A Pipe Dream? – Pipelines and Indigenous Sovereignty in Canada

A Pipe Dream? – Pipelines and Indigenous Sovereignty in Canada

Trans Mountain and Coastal GasLink

Canada’s Trans Mountain Expansion Project (commonly known as the Trans Mountain Pipeline or TMX) has been at the crux of numerous debates since its conception. This particular project, which was approved by the federal government in 2019, will be an extension of the existing Trans Mountain pipeline aiming to carry crude and refined oil from oil sands in Alberta to ports in British Columbia in order to increase international exports. This project has led many Canadians to contrast the Liberal government’s economic actions with its promises to adhere to the Paris Climate Change agreement and achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. The pipes will cross 1,147 km of land in BC and Alberta, cutting through numerous towns as well as several kilometres of territory, thereby affecting 117 First Nations. Given that Indigenous peoples are amongst the most vulnerable groups who will be impacted by the results of the TMX, the pipeline expansion project has resulted in a wide variety of opinions, ranging from support to opposition within Indigenous communities. 

Meanwhile, the TransCanada Coastal GasLink project seeks to build a liquified natural gas (LNG) pipeline across 670 km in Northern BC: funded by $40 billion, this is the largest private and natural resource investment in Canadian history from oil companies around the world. The LNG provides another example of how oil production and natural resource exports are expected to take up an even larger part of Canada’s economy, despite an increase in climate change policies and a growing need for such a drastic paradigm shift in international politics. Many Canadians have criticised the NDP government of BC for supporting the LNG project, despite its vocal opposition against the TMX. And although all 20 Indigenous band councils (elected leadership) have agreed to the project, there still remain many individuals and leaders who oppose the project – in particular, the hereditary chiefs of the Wet’suwet’en Nation and the Unist’ot’en camp, which have faced brutal force from the RCMP in the past, as well as injustices in judicial cases around Indigenous territory and sovereignty.   

In Opposition

Criticisms of the Trans Mountain Pipeline (TMP) have yet to cease as the project approval almost immediately succeeded the government’s declaration of a climate emergency. While the government of Canada has created methods of communication for facilitating dialogue between the TMP and Indigenous communities, such as Phase III and IV, it would be difficult for any observing Canadian to say that it has been completely successful in addressing many First Nations and Métis communities’ concerns. Since the conception of the project, many have voiced their opposition to the Pipeline, manifesting in a 22 km march in protest in 2019 and mounting tensions between the Prairie provinces and British Columbia. Amidst concerns that Indigenous communities, affected towns, and marine life may be harmed by bitumen spills, opposition over the pipeline is continuing to grow despite its construction having begun in 2019 and continuing until 2022

The Coastal GasLink project also began construction upon receiving the approval of the BC Environmental Assessment Office in 2018, but opposition began at its conception. The sweeping movement in support of the hereditary chiefs of Wet’suwet’en First Nation is one example of the call to Indigenous solidarity across Canada. The chiefs, whose positions are  hereditary and not elected, are opposing the pipeline to adhere to Wet’suwet’en law and to carry out environmental conservation. However, with the Supreme Court’s rejection of the BC government’s appeal to regulate the contents of the Pipeline, the TMX seems to be winning this legal war. Although discussions are set to occur between the main voices of opposition (the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs) and the Canadian government, calls to support Indigenous sovereignty are growing across the country. 

In Support 

Nonetheless, every argument has two sides – and the pipelines are no exception. While calls of opposition have been widely voiced in popular media, the Indigenous communities who support the projects claim that their voices are not being heard. Some Chiefs and communities are supporting the Trans Mountain Pipeline in the hopes of establishing Indigenous ownership over a majority of the revenues, and others are supporting the pipeline “because they’re going to do it anyway.” Although not every First Nations and Métis community has expressed its support for the project, pro-pipeline Indigenous groups such as the Iron Coalition and Project Reconciliation are advocating for the project in the hopes of  establishing a sure-fire way to continued economic growth and revenue which would support “poverty reduction programs and other social tools, as well as… “revitalize” the local culture.” 

In the case of the Coastal GasLink, this article points to how some Indigenous individuals say that they have felt a severe disconnect between what community members and what leaders want in certain First Nations communities, particularly in the Wet’suwet’en. Haisla Nation Chief Crystal Smith notes that the “sensationalism” surrounding the anti-pipeline stance is creating a distorted, one-sided view on the ultimate “Indigenous stance” but fails to acknowledge the 20 Indigenous communities who are supporting the project. Despite the fact that Indigenous sovereignty should never be overlooked and the fact that the media has a tendency to report along a pro-government agenda, the importance of acknowledging the Indigenous communities who are in favour of the project for their futures is an important step toward acknowledging the wide variety of perspectives which make up Indigenous communities across Canada.

