokesperson Mark Cooper. “So far along the project we’ve held 2,100 meetings with more than 180 aboriginal communities and organizations across Canada since 2013.”
Forty-eight Metis and First Nations communities have accepted “Communications Engagement Funding Agreements,” said Cooper.
These agreements involve money and allow the company to enter communities, give hold information sessions and note any concerns raised.
“These dollars go to helping to provide and build the capacity within the First Nations communities to be able to provide input, attend meetings, to conduct their own studies, to meaningfully engage in the process so that we can collect the best information possible as it relates to the benefits and concerns of the pipeline” said Cooper.
Impoverished First Nations are easily swayed when money is involved, said Simon.
“Poverty is a hell of an incentive to sign on the dotted line,” he said.
Kanesatake has received money from the energy firm, said Simon.
In 2014, TransCanada cut a cheque to the community for $15,000 to conduct such a “capacity agreement,” he said.
“They gave us the money with no questions asked,” he said. “There was no receipt, no accounting.”
Simon told them to “get out” once the company started to ask about traditional knowledge, saying it followed too closely the types of questions asked during land claim settlements.
“I don’t see the Crown anywhere in this process, the industry is the only one coming to talk to me and they’re asking me these questions that might prejudice my land claim,” said Simon. “That pipeline comes through and it’s basically a forced surrender of the land without the Crown being anywhere in sight.”
The National Energy Board (NEB) is scheduling hearings allowing First Nations to voice their concerns, opinions and beliefs as they relate to Energy East.
“Oral traditional evidence sessions are intended to help the NEB understand early on in the process how the Energy East Project may impact Aboriginal communities’ interests,” according to the NEB website. “For example, NEB expects to hear testimony about sacred sites, ceremonial sites, and traditional uses of the land and water in areas through which the proposed pipeline would pass.”
Such a move is debatable to Simon, who believes the NEB and industry should be an arms-length away from each other.
“What should have happened from the very beginning is the minister of Indian Affairs — with the mandate from the prime minister — going to each regional organization, like the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs,” he said. “You talk to them and start to hammer out a process of consultation, then you call in the industry.”
TransCanada is one company pushing the idea that pipelines are the safest and most cost effective way to transport oil.
“We recognize that these projects are the safest way to transport needed oil,” he said. “It’s the least greenhouse gas intensive way to transport and we have an extreme respect for the land the aboriginal communities along the route,” he said.
Indications of potential risks associated with pipelines recently surfaced. In July, Nexen Energy made a public apology after one of its pipelines, south of Fort McMurray, Alta., burst, gushing five million litres of oil.
In September, one of TransCanada’s natural gas pipelines exploded near Emerson, Man., sending apocalyptic flames and black smoke sky high. Two thirds of the proposed Energy East pipeline are to be converted from natural gas pipelines.
“The spills are a lot worse than a tanker coming off the rails,” said Simon. “When they do burst, they burst, man, and you have major disasters on your hands.”
Diane Beckett, Sierra Club Canada’s interim executive director, believes the oil should stay in the ground.
“We’re being asked, ‘What poison do we want?’” she said. “The truth is when pipelines break, they’re huge oil spills.”
Energy East will expand the amount of oil extracted, she said.
“We don’t need new infrastructure to be put into an old dinosaur industry,” said Beckett. “We have to start putting the investments into green energy and energy conservation.”
Beckett admires Simon in his attempt to unify Indigenous people across the country.
“I’m very heartened that First Nations are saying no to energy infrastructure,” she said.
Consultation with Indigenous people is embedded in the Canadian Constitution and industry along with government have historically ignored this, said Rodney Nelson, CEO of Global Governance Group, a policy think-tank with a focus on Indigenous issues.
“Gearing together as a non-divisive force to put a stop to energy projects is an important position and a position that’s needed,” he said. “The Constitution is not an Indigenous law, it’s a Canadian law.”
Simon believes it is time for Indigenous communities to act in unison.
“They’ve had many years on their end to promote their project,” he said. “Now it’s our turn to speak.”