What part of ‘no’ does Shawn Atleo not understand?

As oil prices plummet, Indigenous leaders go to work for oil companies
Photo: Rainforest Action Network

The same day his successor was announced at the Assembly of First Nations, former national chief Shawn Atleo started work for a tar sands mega-project that looks like a workaround to the stalled Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipeline.

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The plan hinges upon the completion of a pipeline from the Alberta tar sands to the north coast of B.C. to run at full capacity. A proposed $10 billion refinery could process up to 1 billion barrels of bitumen a day if a pipeline is built. (Until then bitumen would be transported by rail.)

At the annual Vancouver Board of Trade meeting on Dec. 10, it was publicly announced that Atleo has officially joined forces with former Conservative minister Stockwell Day to act as advisor to Pacific Future Energy. The announcement came the same day that Atleo’s replacement Perry Bellegarde was voted in as the AFN’s next national chief.

Nowhere near the bitumen trail

Two other well-known political chiefs have also jumped on board the lobbying effort for an oil refinery on the northwest coast. In addition to Atleo (Ahousaht First Nation), former AFN national chief Ovide Mercredi (Misipawistik Cree Nation) and current band chief Robert Louie (Westbank First Nation) have been named as advisors for the corporation.

At first glance it is easy to see one commonality among these three leaders: none of them are located near the proposed pipeline route or refinery. Atleo is Ahousat, part of the Nuu Chah Nulth Tribes located on Vancouver Island, Mercredi is from Northern Manitoba and Louie is from right outside of Kelowna, B.C. If the pipeline were to spring a leak at any point along this bitumen trail, these leaders’ First Nations would be spared.

Since getting these Indigenous advisors on board this so-called “green” oil refinery, Pacific Future Energy has adjusted the anticipated timeline for construction to seven to nine years.

B.C. Grand Chief ‘shocked and deeply saddened’ by Atleo

Grand Chief Stewart Phillip of the Union of BC Indian Chiefs, who has worked with Atleo in the past, expressed his profound disappointment with the move. “I realize that Atleo is in the private sector now, but despite that you would think he would have some compassion or empathy for the mass number of First Nations communities who oppose these projects, and with good reason,” Phillip told Ricochet.

“I am surprised, shocked and deeply saddened that former AFN chiefs Atleo and Mercredi have moved over and joined the ranks of the very oil industry that so many First Nations are currently fighting in the courts, in the streets and on the land itself.”

How can Atleo, Mercredi and Louie, men who formerly supported and upheld the sovereignty and agency of First Nations, now turn their heads so quickly away from the list of nations whose lands the proposed Enbridge pipeline relies on and who have vehemently said no to tar sands mega-projects? This group of opposing First Nations includes Atleo’s own Nuu Chah Nulth Tribal Council.

Alteo even joked at the official announcement of his new position that Pacific Future Energy “is important for recovering politicians.” Does that mean Atleo’s belief in Aboriginal rights, title and self-determination is in recovery too?

From environmental champion to oil advocate

Atleo’s crossover from First Nations leadership to oil project advocate is surprising, given his avid support for alternative energy sources such as wind farms. Atleo used to bend his audience’s ears on “generating clean, green power, wealth, to employ First Nations in B.C. and across the country”. Now he will be paid to bend B.C. First Nations’ ears for an environmentally destructive project.

It now seems convenient that Pacific Future Energy first hired Jeffrey Copenace, Atleo’s former deputy chief of staff. Perhaps this helped draw his former boss in. But did Atleo read the plan for the oil refinery? A pipeline, and a steady flow of oil to China through the Rupert or Douglas Channel, is crucial to the long-term plan.

That pipeline is opposed by 130 nations, 27 of whom are directly on the route of the Northern Gateway project.

During the early days of Idle No More, Atleo stated, “I don’t believe in fighting with each other. Division allows governments to ignore us. The elders remind us that the colonizer loves nothing more than when we fight amongst ourselves.”

Would not such a leader take heed of what the elders of nations across B.C. are saying about oil being brought to the coast and then transported over the Pacific? The elders have spoken on this issue. Why isn’t Atleo listening?

The tar sands are the biggest and dirtiest mega-project in Canada today. They produce bitumen, the dirtiest oil known to humans, which takes two and a half times more water to extract than regular oil. Add the energy to transport it to the coast via pipeline and then onto China via tanker, and our oil is bad news for the climate.

The Pacific Future Energy oil would be refined from bitumen on a site near the Pacific before being shipped through treacherous waters and narrow channels in tankers. Though processed oil is lighter than bitumen and can float, and floating oil is a bit easier to deal with, it still destroys everything it touches. There is no such thing as “cleaning up” an oil spill on the ocean, in regular let alone turbulent waters. No more than 20 per cent of the damage has ever been addressed in a spill.

But even if no tanker runs aground, the reality is that pipelines leak, and a leak or a spill would be catastrophic for the coast.

How can a leader who supports this plan claim to be protecting the environment, the land and the water?

One could argue that First Nations have been involved from the beginning — they have been poisoned since the start of the tar sands mega-project. The association between higher rates of cancer and the environmental toxins from the oil sands has been proven. Many First Nations are sick from pollutants, including the Mikisew Cree First Nation, Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, Fort McMurray First Nation, Fort McKay Cree Nation, Beaver Lake Cree First Nation, Chipewyan Prairie First Nation and the Lubicon Lake Nation.

Atleo has said that “the only way the project will proceed is if First Nations are directly involved, and providing their consent and their support, and their full partnership if that is what they choose.”

But the nations have chosen: they have said clearly and repeatedly that they want no part of these reckless projects and want them nowhere near their territories.

It’s time for Atleo to start listening.

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