At simultaneous press conferences in Montreal and Vancouver earlier today, over 50 First Nations signed onto a new “treaty alliance” to stop the expansion of Alberta’s tar sands. It amounts to a mutual defence pact — call it NATO for pipelines — with signatories promising to mobilize their communities against any pipeline development that allows the tar sands to be expanded, even those thousands of kilometres away from their territory.

The treaty’s introduction recalls the long history of treaties between Indigenous nations and explains that “the expansion of the Alberta tar sands, a truly massive threat bearing down on all of the Indigenous peoples of Turtle Island and beyond, calls now for such a treaty between Indigenous nations.”

“Based on our right to self-determination, we have collectively decided we will pick up our sacred obligations to protect the land.”

This raises the prospect of coordinated actions by Indigenous nations all across the country in response to the rumoured approval of the Kinder Morgan pipeline later this year. Organizers estimated the number of individual First Nations signing on had grown to over 80 by the end of the signing ceremonies and suggested it could reach 100 in the coming days. It’s an unprecedented show of unity from First Nations in North America.

“The only message I have for Prime Minister Trudeau,” Simon explained in response to a scrum question from Ricochet, “is why are you going ahead? Why are you promoting this? Why don’t you promote research and development [in renewables] and a massive investment in infrastructure and economic development for Alberta? Because that’s what the treaty will do. What he won’t do, we’ll do.”

“TransCanada will not have an easy time over the next year, that’s for sure,” added Ghislain Picard, chief of the Assembly of First Nations of Quebec and Labrador.

West coast solidarity

As First Nations leaders made their announcement in Montreal, their allies on the west coast held a press conference of their own. At the Musqueam Community Centre in Vancouver, B.C. First Nations were also signing onto this new call against tar sands expansion.

The signing ceremony at the Musqueam Community Centre
Union of BC Indian Chiefs

“What we’re witnessing today was indicated in ancient prophecies that said that all peoples of mankind would come together, and that convergence was to protect Mother Earth,” said Stewart Phillip, grand chief of the BC Union of Indian Chiefs.

“TransCanada will not have an easy time over the next year, that’s for sure.”

Phillip noted he had just returned from North Dakota on a solidarity visit to the Standing Rock Sioux fighting the Dakota Access Pipeline, and said that today’s announcement was part of a continent-wide resistance to new tar sands pipelines and other fossil fuel expansion.

“Based on our right to self-determination, we have collectively decided we will pick up our sacred obligations to protect the land from Big Oil interests and everything that represents,” said Phillip.

‘It’s all on the table’

In response to a question about how far the alliance was willing to go, Simon was unequivocal.

“It’s all on the table. We’ll see what is levelled at us and what our reaction will be. I prefer peaceful, but if let’s say a First Nation out west are starting to get hurt, let’s say someone gets seriously injured, that might require a more serious response from our part.”

“They [government] should know that we’ve never hesitated to take our fight to the streets,” added Picard. “We have a few hundred years of experience in making sure that our voice is heard.”

‘We’re not proposing to destroy Alberta, we’re trying to help it’

Simon also made an appeal to people in Alberta involved in the oil industry.

“Tar sands are, I think, a national shame. If it were up to me it would be shut down tomorrow. But it would cause a lot of pain for people in Alberta, so our alliance is going to promote, in the strongest possible terms, massive investment in Alberta in another type of economy. These two actions, they go hand in hand. We’re not proposing to destroy Alberta, we’re trying to help it, and we’re trying to help the country, and we’re trying to help this planet.”

“We have a new legal context over the last few decades, which plays in our favour,” explained Picard. “The problem is that governments won’t respect it.”

Trouble for Trudeau

Organizers were distinctly aware that they had fired a shot across the bow of the Trudeau government, and many of those signing onto the treaty described it as historic.

“If you were sitting in the government’s offices, and someone presented you with this document from First Nations, just the mere optics of seeing this in black and white, all these First Nations from all over the country, I think you start to reanalyze your position,” said Simon.

“That’s what we’re trying to do. We’re trying to make them realize that it’s not going to be business as usual, and that we are going to stick together, and protect each other, right across this country. This treaty is going to be very significant in the coming years.”

With files from Derrick O’Keefe in Vancouver.