Earlier this month, at a pipeline consultation in Vancouver, over 400 people rose from their seats when a speaker asked the overflow crowd gathered in the room to “stand up if a federal approval of Kinder Morgan this December would be just the beginning of your fight.” It’s not surprising to see that kind of principled opposition on the west coast, where tar sands pipelines and tankers have long been an unwelcome presence. But if this is just the beginning of the fight, what would the rest of that fight look like? For a hint, look south.

Indigenous peoples are now connecting in a way that hasn’t been seen for generations.

In Cannon Ball, North Dakota, a protest camp has been growing since mid-August. Led by the Standing Rock Sioux, the camp aims to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline, a conduit to move fracked oil from the Bakken shale formation. The camp has swelled as thousands of people, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous, have flocked to it from across North America. Over the past few weeks, the camp has held marches, occupations, and blockades — and they have been met with severe repression, including pepper spray and attack dogs.

Watching this play out, I’ve seen images of tense staredowns and standoffs between the people, police, and private security. Some have even made their way around the world, carried over social media, and in stories by the BBC and the New York Times. But while these images are coming from the United States, they remind me of something closer to home.

Here in Canada, history has often been defined by famous photos of standoffs between agents of the federal government and Indigenous peoples. Whether from Gustafsen Lake or perhaps the most infamous, the staredown between a Canadian soldier and a member of the Mohawk nation during what’s commonly known as the Oka Crisis, these images have marked a trend: conflict between Canada and Indigenous peoples, typically over resource development or use of the land.

Unprecedented alliances

What’s different today is that Indigenous peoples are connecting in a way that hasn’t been seen for generations. As the mobilization in North Dakota has ramped up, expressions of solidarity have been sweeping in, perhaps best exemplified by the Totem Pole Journey that stopped to show solidarity with the Standing Rock Sioux on its way to its destination in Winnipeg.

Totem Pole at its final destination.
Winnipeg, Manitoba

Carved by the Lummi Nation, who recently fought off a coal export terminal in their territories in what is now Washington state, the totem pole was given as a sacred gift to Indigenous peoples in Treaty 1 territory fighting TransCanada’s Energy East pipeline. The totem pole travelled over 8,000 kilometers from the Lummi Nation to the Tsleil-Waututh Nation in Vancouver, leaders in the fight against the Kinder Morgan pipeline, and then on to Cannon Ball, bringing together Indigenous leaders along the way fighting fossil fuel expansion projects. Now it will stand as a symbol of resistance in the path of the largest proposed pipeline in North America: Energy East.

This kind of unity should worry any pipeline pusher, be they a CEO, a member of parliament or even a prime minister who claims that pipelines are a pathway to a fossil-free future. Because, this time, if the Government of Canada tries to push through a pipeline without consent, they won’t just be facing a few people, or just one Indigenous nation, they’ll be dealing with unprecedented alliances of Indigenous peoples supported by allies in a powerful movement for climate justice.

If Justin Trudeau wants to know what’s waiting for him and his government if they approve a pipeline, they should send someone down to North Dakota. Or better yet, just look back at Canada’s own history, because if Trudeau thinks shoving a pipeline through Indigenous communities without consent is the hallmark of a new nation-to-nation relationship, he’s in for a big surprise.