Behind Amnesty International’s decision to oppose Northern Gateway

The proposed Northern Gateway pipeline has galvanized public debate over resource development in Canada and the potential for both economic benefit and environmental harm. Like many other large-scale resource development projects, Northern Gateway has another critical dimension that is often overlooked. Northern Gateway is also a human rights issue because of the risk that it could further undermine the ability of First Nations families and communities to practice their cultures and pursue traditional livelihoods.

Amnesty International isn’t opposed to all resource development or pipeline construction, but we have said that Northern Gateway should not go ahead. As international human rights bodies have long recognized, a high standard of precaution is essential in any decision that could compound the harms that have already been inflicted on Indigenous peoples. The federal government, which gave conditional approval for Northern Gateway in a decision announced in June, has fallen far short of this standard of precaution.

Northern Gateway is intended to transport a daily average of 525,000 barrels of oil sands bitumen between Alberta and the British Columbia coast. If the project goes ahead, it would lead to pipeline construction across roughly 1000 rivers and streams in the traditional territories of Indigenous peoples in Alberta and British Columbia and the transport of bitumen and industrial chemicals through these territories and through coastal waters vital to other Indigenous nations. Northern Gateway would also contribute to increased demand for oil sands extraction on Indigenous lands in Alberta.

Through our long history of work in collaboration with the Lubicon Cree of Northern Alberta, Amnesty International has seen the devastating harm to Indigenous peoples’ cultures, economies and well-being when governments ignore their rights in pursuit of resource development. While the Northern Gateway proposal was being debated, we also had a chance to meet with many First Nations leaders, activists and community members along the proposed pipeline route through British Columbia. We heard first hand both about the continued vital importance of salmon fishing and other traditional livelihoods. We also heard about the long, hard struggle these communities have endured as they try to recover from the harms inflicted on them by pas government decisions and policies, including the residential school programme.

Many First Nations whose traditional lands would be crossed by the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline have strongly opposed the pipeline, as have First Nations who depend on the downstream rivers and coastal waters. Although lengthy public hearings were held into the project, the mandate of this review excluded some of the key issues leading First Nations to oppose the project, including the cumulative impacts of the many projects already underway or planned for the region and the right of Indigenous peoples to make their own decisions about their traditional lands should be used and developed.

During the environmental assessment process, the federal government told the panel that it would carry out further consultations with First Nations on Indigenous rights issues beyond the mandate of the review. It never did.

When the federal government announced its approval of the project, 23 First Nations issued a public statement saying that they would challenge the decision in court. They have solid grounds for doing so.

Canadian courts have clearly said that governments have a mandatory, Constitutional duty to carry out meaningful, good faith consultations with Indigenous peoples when considering any decision that could have an impact on their rights – even when these rights are still in dispute. The federal government’s persistent failure to comply with the Indigenous rights protections set out by our own courts is another form of discrimination against Indigenous peoples.

Amnesty International believes that the government’s decision to approve Northern Gateway also falls far short of international legal standards. As the UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples said during his visit to Canada in 2013, as a general rule the appropriate standard for large-scale resource development projects is to proceed only with free, prior and informed consent of the affected Indigenous peoples. The standard of consent is set out in the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and has long been applied by international human rights bodies in interpreting the binding legal standard of human rights conventions.

Free, prior and informed consent is also gaining ground as a best practice among many sectors of industry and investment. The federal government’s decision to approve Northern Gateway over the express opposition of First Nations has not only laid the foundation for a protracted legal battle in Canada, it also squandered an opportunity to support a vital standard of human rights protection that is gaining ground around the world.