Amid an increasingly conservative Canadian government focused on exploiting the land's resources, the country's indigenous people have risen up through a grassroots protest movement called Idle No More.
The Idle No More protest movement was born in late 2012, started by four activists in Saskatchewan who wanted to garner support to rally against a wide-ranging bill, C-45, that would remove significant tribal authority over Canadian waterways by overhauling the country's 130-year-old Navigable Waters Protection Act. But the bill passed just before Christmas. Its passage has only stoked the movement, which is also galvanizing indigenous groups not only across Canada but those in the U.S. and South America, as well. Demonstrations linked to the movement have sprung up from California to Wisconsin to Maine.
Environmental justice is one of the major themes being addressed, and in British Columbia, protests are focused on Northern Gateway, a proposed pipeline that would run 730 miles, traversing the Rockies and Coast mountain ranges and hundreds of waterways before its terminus in British Columbia’s Great Bear Rainforest, one of the largest contiguous tracts of temperate rainforest left in the world.
While the press in the United States has not covered the protests a great deal, Idle No More is major news in Canada and the movement gained significant momentum via Twitter (which you'll see by searching #idlenomore). Idle No More protests, often taking the form of flash-mob style drum circles in shopping malls and other public areas, have been attracting thousands of participants and resulting in civil disobedience arrests.
While the links between Idle No More and the Northern Gateway protest movement are informal, they're part of a wider reaction among indigenous Canadians to an increasingly conservative government, says Chris Darimont, professor at University of Victoria Geography Department and science director for Raincoast Conservation.
"Idle No More is a reassertion of native sovereignty in our country and also a signal of very deep unrest with the federal government's incredibly brazen attempts to demolish environmental protection," says Darimont. "Protection for salmon-bearing rivers and lakes is being unraveled" through legislative efforts such as C-45, he says.
Last year the plight of the Great Bear Rainforest and its people was the focus of a surf documentary co-sponsored by Patagonia and Raincoast Conservation Foundation called Groundswell. I spoke with filmmaker Chris Malloy about the film after its release and he said one of his main goals was to expose viewers to the culture and leadership he witnessed among the First Nation people in the port of Kitimat, where the pipeline would load oil onto tankers.
"Idle No More has become so prominent in indigenous perspectives and worldviews," says Darimont. "It really relates back to the film because the dominant narrative in Groundswell is provided by two young indigenous leaders. In that respect the film is a little ahead of curve."
The decision over whether Canadian pipeline builder Enbridge will receive the green light falls to a joint review panel formed by Canada's National Energy Board, which must make the call by the end of 2013. The political momentum behind the pipeline is showing cracks, says Darimont, because the opposition to it throughout British Columbia is so vociferous—even among the conservative party.
Should the proposal be rejected, however, that won't change the fact that Canada is very eager to extract and export its Alberta oil sands resources. Alternatives to the pipeline include plans for a railroad that would carry the crude from Alberta to the port in Valdez, Alaska. Yep, that Valdez, Alaska. The one that leads to Prince William Sound, site of a rather infamous spill.
Another option would be to build up an existing pipeline, called Kinder Morgan, which already pipes oil into southern B.C., where it is loaded onto tankers that transport it past Vancouver and the Puget Sound.
Meanwhile, in Washington, D.C., John Kerry is about to become the Secretary of State and will need to make a decision over the northern stretch of the Keystone XL pipeline, which would be a southern alternative for oil sands crude and which recently gained the support of Nebraska's governor thanks to a new route that would keep the pipeline away from sensitive aquifers.
—Mary Catherine O'Connor