Campaigning for the Planet
Clayton Thomas-Müller is one of the most well known faces of Indigenous resistance to extractive industries and climate change both in Canada and across the world. Many know him from his pointed vlogs on social media, his participation at direct actions, frequent speaking engagements across Canada and the U.S., or his participation and leadership of Indigenous delegations to lobby United Nations bodies for Indigenous rights and environmental and economic justice. A member of the Mathias Colomb Cree Nation (Pukatawagan) in Northern Manitoba, Thomas-Müller is currently a campaigner for 350.org and has been involved in numerous initiatives to build an inclusive global movement for energy and climate justice. He serves on the board of the Bioneers, Global Justice Ecology Project, and Navajo Nation-based Black Mesa Water Coalition. Cultural Survival recently spoke with Thomas-Müller about his work.
Cultural Survival: Tell us about the major oil and gas pipeline projects First Nations are opposing in Canada.
Clayton Thomas-Müller: Canada’s extractivism-centered economy continues to be one of the primary issues that Canada’s Indigenous Peoples face in asserting our territorial jurisdiction and self-determination and acting as sovereign Nations economically, socially, politically, and spiritually. Most prevalent is the Canadian Tar Sands in Alberta and its ongoing expansion in Cree, Dené, and Métis Peoples’ territory in the Athabasca Peace River and Cold Lake regions. Equally problematic are the half a dozen or so proposed mega pipelines coming out of the Tar Sands trying to get to international tidewaters so that Canada can sell them to the highest bidder on international markets.
Right now, the most controversial are the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain pipeline and the TransCanada Corporation’s three proposed projects. Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain would link the inlet Vancouver, British Columbia, Coast Salish territory to the Tar Sands. It is being resisted by Tsleil-Waututh Nation, who live half a mile across the inlet from the export terminal. They are very concerned about the massive increase in mega oil tankers that the existing Trans Mountain pipeline (from 300,000 to 800,000 barrels per day) will bring. They have worked very hard for the last 30 years to reclaim their fragile ocean ecosystem that they depend on for their food source, and they don’t want the threat of oil spills from tankers to ruin that sacred relationship they have with the ocean. Many other Indigenous Nations in the Coastal Salish Sea are supportive of Tsleil-Waututh and their efforts to resist Kinder Morgan.
The TransCanada Corporation has three controversial pipeline proposals. One of them is the Grand Rapids pipeline, which is the mother pipeline to both the proposed Keystone XL as well as the Trans Mountain in Alberta. The Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation has a lawsuit against that pipeline, which would produce 900,000 barrels per day. The other project is the Atlantic Link pipeline. They want to convert 50-year-old existing gas pipeline over 2,000 kilometers, along with adding another 1,500 kilometers of new pipeline, to make one of the longest pipelines in Canada known as the Energy East. But that project has been riddled with problems and has been forced back to the drawing board because of all kinds of conflict and resistance.
In addition, President Trump has brought back the Keystone XL pipeline after it was defeated under the Obama administration in the name of climate change through grassroots organizing and civil disobedience at a scale the U.S. had never seen. On top of that you have the recently approved Enbridge pipeline line 3, another Tar Sands pipeline that runs through where I live here in the province of Manitoba and down into Minnesota; it is being resisted on both sides of the border. In Minnesota, resistance is led by Honor the Earth, Winona LaDuke’s organization, and Minnesota 350. In Manitoba there is a litigation by the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs over the lack of consultation and consent of that project, along with emerging grassroots resistance, both Native and non-Native, along the proposed right of way.
Enbridge took a massive hit recently and had their Northern Gateway in northern British Columbia, known as the Tar Sands to Asia Link pipeline, killed by the Trudeau administration over the fact that it went through the heart of the Great Bear Rainforest. You also have other lesser known pipelines that have yet to gain traction, along with a number of gas pipelines, including the Mackenzie Valley gas pipeline, which are being revived. And there are a lot of natural gas, fracking, and pipeline projects. The Unis’tot’en resistance camp in Smithers, BC continues to exist. That camp is resisting the Pacific Trails natural gas project and some other LNG projects meant to be feedstock pipelines bringing fracked gas from northeastern British Columbia to the controversial Lelu Island LNG export super terminal.
In the era of a 1.5 degree imperative, we know that none of these pipelines can be built. We have won the scientific, economic, and the justice-based arguments against new fossil fuels infrastructure, and that is why these projects are being so vehemently opposed.
CS: How does one balance self-determination and sovereignty with the idea of participating in the pro-fossil fuel energy sector and the need for economic resources in impoverished communities?
CTM: A lot of big energy resource First Nations have attempted to mirror what big energy resource Tribes have done in the United States. They are trying to organize themselves through the support of the oil lobby. We have seen the emergence of the Indigenous resource council and very loud voices like Fort McKay First Nation, Frog Lake, Onion Lake and other First Nations that have much of their revenue streams derived from extractivism.
