First Nations activists take the lead in the battle against Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain pipeline expansion

First Nations' battle against the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion may be just getting started.


Not so Fast
In Vancouver this past November, First Nations drummers led thousands of protesters opposing Kinder Morgan‘s plan to twin its Trans Mountain pipeline

Indigenous leaders and activist groups step to the forefront of the fight against the Kinder Morgan pipeline expansion

From Larry Commodore’s vantage point near Chilliwack at the top of the Fraser Valley, the Trans Mountain Expansion Project isn’t a done deal. “Not going to happen,” vows the former two-term chief of the Soowahlie nation turned grassroots activist.

Commodore lays out his opposition to the pipeline: its right-of-way intersects with a burial ground; oil could spill into the Fraser River; First Nations in Alberta need B.C. support. The factor that could kill it? “We were told we would have free, prior and informed consent,” he says. “That hasn’t happened here.”

Along the proposed route of the pipeline expansion, which stretches almost 1,000 kilometres from northern Alberta to Burnaby and will triple existing capacity, grassroots activists, First Nations and environmental groups are girding for a fight.

First Nations and environmental groups are girding for a fight. Despite a green light from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in November, quickly followed by approval from B.C. Premier Christy Clark, foes of the project aren’t backing down. It’s the next phase of a battle that started in 2011, when Texan energy giant Kinder Morgan announced plans to build a second pipeline. Tensions culminated in 2014 with a standoff on Burnaby Mountain that led to the arrest of 130 protestors; now opponents are planning measures from roadblocks to a possible referendum. For First Nations, emboldened by the defeat of Enbridge Inc.’s Northern Gateway project, it’s part of a revival in indigenous activism that flowed from the Idle No More protests.

The scale of their involvement is a big change for the environmental movement in B.C., says Karen Mahon, the Canadian director of, the environmental group formerly known as Forest Ethics, and a veteran of the so-called War in the Woods during the early 1990s to preserve Clayoquot Sound. “The contrast is that [First Nations] are really in a leadership position now,” Mahon says. “The relationship is a lot tighter; we’ve learned to step back and let them take the lead.”

Few indigenous leaders have been more vocal than Rueben George, director of the Tsleil-Waututh Sacred Trust. On the North Shore, west of the Second Narrows, his community sits across from the hodgepodge of oil drums and piping that form the Kinder Morgan export terminal. “It’s a direct attack on our way of life,” George says. “We don’t want to take the risk of an inevitable spill.”

But opposition is far from unanimous. Among the 71 First Nations groups that Kinder Morgan consulted in B.C., 41 have signed mutual benefit agreements, while 13 have taken a formal stance against the project. Over the spring, a dozen more bands are set to weigh agreements with Kinder Morgan, some through executive decisions by their councils, others via nationwide votes.

If there is a unified opposition, it comes from grassroots activists and not-for-profits. At the fore is the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs, an umbrella group that champions First Nations interests. Under the leadership of Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, the UBCIC has emerged as an institutional and a moral authority in the fight against the Trans Mountain expansion. That push grew out of its successful campaign, Save the Fraser, to stop Northern Gateway. “This is the window of opportunity if we’re to speak out and make a difference,” Phillip says.

To that end, the UBCIC has concentrated on building Coast Protectors, an effort to support direct action and provide a legal fund for protesters facing charges. It’s also spearheaded a partnership with advocacy group Dogwood Initiative to hold an HST-style referendum on the project this fall, should the B.C. Liberals retain power in the May election.

The chance of a showdown like the one between pipeline protesters and authorities at Standing Rock in North Dakota looms in activists’ minds. If that happens, the feds’ position is clear: “No, they don’t have a veto,” Trudeau told the Vancouver Sun in December when asked about First Nations opposition to Trans Mountain.

Credit: Source: Kinder Morgan Canada

Kinder Morgan maintains that it has been proactive with First Nations. “We recognized very early on in our project planning that the engagement with and understanding of First Nations concerns and interests had to be a priority,” says Ian Anderson, president of Kinder Morgan Canada. “We’ve worked for years, going back to 2011, on the ground in these communities. I’ve been with all the chiefs and many of the councillors.”

The company is ready for protests and blockades, Anderson says. “Our number-one priority is safety of people and the environment,” he asserts. “While we will never get in the way of peaceful, law-abiding protest, we’ll be prepared for whatever outcome occurs in terms of opposition activity.”

For activist Commodore, Trans Mountain can’t proceed, no matter who’s in government. “Idle No More was in part about opposition to omnibus legislation that gutted the National Energy Board, which made it less of a regulator,” he says. “It’s a deeply flawed process that’s long concerned us at the grassroots level.”

Commodore adds with a laugh, “I haven’t been idle for years.”