Interview with Professor Chadwick Cowie

Professor Chadwick Cowie is a person of mixed Anishinaabe and European heritage and a member of the Anishinaabeg Confederacy. He is a PhD candidate at the University of Alberta and is also a term instructor at McGill University teaching POLI 372 (Aboriginal Politics in Canada) this semester. Catalyst had the privilege of asking him some questions on Indigenous perspectives regarding the pipelines.

Catalyst: What can opposing a pipeline mean for a First Nations community?

Prof. Cowie: “On the First Nations side, opposing it can be a way of reminding Canada that Indigenous nationhood still exists, sovereignty is not extinguished, and a title may not be extinguished – especially in Northern BC. It’s a reminder that Indigenous people are there, that they’re not going away, that we did not assimilate, we did not get conquered, and that there are still treaty and non-treaty areas that must be respected. The problem is that the Supreme Court of Canada has ruled that Canada has the right to impede on Indigenous rights when it comes to the national interest of Canadians. So when you hear things about the TMX and Canada’s national interests, you can already tell which way they’re going to argue and how they’re going to address this in court.” 

Catalyst: On the other hand, what can supporting a pipeline mean?

Prof. Cowie: “It can mean economic independence and moving forward in how the world works today. We often forget that Indigenous peoples in societies are not stuck in a pre-1492 context. We’ve evolved over time, even by looking at our culture we can tell that. But something to remember as well: Canadian law tries to dictate that our existing rights have to do with a certain legal framework. If we don’t do it that way, they’re not “Indigenous rights” therefore we can’t have it. For the Nations and communities that do follow the neoliberal capitalist paradigm, this would be a chance to move themselves forward and better their community and their constituents. The question becomes if they have the band council system under the Indian Act or the hereditary system. That’s what you should be looking for: which system is agreeing to it, or if both are.”

Catalyst: What is the difference between the hereditary chief system and band council?

Prof. Cowie: 

“Per the Indian Act in 1876, Canada started to impose strict rules on Indigenous governance. We had our own governance structures – we never gave them up – but in 1876, they thought it was best to introduce municipal forms of governance which existed in Europe. So they outlawed our traditional systems, our hereditary systems. The main responsibility of band councillors is not to be accountable to the community members or the citizens – it’s to be accountable to the Indian Act and Indian Affairs of Canada. But this is not necessarily reflective of our structures and how we go about doing it. 

Nor is it reflective of the fact that, for Indigenous people, you don’t own land: it’s our commodity, not something to control because we need it to survive but it doesn’t need us. The hereditary system tends to follow that idea of stewardship. The hereditary system still goes on for many, while some communities are waking up to it and relearning it. You can see that with the Haudenosaunee, they still have a connection to their structure which opposes the band council system. The hereditary system is our original government that has not been honoured or recognized by the Canadian state. So some communities will support the band system and others will support the hereditary system, while others will not support either.”

Catalyst: What does “Indigenous sovereignty” mean, especially in the context of the Wet’suwet’en?

Prof. Cowie: 

“I can’t say – I’m not Wet’suwet’en, and each Nation has a different version of it. The best way I can describe it is that it doesn’t follow the Western definition of it: it doesn’t follow fixed borders where land is controlled and you have people who support the state and governance structure, as we see in popular sovereignty. There’s not a single sovereign – it’s more like how we can be self-sufficient and carry ourselves without impeding on our people as well as other people. 

When we talk about Indigenous sovereignty from an Indigenous perspective, it tends to be more of a blanket statement because Western structures have dominated Indigenous structures for the last 200 years. These structures are fixed into a certain territory. In the Canadian context, it makes them more scared because it’s claiming away territory that they say is theirs. But it also makes you look and question Canada’s history, the legitimacy of the state, and how we describe sovereignty and the state. This will require political scientists to relook the state and consider things outside the definition of ‘state’. Indigenous sovereignty has not even entered political science because the definition of state is different and it’s not only about land, borders and territory.”

Catalyst: What is “Pan-Indigenism”? How is it harmful to Indigenous communities?