When we talk about the transition off of the fossil fuel economy, we need to have a very strong framework of a just transition to support not only workers impacted by the transition off of fossil fuels, but also First Nations and municipalities most impacted by the transition off of fossil fuels. When we talk about divestment and the reallocation of investment capital in fossil fuel development, we need to take lessons learned from other international divestment strategies like the apartheid strategy, and not create capital deserts in places like Fort McMurray—and certainly not in First Nations that have heavy investments and revenue streams essential to social health programming derived from fossil fuel investments.
We need to make sure these communities are first in line for whatever climate mitigation adaptation resources exist for retooling their workers and adjusting their economies to zero carbon. Because it doesn't really matter if you are a Native or a non-Native corporation or community; the very real human cost of continuing fossil fuel development applies. First Nations and First Nation advocacy organizations like the Indigenous Resource Council and many of the national and regional chiefs’ organizations can expect the same kind of resistance that oil companies are receiving if they continue to lift up economic schemes that tie us to a dirty fossil fuel economy during a time when we have to be transitioning off fossil fuels.
CS: What can you tell us about the Indigenous-led resistance movement against climate change and fossil fuels?
CTM: The international Tar Sands campaign started with three women representing three generations of one Dené family from the Athabasca region of Alberta. They rang the alarm bell, they worked with the Indigenous Environmental Network and organized a fact finding mission of Indigenous campaigners to the Tar Sands, hosted by the community of Fort Chipewyan, which is downstream from the Tar Sands. Later, the biggest environmental organizations and foundation leads were hosted by the affected First Nations, and the rest is history. Their massive investment was in not just stopping the Tar Sands in Alberta but in following the foreign direct investment, targeting them in their own backyards at shareholders meetings in Europe and in the United States.
There has also been a very effective pipeline campaign on both sides of the border that has resulted in the termination of two massive pipeline proposals: the Keystone XL and the Northern Gateway. All of that came from the very sophisticated, multi-pronged strategy designed and implemented by Indigenous people within a Native rights-based framework. Corporations operating in Canada continue to benefit from an unfair trade subsidy by not recognizing the very real risk of intervention and territorial jurisdictional assertion of Indigenous Peoples through the courts, through civil disobedience, and through other social movement strategies and tactics.
Both investors and financial managers of some of the biggest pension funds in the world have begun to take note of the financial risk of investing in extractive projects in Canada because of the fact that First Nations have been winning two of every three lawsuits against bad projects. A lot of lessons have been learned by campaigners across Canada, the U.S., and the world because of the visibility of the Tar Sands campaign. UN Special Rapporteur James Anaya’s visit to Canada in 2013 and numerous interventions at the UN have all resulted in a massive downgrading of Canada’s international image and the dethroning of former Prime Minister Harper.
CS: What does renewable energy look like in Canada?
CMT: It’s a far cry from where it needs to be. And it’s not just First Nation communities that have a serious gap when it comes to the emergence of geothermal, solar, wind power, or small scale hydro emerging in their communities. There has been a lot of lifting up of mega-hydro as green energy. We know that it is in no way a climate friendly energy source. Dams are the largest source of renegade methane emission in Canada, a greenhouse gas 20 times more potent than CO2. The same can be said about nuclear. Canada is one of the world’s leading uranium exporters and the nuclear lobby has considerable influence on the federal government. It continues to be an issue, in particular the long term nuclear waste repository that the federal government is trying to place on First Nations either in the Great Lakes or in Northern Saskatchewan. The nuclear issue and the hydro issue disproportionately impact Indigenous people, just like climate change. And they continue to be lifted up as false solutions to climate change. Science tells us we have 10 years to get off of fossil fuels until we get locked into to a commitment to climate change that, quite frankly, has no end in sight.
But, there is also great hope. Haida Nation has invested in renewable energy. There is talk of offshore wind power development, and there is talk of tidal energy development in Mi’kmaq regions of Atlantic Canada, although there needs to be more grid scale energy developments owned by First Nations. There is some talk in the Louis Bull First Nation in Alberta of wind power and solar development. The Lubicon Cree in the heart of the Tar Sands region implemented a community scale project of 20 kilowatt solar installation that powers their health center. And in communities like the Tsleil-Waututh, BC, who are fighting Kinder Morgan, they have installed solar to power their daycare and their Tribal government administration building. We need to see more renewable energy infrastructure placed in the pathway of pipelines and shipping lanes. Social movements will not stop until our leaders demonstrate the political will to separate oil and state.
Photo: Clayton Thomas-Müller getting arrested while protesting Kinder Morgan’s Trans-Mountain pipeline at Canada’s Parliament in late 2016 at 350’s Climate101 action. Photo courtesy of Clayton Thomas-Müller.