‘Eco-colonialism’: Rift grows between Indigenous leaders and green activists
Indigenous communities say they’ve had enough of activists invading their lands, misleading them about their agendas and using hard-line tactics against those who don’t agree.
With flowing long hair, stoic expression and tribal garb, Martin Louie, the hereditary chief of the Nadleh Whut’en First Nation in north-central British Columbia, more than looked and acted the part of an aggrieved leader in the epic fight against the Northern Gateway oilsands pipeline.
He was quoted in the campaign’s news releases, filed complaints to the United Nations and spoke defiantly to investors. Environmental group Stand.earth even described him as the “poster boy” for Indigenous opposition to Enbridge Inc.’s pipeline.
The $7-billion pipeline was eventually cancelled last year, but Louie didn’t actually want to sink the project. Lost in the heat of the public battle was that he really just wanted to win more money for his impoverished community than the “ridiculous” $70,000 a year being offered by the company.
Louie’s experience is indicative of a widening rift between Indigenous communities and activists over natural resources, particularly in British Columbia, the focal point of major green campaigns generously funded by U.S. interests to thwart oil and gas exports.
The campaigns consistently portray a united Indigenous anti-development front and allies of the green movement, but some Indigenous leaders are becoming alarmed that they could be permanently frozen out of the mainstream economy if resource projects don’t go ahead.
They said in interviews they’ve had enough of activists invading their lands, misleading them about their agendas, recruiting token members to front their causes, sowing mistrust and conflict, and using hard-line tactics against those who don’t agree.
“The best way to describe it is eco-colonialism,” said Ken Brown, a former chief of the Klahoose First Nation in southwestern B.C. “You are seeing a very pervasive awakening among these First Nations leaders about what is going on in the environmental community.”
For instance, Louie is now one of the leaders of the proposed $17-billion Eagle Spirit pipeline, a Northern Gateway alternative championed by First Nations.
“When I went after Enbridge we were trying to gain more benefits for major projects going through our country,” he said.
Word soon got out about his differences with Enbridge and he was approached by a handful of lawyers representing green organizations who promised him assistance and funding, Louie recalled.
Their partnership ended bitterly because the two sides had conflicting objectives. He wanted better benefits; the activists wanted the project to fail.
The eventual failure of Northern Gateway was just one of a series of tipping points in recent months that worry some Indigenous leaders.
There was also the demise of Pacific NorthWest LNG and Aurora LNG, as well as the continuing challenges faced by the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion and other proposed LNG projects. These cancellations and obstacles are celebrated by activists, but also wiped out jobs and revenue for First Nations.
Eagle Spirit also faces difficulties. Led by Indigenous lawyer Calvin Helin and supported by First Nations along the proposed route through northern B.C., the project will collapse if the federal government goes ahead with a tanker ban that is making its way through Parliament.
The ban is related to the Great Bear Rainforest, which was created by the B.C. government last year to conserve a big part of the province’s northern and central coast.
Both initiatives are seen by greens as big achievements, but are disputed by First Nations such as the Lax Kw’alaams, who said they were advanced without proper consultation and prevent their members from making a living.
Brown’s experience with environmental activism started about a decade ago, when he was chief of his tribe and supported two run-of-river hydro projects.
The projects were attacked by groups such as Save Our Rivers and Western Canada Wilderness Committee for being harmful to fish habitat, and Brown’s band was criticized for being “sellouts and socially irresponsible people looking for the quick buck,” he said.
“What an onslaught it was. There was a high level of participation from people who had never been to the region … and they were all conveying the same narrative: ‘The sky is falling, keep your blood money, corporations are evil.’”
Brown, who now runs a consulting company, said similar tactics are used against other projects, too.
“If First Nations communities are willing to conform to the prescribed eco-narratives, they are going to get all kinds of accolades and praise, but if they don’t conform, it’s vitriolic hit pieces on these people,” he said.
Louie is still shaken by the backlash he experienced. After complaining to activists they were only using him to advance their cause, he said he was blackballed.
“Workers were spreading the word that I am not a good man, that I am there to ruin the environment, that I am making money on my own,” he said. “They were making me sound like I am taking millions from a lot of people. If I was in that position, I wouldn’t be struggling to pay for my car payments.”
Louie said he joined the Eagle Spirit project to achieve what he couldn’t with Northern Gateway: help his tribe become economically self-reliant.
Environmental organizations and Indigenous communities in recent years have found common cause in opposing some projects and in fighting the impacts of capitalism on the environment, said Dwight Newman, Canada research chair in Indigenous rights at the University of Saskatchewan.
A big reason is that Indigenous people have unique legal rights and by working with them, green groups are better able to block developments than if they relied on environmental grounds alone, he said.
Section 35 of Canada’s constitution states the Crown has a duty to consult with First Nations, Inuit and Métis communities and, where it anticipates adverse impacts, to accommodate to the extent reasonably possible.
So far, the law has been used against development, but one of the unknowns is whether Indigenous communities will use it to pursue economic development and override the environmental laws that block projects such as Eagle Spirit, Newman said.
“At some point, these arguments will end up in the courts, either directly as rights claims or as claims that there ought to have been consultation on potential effects on such rights,” Newman said in an article for the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, where he is a senior fellow.
“And the very presence of these arguments will overturn the expectations of many who think they have liberal views, but actually have ongoing paternalistic views that assume First Nations always need protection from development.”
Many conservation campaigns rely on U.S. funds because there is more money available there due to tax laws and an abundance of wealthy philanthropists.
Vancouver-based researcher and blogger Vivian Krause has tallied the large sums poured by U.S. groups to fight pipelines and gas projects in Canada by analyzing tax filings.
The biggest funder has been the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, which has granted more than $190 million to First Nations, environmental and other organizations working in B.C., Krause said.
The top recipient of funds from the Moore Foundation is Tides Canada, which received at least $70 million, she said. Tides Canada spends that money internally and re-grants it to other groups, particularly First Nations organizations.
Other big U.S.-based funders are the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and Pew Charitable Trusts.