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B.C. First Nations laud Trudeau’s tanker moratorium

First Nations leaders announce the launch of their federal legal challenge to the Northern Gateway pipeline at a Vancouver press conference on Oct 1. (Photo: Mychaylo Prystupa).

First Nations representatives from northern British Columbia gave a warm welcome to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s moratorium on oil tanker traffic in their traditional territories.

The federal government’s tanker moratorium will keep ships out of northern B.C.’s Pacific coast and is seen by some observers as a roundabout way of stopping Enbridge’s proposed Northern Gateway oil pipeline. If built as planned, the pipeline would pump oil sands crude from Alberta to a tanker port in Kitimat on the Pacific coast, from where it would be exported abroad. Oil tankers would traverse waters around the Great Bear Rainforest and other areas of pristine wilderness.

“Now the federal government has created an opportunity to demonstrate that it is listening to First Nations by ensuring these types of projects no longer threaten the environment in the region. I encourage the federal government to seize that opportunity by enacting a strong and comprehensive oil tanker moratorium for the Pacific north coast. We only have one Earth to take care of,” said Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, President of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs.

Ottawa’s tanker ban comes five years after more than 100 First Nations communities signed the Save the Fraser Declaration, an accord prohibiting oil megaprojects in signatories' territories.

The Yinka Dene Alliance, which took the former Conservative government to court after it conditionally approved the Northern Gateway project earlier this year, also welcomed PM Trudeau’s tanker ban.

Saik'uz First Nation chief Stanley Thomas, who is also an alliance member, said that the federal moratorium would protect not only the ocean, but also their lands, freshwater supplies, plants, animals, and the communities that depend on them.

“We support the federal government on this. I think our boats are finally pointed in the right direction,” said Thomas.

The former Conservative government conditionally approved Northern Gateway in June 2014 despite widespread popular opposition from British Columbians. Opponents of the pipeline condemned the National Energy Board’s review process for Northern Gateway as flawed, as it did not examine the long term impacts of pipeline construction, tanker traffic, spills, or oil sands expansion on climate change.

“An oil spill would devastate fishing, tourism, and traditional subsistence harvesting, which are the backbones of the economy in the North and Central Coast and Haida Gwaii,” said Marilyn Slett, chief of the Heiltsuk Nation and president of the Coastal First Nations.

Promises to keep

Just days after his government was sworn in last month, PM Trudeau issued a mandate letter to Transport Minister Marc Garneau, directing him to implement the tanker moratorium together with the ministries of natural resources, fisheries, and the environment.

"The dispute between First Nations and the federal government over Northern Gateway has been prolonged and highly-charged, diverting resources away from the many other important issues in the region that require constructive, forward-looking dialogue," said Chief Fred Sam of the Nak'azdli Nation, which is also a member of the Yinka Dene Alliance.

However, halting tanker traffic on the Pacific coast could cause a legal headache for PM Trudeau, as any measures that disrupt shipping in this area may be contested by the United States. The Americans maintain that their ships have freedom of navigation along this stretch of coast, which is a sea corridor to communities across the Alaska Panhandle.

What’s more, Enbridge has also managed to win support from 28 of the 40-plus Indigenous bands living along Northern Gateway’s proposed route, according to the Globe and Mail. This could mean that First Nations communities once opposed to the pipeline may yet support it, possibly breathing new life into the energy giant’s plans to pipe oil to tankers on the Pacific coast.

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