Prof. Cowie: 

“Pan-Indigenism is problematic but at the same time, because most settler people have not been able to actually learn the difference between the communities, you also need a statement that’s going to help them understand and move forward with it. So, originally, this term was “Indian” then it became “Aboriginal” after 1982. “Indigenous” is similar to that because it is a blanket statement: it refers to who is deserving of rights and who is not under the Indian Act in First Nations. 

I’m Ojibway, I’m from the Anishinaabeg confederacy, I’m from Mississauga. My traditional territory is mostly southern Ontario, shared with the Haudenosaunee, up through where the Toronto area is in. Mind you again, we have to think of territory outside of fixed borders – we have blurred areas that we share with the Haudenosaunee and other groups. I come from that Anishinaabe perspective, so if someone comes to me and asks ‘what can we do for Indigenous peoples?’ I can say that I can explain my perspective as an Anishinaabe person and as someone who has a foot in both Indigenous life and settler life. But some people get confused by that. 

This is a problem we get from the Indian Act and how Canadians have traditionally looked at Indigenous peoples because we get blanket terms put over us. And although this is because there’s difficulty in understanding the differences between us, that’s usually how colonialism shows itself in dominant forms. Understanding and deconstructing Pan-Indigenism is an important step in reconciliation because it makes someone understand why our structures are different and why we don’t just all come together and unite. For example, the Haudenosaunee and Anishinaabeg were not friendly before settlers and did not have the same traditions, but became closer to fight for common rights.”

Catalyst: How should we, as non-Indigenous people and  students, show our support to Indigenous communities, whether they  support or oppose the Pipeline?

Prof. Cowie: 

“Gaining an understanding by showing your support to the groups who are in support or against it is not unhealthy – it allows Canadians to learn that not all Indigenous people are for the pipeline but not all Indigenous people are against it. You can see that when you look at the communities who are along the Pipeline. 

But, in my opinion, if a community is against it, it shouldn’t go through their territory. You can’t do that to other groups of people. And you have to look at, again, who is in favour and who is against? Site C, the dam being built in BC, was a huge problem. The Harper government introduced it but they also added a whole bunch of things to make it a poisonous pill for any governments to try to get rid of it. Out of the 8 communities who were consulted for the project, 6 agreed while 2 opposed. The 2 communities opposing the project were the ones who would be most affected by the flooding and they were from one Nation, while the 6 who agreed were communities who would not be as affected by the flooding and were from another Nation. These 2 Nations have, historically, not been friends. 

The problem with Pan-Indigenization is that, when I was talking to the Crown Minister of Indigenous Affairs, he kept referring to the 8 Nations but had no clue it was 8 communities and 2 Nations. This also brings up the problem of “consultation”: who are they talking to and how are they doing that? Sometimes our community would get consultations from somewhere 3 hours away but not from a place closer to us, like Toronto. Also, the view on consultation is different: Indigenous people will look at it like we have to sit at the table together as if we are equals, while Canada obviously does not look at it that way and will say “look, you can do anything you want… within this box”.


The dialogue around the Trans Mountain Pipeline and Indigenous sovereignty cannot be divided neatly into two distinct sides, nor can a single perspective represent a wide variety of voices. On the one hand, the colonial history and injustices against First Nations and Métis peoples cannot be forgotten, especially in light of  Canada’s neoliberal economy which encourages private ownership, commits legal injustices, and authorizes the use of lethal force to “de-escalate” protests and carry out court orders. On the other hand, the misguided portrayal of a singular Indigenous narrative, especially around such important topics regarding Indigenous land, rights, and sovereignty has the potential to perpetuate other problematic behaviours and institutions which seek to summarize a collective of diverse interests, opinions and ways of life into a single homogenous entity. 

Dialogues concerning pipelines and Indigenous sovereignty have yet to cease, with notable recent events exacerbating the conflict, such as the Federal Court of Appeal’s dismissal of challenges made by First Nations communities on the Trans Mountain Pipeline. At a time like this when reconciliation seems like an increasingly elusive concept, it is important to keep Professor Cowie’s words in mind: 

“Indigenous peoples have complex structures and educating and deconstructing is very important in addressing neocolonial mindsets today […] A major problem we see with Pan-Indigeneity here is that the way certain resource development projects are situated in the media has led to the blanket statements of ‘Indigenous peoples are against this’ or ‘for this’. When we see the deconstruction of blanket statements, though, we’d be able to more properly show not only the diversity of the Nations but [that] there is not one view, voice, or philosophy in use [or at] play here.”

Edited by Shannon Benson.

Photo credits: “Smithers, BC” by Leadnow Canada. Published 9th of May, 2019. This work was sourced under a Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic. No changes were made.

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