First Nations opposed to pipeline expansion vow to fight on

The Supreme Court of Canada on Thursday (July 2) dismissed an appeal from the Squamish Nation, Tsleil-Waututh Nation, the Ts'elxwéyeqw Tribes and Coldwater Indian Band.

Several B.C. First Nations have vowed to continue their fight against the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion, despite losing what appears to be the last known legal option to overturn federal approval of the project.

The Supreme Court of Canada on Thursday (July 2) dismissed an appeal from the Squamish Nation, Tsleil-Waututh Nation, the Ts'elxwéyeqw Tribes and Coldwater Indian Band. The dismissal, which as usual came with no explanation for the decision, effectively upholds a decision by the Federal Court of Appeal in February that found Ottawa's June 2019 approval of the project was sound.

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Natural Resources Minister Seamus O'Regan said the government had worked hard to hear and accommodate concerns the communities have with the project and welcomed the court's decision.

"The government approved TMX because it is an important project for Canada," he said in a statement. "Construction of TMX is underway and has already created more than 4,900 good, well-paying jobs, will help us gain access to new markets for our resources and generate revenue to help fund clean energy and climate change solutions."

The pipeline is expected to be in service in about two years, with work in Kamloops having begun last month.

A workforce of up to 50 people is in the city and that number will swell to approximately 600 workers at the peak of construction in August. Trans Mountain estimates construction spending in the Kamloops area to be more than $450 million over the next two years, with additional workforce spending of more than $40 million for goods and services at local businesses.

Work in June and early July will involve preparing yards and construction sites in the city, followed by installation of the new pipeline in the vicinity of Ord and Tranquille roads near the airport.

In July, the pipeline will pass under the Thompson River near Tranquille Road, east of the airport, to the south side of the river using trenchless crossing techniques in which a drill bores under the river to pull the pipeline through to the other side.

That work was initially pegged for April, but was delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Work from Valemount south to Kamloops and from Kamloops toward Merritt will begin this fall.

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney called the appeal dismissal by the Supreme Court of Canada another "legal vindication" for the pipeline, which was first proposed eight years ago, but has been delayed by numerous legal challenges.

Kenney said 120 of 129 First Nations affected by the pipeline either approve or do not object to it.

It clears the way for construction to continue on the project, which will nearly triple the amount of diluted bitumen that can be carried from Alberta's oilsands to a marine terminal in Burnaby.

The First Nations behind the appeal, however, said they were disappointed, but not surprised by the outcome, and vowed to fight on.

"What I can tell you today is that this is not the end of our story," Tsleil-Waututh Nation Chief Leah George-Wilson said at an online news conference, adding she will consult with her community before deciding what to do next. George-Wilson and other community leaders said there remain some legal options open to them, but declined to say what they are.

Chris Lewis, a Squamish Nation councillor, said the next steps for his community will be "focused on protecting our territory to the full extent possible." He said an ongoing study underway about diluted bitumen will be a key part of that.

Trans Mountain pipeline map

Coldwater Chief Lee Spahan said his community near Merritt will continue to push back against the planned route for the pipeline, which it says puts its aquifer at risk, the sole source of drinking water for the First Nation.

But Thursday's decision is the end of the road to have the courts overturn the federal government's approval of the project. It is also the fourth court victory this year for pipeline proponents, including the February Appeal court decision at the centre of Thursday's case.

In January, the Supreme Court ruled against the B.C. government's attempt to regulate what can flow through the pipeline because as an interprovincial project it is entirely within federal jurisdiction. In March, it also declined to hear an appeal over the federal approval from environment groups.

Kamloops-Thompson-Cariboo MP Cathy McLeod applauded the decision of Canada’s top court.

“The benefits to local communities and First Nations across our region are extensive and are especially crucial amidst the COVID-19 pandemic,” McLeod said. “I travelled the pipeline route from Edmonton to Burnaby in January 2019, meeting local leadership who were waiting for the financial, environmental and community benefits for their municipalities.”

McLeod referenced the February Federal Court of Appeal’s decision, which stated 95 per cent of Indigenous groups potentially impacted by the project either support, or do not oppose, it. She also noted 43 First Nations negotiated agreements with Trans Mountain that include millions of dollars in benefits, job training, employment and business opportunities. 

Ottawa has now approved the project twice, forced to do more Indigenous consultation and environmental review after the Federal Court of Appeal agreed with First Nations and environment groups that the first attempts were flawed. In February, however, that court said Ottawa had now lived up to its duty to consult.

The First Nations leaders speaking on Thursday vowed the pipeline will never be finished and questioned Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's repeated assertion that there is no relationship more important to him than Canada's relationship with Indigenous peoples.

"This case is about more than a risky pipeline and a tanker project," George-Wilson said. "It is a major setback for reconciliation. It reduces consultation to a purely procedural requirement that will be a serious barrier to reconciliation."

She said the Federal Court of Appeal relied on Ottawa's own assessment of its consultation process, which she argued was flawed since Ottawa now owns the pipeline and so had a conflict of interest.

Trudeau has repeatedly sold the project as a compromise between Canada's need to develop and take advantage of its natural resources in order to fund a transition to a cleaner, greener future.

Most oil produced in Alberta is sold at a discount because Canada is so heavily reliant on the United States as its customer. The hope is that expanded pipeline will carry more Canadian oil to the Pacific, where it can make its way to Asia and raise the price companies can get for oil.

— with files from Canadian Press

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