Chippewas of the Thames vow to continue pipeline fight

Newly elected Chippewas of the Thames First Nation chief Myeengun Henry says he is disappointed after Canada's highest court dismissed a challenge from his community to stop Enbridge from reversing the flow of crude oil on the controversial Line 9 Pipeline.

"Aboriginal rights have once again been stepped on," says Chippewas chief after ruling

Chippewa of the Thames First Nation Chief Myeengun Henry performs a ceremony on the banks of the Thames River on traditional Chippewa land. (Kate Dubinski/CBC)

Newly elected Chippewas of the Thames First Nation chief Myeengun Henry says he is disappointed after Canada's highest court dismissed a legal challenge from his community to stop Enbridge from reversing the flow of crude oil on the controversial Line 9 Pipeline. 

"We are very disappointed," Henry said moments after hearing about the ruling from Canada's highest court. "Aboriginal rights have once again been stepped on."

"We are very disappointed. Aboriginal rights have once again been stepped on.- Myeengun Henry

The dismissal by the country's top court means Enbridge can continue to reverse the flow and increase the capacity of heavy crude oil along its Line 9 Pipeline, a 40-year-old conduit that runs through Chippewas territory on its way from Sarnia to Montreal. 

The Chippewas mounted the legal challenge against the National Energy Board, which allowed the company to proceed with the project, arguing the NEB's review on the matter did not fulfill the federal government's duty to consult Indigenous communities before resource development can take place on their traditional territory. 

The Supreme Court of Canada ruled that the federal government fulfilled its duty to consult with Indigenous groups in an NEB decision to allow Enbridge to proceed with a project that would reverse the flow of crude oil along its Line 9 pipeline that crosses Chippewas territory on its way from Sarnia to Montreal. (Mike dePaul/CBC)

'I feel ashamed': Chief to Trudeau

After meeting at the Thames River where a part of the pipeline runs under the waterway, Henry spoke directly to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, saying First Nations rights have "once again been infringed upon." 

"I feel ashamed that you would watch this process and not intervene," Henry said. "You told Canada recently that the most important relationship is [with] the Indigenous people of this country...Today we see it another way. You denied us our rights once again. 

"You gave us hope and when it came down to the process that you put in place for us, and we reached that pinnacle, it was not what you said." 

Henry also implored Enbridge to stop using the Line 9 pipeline to ship oil sands crude within 30 days. 

"We ask that you cease operations within 30 days of oil sands oil through our traditional territory," Henry said.

Civil disobedience not ruled out

After learning of the decision, about 40 people left the Chippewa of the Thames community centre and made their way to the Thames River. 

There, Henry called on people to keep level-headed. 

"We can be strategic in how we take this next step.Our people are resilient. We've gone through devastation, poverty and we will maintain our strength. Our people have what it takes to endure even something like this," Henry said. 

At some point, he added, civil disobedience could happen. 

"When you've reached the highest level of court, where else do you go on an issue like that, something that is even more important like our spirituality?" he said. 

'Obligation was met'

In its ruling the Supreme Court said Indigenous groups, including the Chippewas of the Thames, were informed by the NEB and granted funding in order to participate in the hearing process. 

"Even taking the strength of the Chippewas' claim and the seriousness of the potential impact on the claimed rights at their highest, the consultation undertaken in this case was manifestly adequate," the court wrote in its ruling published Wednesday morning. 

"Potentially affected Indigenous groups were given early notice of the NEB's hearing and were invited to participate in the process. The Chippewas accepted the invitation and appeared before the NEB. They were aware that the NEB was the final decision maker. Moreover, they understood that no other Crown entity was involved in the process for the purposes of carrying out consultation."

"Notwithstanding the Crown's failure to provide timely notice that it intended to rely on the NEB's process to fulfill its duty to consult, its consultation obligation was met," the court wrote. 

Chippewas of the Thames chief Myeengun Henry with 7-year-old Miigizi Wright, near the place where the Line 9 Enbridge Pipeline crosses the Thames River, north of London. (Kate Dubinski/CBC)

Before the ruling was published, Henry vowed that whatever form the decision by the Supreme Court of Canada might take, it does not change the responsibility his people have to protect their water. 

"Today is the day where we hear what their decision is going to be," Henry said. "That doesn't stop us from our responsibility to the water, even if it's a negative decision, we still have to keep the water clean for these little children and the future generations who are not even born yet." 

The Chippewas of the Thames argue that the four decade old pipeline is reaching the end of its life and is likely to fail, which would result in a potential environmental catastrophe. 

Enbridge wants strong relationship

Following the ruling, Enbridge said it appreciates and respects the Supreme Court of Canada's decision but acknowledged the relationship it has with the First Nation. 

"Enbridge is absolutely committed to fostering a strengthened relationship with the Chippewas of the Thames First Nation, and all Indigenous communities built upon openness, respect and mutual trust," the Calgary company wrote in a statement.