The Dene National Chief believes a forthcoming decision on Teck Resources’ Frontier mine could trigger the NWT’s equivalent of recent protests seen on Wet’suwet’en land and around the country.
Norman Yakeleya told reporters on Wednesday: “That issue could be – if the government doesn’t listen – could be our We’tsuwet’en. That’s how important it is, because water is life.”
Teck’s vast oilsands mine project, which is awaiting federal approval or rejection, is considered likely to have a significant adverse environmental impact on wetlands, forests, and a range of animal species.
Some First Nations in the NWT and Alberta, downstream from the project’s planned location, have expressed grave concern about the implications for their land and water. They do not wish to see the project proceed.
Despite the expected environmental impact, a review panel earlier this year declared the Frontier mine to be in the public interest as it is forecast by industry to generate 7,000 jobs and $70 billion in revenue. (Some economists argue these figures were reached using outdated and overly optimistic oil price projections.)
Yakeleya said he expects to speak with Dene Nation chiefs later on Wednesday about Teck’s proposed project.
“In the next 24 to 48 hours, we will have a position,” he said. The federal decision on whether to approve the Frontier mine – taking into account the review panel’s recommendation and other evidence – is due in the near future.
Yakeleya was speaking at a news conference called to express the Dene Nation’s support for hereditary chiefs of the Wet’suwet’en Nation and their call for RCMP to leave their traditional territory.
Protests have emerged across Canada in support of Wet’suwet’en members trying to stop the construction of a natural gas pipeline through their traditional lands in northern BC.
While the project, named Coastal GasLink, is supported by many band councils along the route – including the elected Wet’suwet’en band council – it is opposed by Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs, a number of other Indigenous nations, and environmental activists.
‘Welcome to our world’
Protests at rail lines in Tyendinaga and Kahnawake Mohawk territory, in Ontario and Québec respectively, have led to the shutdown of most passenger and cargo services. The federal government says negotiations are ongoing. Rail operators have announced temporary lay-offs.
Echoing the words of Perry Bellegarde, National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, Yakeleya stressed the need for calm and peaceful protests.
Noting the impact of disrupted rail cargo, Yakeleya said: “When all the Indigenous people get together, it [brings] Canada’s economy to its knees.”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau – whose government considers reconciliation with Indigenous peoples a key plank of its platform – on Tuesday said Ottawa would try to resolve protests and blockades “peacefully, but also to protect rule of law.”
Conservative leader Andrew Scheer, in response, said “illegal” actions by “radical activists” demonstrated the appropriation and misrepresentation of an Indigenous agenda.
“Will our country be one of the rule of law or the rule of the mob?” Scheer asked, calling for immediate action to end blockades of rail lines.
Asked on Wednesday how he felt about reports the rail shutdown had led to bare store shelves and low supplies of heating fuel, Yakeleya replied: “Hey, welcome to our world.”
He added: “That’s what’s happening in our small communities: high cost of food, the high cost of living, Elders are paying for these high costs. Well, welcome to our world. I grew up in that world.”
RCMP should leave, says Yakeleya
We’tsuwet’en hereditary chiefs have maintained they will not consider dialogue until RCMP officers leave their territory.
This call was reiterated in the House of Commons by Nunavut’s NDP MP, Mumilaaq Qaqqaq, on Tuesday. “The situation is complex but here’s a simple start. The RCMP needs to stand down and the prime minister needs to get involved and meet with hereditary chiefs,” she said.
In response to a question from Cabin Radio, Yakeleya said the Dene Nation supports the hereditary chiefs in their call for RCMP to leave. “Let them leave, let our people deal with it,” he said.
While he said the RCMP were “doing their jobs” by seeking to remove protest camps under a court-ordered injunction, he compared their actions to those of Indian agents who formerly represented the federal government in Indigenous communities.
“If you do not follow this we will put you in jail. If you did not send your kids will cut you off rations,” he said. “That’s really the tormentation put on our people. We’re used to it. We’ve been tormented since the Indian Act came.”
Protests in Yellowknife have included rallies and banners of solidarity. Other events planned include a Friday screening of Invasion – a film about checkpoints and camps opposing the pipeline project.
Musician Leela Gilday, who is planning an Indigenous arts solidarity event on February 27, this week called for local artists and musicians to take part.