There was a time, not long ago in the scheme of things, when there was no border dividing this continent into a Canada and a United States.
For some Aboriginal Canadians, that is still the case when it comes to their ongoing battle against oil pipelines.
Hundreds of First Nations have flocked to the side of the Standing Rock Sioux in North Dakota as they try to halt a multibillion-dollar oil pipeline near their reservation.
Members of Montreal’s Indigenous community protested in front of the U.S. consulate this week.
On Monday, a solidarity rally is planned in Vancouver. Other protests are taking shape for next week, when the Standing Rock Sioux have appealed for actions to show solidarity.
“For me it’s really personal,” says Rose Stiffarm, one of the organizers of the Vancouver rally.
Stiffarm is part Nakota, one of the tribes who say their water is threatened by the pipeline.
“Water is life. It is quite an attack on a basic human resource so it’s important we show solidarity with those who are on the front lines,” says Stiffarm, who is a member of the border-hopping Coast Salish people.
The 1,700-kilometre Dakota Access pipeline would transport oil from just north of the Standing Rock Sioux reservation to Illinois, where an existing pipeline would ultimately deliver it to the Gulf Coast. Championed by a subsidiary of Texas-based Energy Transfer Crude Oil Company, the project has ties to Calgary-based Enbridge, the proponent of the controversial Northern Gateway pipeline to British Columbia’s north coast.
“It’s the same fight. It’s the fight for water, for survival,” says Stiffarm.
Stiffarm says environmental and First Nations groups in Vancouver are in the midst of their own battle, against Kinder Morgan’s proposed TransMountain pipeline.
“There are pipelines that want to come through here. There are tankers that want to come through here. We’re defending the water here, too,” she says.
“It’s a constant threat.”
Clashes on the front lines
The Dakota Access line would not enter Sioux tribal land but runs about a kilometre outside of the boundary. The tribes say it will destroy a sacred burial ground and poses a threat to nearby rivers that provide their water source.
Protests began in April and the ranks have swelled to several thousand.
The Sioux turned to the courts to halt the project but a U.S. District Court judge denied an injunction on Friday. An appeal is set to be heard next Wednesday.
The U.S. Justice Department issued a statement on Friday though saying it would not authorize construction on federal lands pending a review.
The department called on Energy Transfer to voluntarily pause construction activity, saying: “This case has highlighted the need for a serious discussion on whether there should be nationwide reform with respect to considering tribes’ views on these types of infrastructure projects.”
Clashes erupted on the front lines earlier this week between protesters and private security guards hired by the pipeline company. There were reports that dogs and pepper spray were used on the protesters by the private security staff.
Keystone, Energy East, Northern Gateway, Dakota Access — the issues are the same, says Cecil James, a council member of the Roseau River First Nation in southern Manitoba who travelled down to the North Dakota protest camp a few weeks ago. He’s hoping to return this weekend.
“It caught my attention, especially after what we went through with the oil spill on the North Saskatchewan River here,” he tells Yahoo Canada News, referring to a Husky Oil spill in the river in July.
He says there were hundreds of Canadians at the camp, which grew from about 1,500 to more than 3,000 over the few days he was there.
“The different tribes across North America are definitely leading the charge but we do have non-Aboriginals that are involved in the fight,” James says.
“It isn’t just a First Nations problem. We all drink water.”
There are lessons to be learned from the Sioux by Canadian First Nations for their own battles against resource development, James says.
“This fight is going to go all the way across this country,” he says. “It’s going to come right through my territory with Line 3 and Energy East, so I’m taking note of what they’re doing down there. When that fight comes to my territory I’m hoping to get that same type of support.”