National Chief Perry Bellegarde faces divisions over pipelines as AFN meets

First Nations leaders who support pipeline projects are afraid to speak out and voice their support for development because they have become "stigmatized" by some virulently anti-pipeline protesters, AFN National Chief Perry Bellegarde says.

Anti-pipeline chiefs preparing to walk out Tuesday when Justin Trudeau addresses the assembly

Assembly of First Nations Chief Perry Bellegarde poses for a portrait in Ottawa. Bellegarde told CBC News chiefs who support pipeline development have been stigmatised by some protesters. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

First Nations leaders who support pipeline projects are afraid to speak out because they have become stigmatized by some protesters, AFN national chief Perry Bellegarde said.

"There's a stigma now attached to supporting economic development. There's a stigma that somehow you're not a First Nations person, if you support a pipeline," he said in an interview with CBC News. "I think we have to slow down and stop and say 'We balance things between the environment and the economy.'"

"The point is that some of those chiefs are quiet and yet I know they support," he said. "It's about who's the loudest sometimes."

Bellegarde made the comments ahead of the Assembly of First Nations' special assembly this week in Ottawa. Energy policy will be on the agenda as the chiefs convene to discuss progress on the Indigenous file a year after the Liberal government took office.

The federal cabinet approved the construction of two major pipeline projects this past week, including Kinder Morgan's Trans Mountain and Enbridge's Line 3, decisions that ignited strong reactions from a number of Indigenous and environmental groups.

The national chief will serve as a mediator of sorts at a panel discussion on Wednesday, which will pit one pro-pipeline First Nations chief against an anti-development leader. Bellegarde said he hopes to encourage respectful dialogue.

Bellegarde said he is personally staking out a middle ground, and offering support to both those who feel their rights haven't been respected by the review process and those who see pipeline construction as a much needed economic boon for their communities.

"We're divided just like Canadians are divided, and we're divided just like the Liberal MPs are divided, because it's a very divisive debate," he added.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau holds a press conference at the National Press Theatre in Ottawa on Tuesday, Nov. 29, 2016. Trudeau is approving Kinder Morgan's proposal to triple the capacity of its Trans Mountain pipeline from Alberta to Burnaby, B.C. — a $6.8-billion project that has sparked protests by climate change activists. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

'Don't want their poison on my territory'

One chief who is vehemently opposed to further oilsands development is Serge Simon of Kanesatake in Quebec. He said he is ready to take on any chief this week who supports pipeline construction, something he says could lead to an "ecological disaster."

The Mohawk leader has banded together with other leaders, notably Manitoba Grand Chief Derek Neepinak, to call for a moratorium on future development in the oil patch, and has vowed to stop construction of the proposed Energy East pipeline. He said First Nations communities are free to develop their resources, as long as it is not bitumen extraction and transportation.

"I don't want their poison on my territory, you're damn right I'm going to stop it. Leave it in the ground," he said in an interview with CBC News.

Simon said Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's approval of the pipeline is a "betrayal," and anti-pipeline chiefs are preparing to walk out when he addresses the assembly on Tuesday.

"My message for him is very simple: We trusted you, a lot of First Nations voted for you, and you backstabbed them by making this decision, knowing full well First Nations are going to be harmed by this.

"He's going to have to pay a political price."

Simon could face off against the likes of Shane Gottfriedson, the AFN's B.C. regional chief, who, as leader of the Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation in Kamloops, negotiated a deal with pipeline proponent Kinder Morgan.

Courting First Nations support

Trans Mountain, which will carry a mix of oil products from a terminal near Edmonton to Burnaby, B.C., will be built, in part, on traditional Indigenous territory.

Tsleil-Waututh Nation in North Vancouver, a First Nation that has steadfastly opposed the pipeline's construction, has warned that the Trans Mountain expansion threatens its very "survival" as a spill would be devastating. (The reserve is directly across the bay from the Westridge Marine Terminal, from where tankers will carry diluted bitumen to Asia.)

Kinder Morgan's $6.8-billion, 1,150-kilometre Trans Mountain pipeline will move a mix of oil products from Edmonton to a terminal in Burnaby, B.C. near Vancouver, where it will be exported to markets in Asia. (CBC)

According to the proponent, U.S.-based Kinder Morgan, it has reached agreements with all reserves through which the pipeline will be built, and it has signed mutual benefit agreements with 39 Indigenous groups, guaranteeing money and jobs in exchange for their support of the project.

Nineteen Indigenous communities, mostly from B.C. and Alberta, also acted as intervenors during the project's National Energy Board (NEB) hearings, and wrote letters voicing their support for construction.

But few of those chiefs have responded to requests from CBC News to speak publicly about their support after Ottawa gave it the green light.

The final length of Kinder Morgan's Trans Mountain pipeline, which ends at the Westridge Marine Terminal in Burnaby, B.C. (Paul Haavardsrud/CBC)

"You're hearing from chiefs that are scared to speak up because they support a pipeline? I get that. It's sad that people feel that way, because it shouldn't be that way," Bellegarde said.

The national chief said Indigenous groups are pushing for a speedier transition away from fossil fuels to clean technology, but he said it is unreasonable to say that oilsands development should be stopped immediately.

"We get it, everybody drives vehicles, everybody drives cars, everyone flies in planes, but you can't just cut it off immediately — you can't — people are not realistic if they think that's going to happen."


John Paul Tasker

Senior reporter

J.P. Tasker is a journalist in CBC's parliamentary bureau who reports for digital, radio and television. He is also a regular panellist on CBC News Network's Power & Politics. He covers the Conservative Party, Canada-U.S. relations, Crown-Indigenous affairs, climate change, health policy and the Senate. You can send story ideas and tips to J.P. at john.tasker@cbc.ca.

With files from the CBC's Tom Parry