While the rest of the world is told to stay home, Canada’s oil and gas projects continue their march into Indigenous territories, pitting communities against one another and putting people at risk of contracting and spreading COVID-19.
While with a reduced workforce, construction has continued virtually uninterrupted on the Trans Mountain pipeline, the Coastal GasLink pipeline, and the Site C hydro dam – all projects that deeply and primarily impact First Nations in Alberta and British Columbia.
Elsewhere – and closer to home – work is "scaled back" but continues on the Manitoba Hydro Keeyask Generating Station, the Ring of Fire mining development in northern Ontario, and multiple resource extraction projects in Nunavut, Yukon, and the Northwest Territories, among many other projects.
The reason this is happening is simple: under Canadian federal guidelines defining "essential services" during the COVID-19 pandemic – last updated April 2 – manufacturing in the oil, gas, mining and electricity industries are deemed "essential." Provinces, which oversee and license these industries, have followed suit.
This makes sense for existing infrastructure but there is a grey area when it comes to "new" development – so, the work continues.
This has resulted in worker camps and countless daily interactions with nearby communities, traffic in and out of the region, and increased demands for social and health services in already-stretched remote areas.
Even with increased safety measures, the continuation of these projects place Indigenous communities – particularly First Nations but impoverished urban Indigenous communities, too – directly and primarily at risk.
Canada knows that the COVID-19 pandemic will spread faster on First Nations as housing is often over-crowded, fresh water is harder to come by, and immune systems are already compromised due to poverty and a lack of health care. It’s dedicated hundreds of millions of dollars for this fight, with millions more needed.
The continued construction of oil, gas, mining and electricity projects will undermine this support and put tens of thousands of people in harm’s way.
There is still time to stop this – but the clock is ticking.
On March 30, B.C. Hydro announced there were no positive cases at the Site C worker camp housing 819 employees but a dozen were in isolation due to showing signs of COVID-19: sore throats, muscle aches, headaches, cough, fever, and difficulty breathing.
The Site C worker camp is located in Treaty 8, six kilometres from the city of Fort St. John and nearby Doig River First Nation, Halfway River First Nation, and West Moberly First Nation.
Canada is also playing with legal fire.
When it comes to resource projects involving First Nations territories, some communities support them and some are against them. Many arguments articulating each side’s reasons can be read elsewhere.
In every project, Indigenous peoples have used multiple means to articulate their treaty rights and rights to "free, prior, and informed consent" under Canada’s constitution – whether it be at the bargaining table, on the streets in protest, or legal battles all the way to the Supreme Court.
None of these has resulted in perfect solutions – or, frankly, any solutions for that matter – and really only serve as a reminder of the broken legal and legislative relationship Canada shares with Indigenous communities.
This means that a great deal of time, effort, and attention has to be spent focusing on the intricacies of development involving First Nations lands. Lawyers, leaders, and Indigenous communities must be involved for any sense of reconciliation to be found (and to avoid future conflict).
This simply cannot happen during a pandemic.
Laws will be ignored, broken, and when this is all over, whenever that is, legal challenges will emerge with millions of dollars to be paid out.
Lives will also be lost – the ultimate cost of all.
Canada’s oil, gas, mining, and electricity industries cannot continue to expand their projects while acting as if it’s business as usual.
Canada’s "business as usual" for over a century has always been to take First Nations land and, after lengthy Supreme Court battles, pay them later.
When Indigenous peoples protest today (we weren’t legally allowed to until the 1960s), we are framed as an "enemy" to Canada’s economy – when it is most often Canada that has acted illegally and unjustly in the first place.
The theft of Indigenous-held lands was particularly stark during national emergencies such as war, when some of those lands were taken for "the national interest", for purposes like army training, weapons testing, or infrastructure to "keep the economy moving".
This is not only wrong but will lead to more conflict and more legal, social, and cultural costs.
In some cases, workers will need to stay on the site of development projects for safety reasons. I also understand the argument that jobs and income are needed and poverty is real.
The problem, though, is the costs of today will be nothing like the costs later to our humanity and our future.
Niigaan Sinclair is Anishinaabe and is a columnist at the Winnipeg Free Press.
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