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Aboriginal pipeline opponents seek support from China

As Prime Minister Stephen Harper arrives in China, B.C.'s Yinka Dene Alliance attempts to sway Chinese opinion with an open letter condemning Canadian oil sands projects.

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In an open letter released Monday by the Yinka Dene Alliance, Aboriginal leaders in B.C. made a passionate appeal to the Chinese government, urging President Hu Jintao to reconsider investment in Canadian oil sands projects.

The letter was timed to coincide with Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s much-anticipated trip to China, where he is expected to work on trade relations with the Asian leaders to secure a market for Canadian energy products. The proposed Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline and tanker route—currently in the midst of a drawn-out review process—is the key to making this trade possible.

Since delays facing TransCanada’s Keystone XL pipeline have limited exports to the US, the Prime Minister has made no secret of his government’s agenda to ship oil sands products across the Pacific. But Chief Jackie Thomas of the Saik'uz First Nation, one of the outspoken leaders with the Yinka Dene Alliance, says Aboriginal communities on the pipeline route will do whatever they can to get in the way of Harper’s plans.

“We wanted to talk to the Chinese people before our Prime Minister got there,” Thomas explained, “to let them know the concerns we have in Canada about this proposed project, and the value we place on our wildlife, water and fish."

The Alliance's letter addresses a number of oft-stated Aboriginal concerns about the pipeline and tanker routes, including the hazards of crossing salmon-bearing streams and the threat of oil spills on the pristine coast. It also references a number of alleged human rights abuses that the Canadian government has committed against First Nations, and introduces Chinese readers to important Aboriginal land rights that are legally upheld by the United Nations.

Thomas says she hopes the letter will encourage the Chinese community to learn more about this issue and its implications for Canadian First Nations. In addition to the letter sent to the Chinese government, another version was also being published in Chinese-Canadian newspapers. However, Thomas understands that these preliminary attempts at gaining Chinese support may not be enough.

“We’re probably going to have to make a trip over there and talk to them face to face,” said Thomas.

“It’s just one of our strategies, to let people know that everything isn’t hunky-dory here in Canada.”

Dr. Paul Evans, Director of the Institute of Asian Research at UBC, says the Yinka Dene Alliance’s letters to China are not likely to have quite the impact they’re hoping for. He says that’s partly because in China, the general public probably doesn’t know or care much about their country’s trade relations with Canada.

“In China, people on the street scarcely know how to use the word ‘Canada’, much less know Stephen Harper’s name,” Evans explained.

“This is not a public issue in China, but it is an issue that will attract international attention because it is a litmus test to Chinese elites about how open investment opportunities are in Canada.”

Although the Chinese public may not appreciate the First Nations’ concerns over the pipeline, there are a number of other stakeholders in Asia who are keeping an eye on the internal debate here in Canada. Evans says it’s unlikely that President Hu will be influenced by Aboriginal matters involving international law, but many in China’s business and investment community will at the very least be paying attention as things progress.

“Who is responding to Canadian opinion on this? There’s a lot more audiences than just the President and the most senior members of the Chinese Communist leadership,” said Evans.

“Their investors, their state-owned enterprises and their private businesses are looking for signals about the business environment.”

Evans explained that in his own conversations with Asian investors, he has simply warned people not to consider this pipeline project “an instant slam dunk”. Given the amount of opposition from First Nations, environmental groups and members of the Canadian public, he says foreign interests need to understand that even if the project does get approval, it’s likely to take years before the bitumen starts to flow.

“All we’ve been saying to them is that it is going to be complicated, despite the signal from Ottawa on this, and the boosters of the Enbridge project in particular,” said Evans.

“I don’t think the Chinese are going to pay very much attention to the international law and the UN Declaration stuff, because the legal opinions in committees that I’ve seen don’t see that as an important barrier. But if there are court challenges to this, it could be years.”

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