THE beginning of 2020 was a tumultuous time for the Wet’suwet’en natives of Canada.
The early months saw escalating tensions over a new oil pipeline and the attached implications of future fracking and drilling operations were set to impede on tribal lands.
Wet’suwet’en land defenders faced down militarized police in a February showdown, with supporters of the tribal chiefs arrested at gunpoint.
But this aggression by the Canadian government served only to galvanise the tribal communities and bring together activists from across the country.
While mounted police moved to break up land defender camps on the pipeline site, natives and their allies organised blockades across Canada’s rail network, creating a strong push for the government to reassess their negotiating position.
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However, more than a year of activism against the Coastal Gaslink Pipeline has now been brought to a complete halt by the Coronavirus.
Tribal communities are at high risk of harm from the virus due to their limited access to healthcare.
They cannot risk catching it from the construction workers they would otherwise be obstructing.
The pipeline might be completed in its entirety before the lockdown ends and neither negotiation nor activism can take place until such a time.
Redaction Politics reached out to Unifor, which represents employees in the oil and gas industry, who declined to comment on the ongoing work carried out by members of their union.
On the environmentalist front, it should be noted that the oil pipeline is by no means a necessity for Canada’s energy independence.
Far from it, the natural gas produced instead constitutes an export of rapidly declining value in the current market – as displayed by the US oil price collapse last night.
Industrial shutdowns have seen the price of fossil fuels plummet to the lowest they’ve been in decades.
The unprecedented agreement between oil-producing nations to reduce production by 10% as a price control mechanism has failed to stop the industry’s torpor.
The construction of new fossil fuel infrastructure can only pay dividends on the assumption that pre-crisis levels of consumption are resumed.
Greenpeace Canada told Redaction Politics that while boots-on-the-ground campaigning is no longer possible under quarantine, the organisation believes that activism is still possible within limits.
While freedom of assembly is restricted, people are still able to assemble online, raise awareness by writing to newspaper editors and publishing opinion pieces.
A spokesperson from Greenpeace Canada said: “The federal government needs to respect Indigenous law and recognize that Indigenous Peoples have the right to free, prior and informed consent on projects that impact them and their territories.
“Prime Minister Trudeau should refuse industries’ ask for significant delays on implementing legislation recognizing the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, as well as refuse their demands to pause or roll-back environmental and climate legislation.”
“Canada is the ninth-biggest overall emitter of GHG emissions, and oil and gas emissions from the tar sands are also the fastest-growing source of emissions.
“Canada needs to urgently change course and cut its emissions in half in the next 10 years and become carbon neutral by 2040.
“The economic recovery plan from the COVID-19 pandemic can help lay the foundation for an equitable, low-carbon, circular economy that puts people and sustainability at the centre.
“We can start by supporting funding for jobs in clean energy but also in low-carbon sectors, like the arts, green retrofits, and local food systems.”
Canada’s continued course in this development is indefensible on almost every ground.
Legally the land was never ceded, and no agreement was reached with the tribal leaders.
Environmentally the exploitation of new deposits is unsustainable at a time where the fossil fuel industry should be scaling down rather than expanding. Economically the future prospects of oil and gas are too uncertain and dangerous to justify the investment.
While the construction cannot be opposed directly during the pandemic, activists can still contribute to the cause.
Spreading awareness on social media and paying into the Wet’sewet’en legal fund may not provide the same efficacy as blocking railroads and obstructing construction sites, but they may well be the last defence of a vulnerable group that faces oppression by a hostile government.
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