Pipeline “Sabotage” and Trudeau’s Aboriginal Policy

By Dru Oja

Three times in the last month, activists have shut down Enbridge pipelines carrying tar sands bitumen. The main target has been Line 9, a long-existing pipeline that began flowing west to east in November. It carries 240,000 barrels per day of diluted bitumen from Alberta’s extraction zone to east coast ports.

From the outside, a pipeline appears to just sit there. The flow of oil inside, however, is a powerfully destructive force before it even arrives at its destination.

The Pembina Institute estimates that 1.5 barrels of toxic tailings are created for every barrel of bitumen that is produced by mining. That means that with a capacity of 240,000 barrels per day, Line 9 alone enables the creation of 360,000 barrels per day of tailings. If it’s in situ extraction that’s being transported, then the pipeline is enabling the emission of just under 2,000 tonnes of CO2 per day. In other words, it takes 410 cars a whole year to generate the same amount of CO2 that the extraction enabled by the pipeline has created in one day–and that’s before the crude gets to its destination and is burned.

The most recent disruption of the pipeline has been called “sabotage” by CTV News. However, the Trudeau government has made two extremely well-publicized promises that — unless the Liberals break them—unavoidably commit them to phasing out existing tar sands pipelines and stop approving new ones.



Trudeau has repeatedly affirmed, before and after the election, that the Liberal Party will implement all 94 recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (you can read them all here).

That this means the government should at a minimum press pause on pipelines is mostly a matter of common sense. How can a government say that it intends to reconcile with Indigenous nations for past acts of what the Commission calls “cultural genocide” while perpetrating an industrial project that people from downstream First Nations refer to as “industrial genocide” due to the poisoning of air and water on a vast—indeed, planetary—scale?

A more detailed but still straightforward reading leads to similar anti-pipeline conclusions.

Recommendation number 45, for example, calls for a legally-binding proclamation which would “Repudiate concepts used to justify European sovereignty over Indigenous lands and peoples such as the Doctrine of Discovery and terra nullius” and “[r]enew or establish Treaty relationships based on principles of mutual recognition, mutual respect, and shared responsibility.” The same recommendation calls for the government to “[a]dopt and implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.”

These commitments — which Trudeau has repeatedly endorsed — clearly state that in order to do things like tear up vast areas of land for tar sands extraction or run a leaky pipeline across Indigenous territories, you have to get consent.

Getting rid of the doctrine of discovery, following the letter and spirit of treaty relationships, and implementing UNDRIP: together and separately, these commitments—which Trudeau has repeatedly endorsed—clearly state that in order to do things like tear up vast areas of land for tar sands extraction or run a leaky pipeline across Indigenous territories, you have to get consent.

And First Nations like the Chippewas of the Thames don’t appear to be too excited to give their consent for a leaking, decades-old pipeline to bring tar sands oil across their territory.

So far, the way pipelines get approved is that the Harper-appointed members of the National Energy Board (NEB) listen to what people have to say, while excluding many people from the process and then approve the pipeline anyway. As of late November, the Liberal government seems to think that maintaining the status quo is an ok way to approve future pipelines like Energy East.

That, by any reasonable definition, is not consent. One of two things can be true: Trudeau is serious about his TRC recommendations promise, or the Liberals don’t think the current NEB process needs a complete overhaul. They can’t have it both ways.

If Trudeau is serious about his TRC promises, it also means that the Liberals recognize that the process that approved Line 9 is illegitimate.


In December, Canada made a splash at the Paris climate talks, announcing its intention to “pursue efforts to limit the increase [in global mean temperature] to 1.5 degrees.”

One doesn’t need to get deep into the numbers to realize that if there’s any seriousness at all to this goal, it means, at an absolute minimum, that tar sands extraction will immediately begin to decrease. That, in turn, means taking all new pipeline capacity off the table.

Climate scientist James Hansen put it this way in the New York Times: “If Canada proceeds [with the extraction of tar sands reserves], and we do nothing, it will be game over for the climate.”

There’s not a lot of ambiguity there. Once again, we are faced with a dilemma: either Canada’s commitment is a farcical PR stunt, or immediate measures will need to be taken to decrease tar sands extraction.

Until the Liberal government declares that it is going back on those key, well-publicized promises, protesters who block pipelines aren’t criminals; they’re just implementing government policy. If there are complaints about the way they are carrying that out, the first question is: why do they need to do so in the first place?

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