More than 200 people gathered around the Two Brothers Totem Pole on Monday to welcome the Yinka Dene Alliance to Jasper as the group makes its way east to protest the proposed Northern Gateway Pipeline.
The group, made up of about 40 aboriginal leaders from territories in northern British Columbia, arrived in Jasper by rail on a trip they have dubbed “Freedom Train 2012.”
Jasper was the first in a series of stops they will make on their way to Toronto, where they plan to stage a protest outside a meeting of Enbridge shareholders, the company behind the proposed 1,200-kilometre pipeline project.
“The reception here was awesome,” said Pete Erickson, also known as hereditary Chief Tsohdih of the Nak’azdli territory. “I think a lot of people don’t realize the fight that’s going on, as it’s mostly west of the Rockies. So when we come east it’s nice when a lot of people are very receptive to listening to what we have to say.”
Erickson said the proposed project is of particular concern to people in his territory, located north of Prince George, B.C., as any breach in the pipeline could decimate the already heavily diminished supply of salmon, which the community relies on.
“We have minimal salmon left and they want to go right across the only river we can fish out of,” he said. “Our main staple is down to less than one per cent, and this company will not listen. They think we’re just fighting it because we’re First Nation, but we’ve gone through the technical part. We know our area. There are three fault lines that run through it. And they’re claiming that they can engineer over a fault line and every other oil company in the world that I’ve spoken to said that you can’t.”
Jasper resident Art Jackson, who helped organize the local gathering and joined the Yinka Dene on the train as it departed for Edmonton, was thrilled to see so many people at the event.
“I think that was a great turnout for Jasper,” he said. “It’s so important that people are aware of what’s happening. The Yinka Dene Alliance is fighting for their homelands, keeping them clean for future generations, and that’s what we’re supporting today.”
In addition to Jasper residents carrying signs of support, the visitors were welcomed by a drum circle and a water ceremony performed by members of the Bighorn reserve, located southeast of Jasper National Park. High school student Sabrina Charlebois also presented the visiting chiefs with thank-you cards handmade by local youth.
For its part, Enbridge says the pipeline will be safe and “meet or exceed government regulations and standards.”
Janet Holder, Enbridge’s senior executive responsible for the project, also pointed to a recent report from Transport Canada which found “no regulatory concerns” with the company’s plans to ship diluted Alberta bitumen in giant tankers from the pipeline’s terminus in Kitimat, B.C.
“It is important for the public, particularly B.C. residents, to know that we’ve done our homework and that our marine plan has been thoroughly reviewed,” Holder said in a news release.
Other groups have criticized the Transport Canada report, however, and Erickson said the federal government appears set on approving the project regardless of the impact on First Nations – a stance he described as “disastrous” and “typical.”
“We’ve lived under the Indian Act,” he said. “They’ve done that time and time again where they’ve ignored the basic rights of people on the land.”
Enbridge is offering First Nations along the pipeline route a 10-per-cent ownership share in the $5.5-billion project. The company says this would be worth about $280 million in net income to aboriginal communities over 30 years.
Erickson, however, said it’s not about the money; it’s about protecting his ancestral land.
“We’re here about just simply, the Earth,” he said. “And I think most people are grounded and they listen to that message.”
One person listening on Monday in Jasper was nine-year-old Athena Urie, who approached Erickson after the ceremonies to ask him why he is opposed to the pipeline project.
“People could die?” she asked.
“That could be a part of it,” the chief replied. “And all of our salmon are at risk ... so we’re going all the way to Toronto to tell them we don’t want their pipeline.”
“What will happen?”
“We’re going to make them listen.”