The First Nations leader who received an apology from the Canadian prime minister on Tuesday for failed Trans Mountain pipeline consultations says he won’t accept the apology until Justin Trudeau visits his community.
Coldwater Chief Lee Spahan had asked Trudeau to make the visit as part of a question he posed to Trudeau, after the prime minister delivered a speech to the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) special chiefs assembly in Ottawa on Dec. 4.
Trudeau told Spahan his government didn’t “didn't do a good enough job” carrying out consultations with First Nations over the pipeline. The Federal Court of Appeal has ruled the government took an "unreasonable" approach that didn't allow for a meaningful two-way conversation. But Trudeau did not respond to the request to visit.
Spahan has raised concerns about the pipeline project crossing an aquifer in his community and the risks this could pose to the water that the Coldwater people depend on. On Thursday, at a press conference of First Nations leaders who oppose the pipeline, Spahan reiterated his call for Trudeau to visit Coldwater.
He pointed to Trudeau’s meeting in June with the Cheam First Nation. Chief Ernie Crey has said the expansion project will benefit his community near Chilliwack, B.C. Spahan wondered why Trudeau was willing to meet with Crey but not him.
“I sent out an open invitation to the prime minister: if you can attend a meeting with chiefs who support the pipeline, then why won’t you come out to Coldwater and have a look in our backyard, as to why we have outstanding concerns, and outstanding issues, with the first pipeline?” he said.
Spahan said the pipeline explosion that occurred in October near Prince George, B.C. and shut down an Enbridge natural gas pipeline had frightened members of his community.
“My members are terrified. Terrified. What would happen, if that happened in our backyard? Who’s going to come fix it for us?” he said.
“So you know, you asked a question about, do I accept his apology? Well, I’m not going to accept his apology until he comes to Coldwater. I think that’s fair enough.”
'Condescending and sexist'
The press conference Thursday featured several leaders who demanded the federal government “honour its promise to ensure adequate time for consultation” of the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion and “engage in real consultation” without predetermined outcomes.
Chief Judy Wilson of the Neskonlith Band and secretary treasurer of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs (UBCIC) had got into a remarkable exchange with Trudeau on Tuesday. She asked the prime minister why his government’s commitment to consent with First Nations wasn’t applied to the Trans Mountain pipeline consultations.
In her question, she referred to impact benefit agreements (IBAs) signed by some communities along the pipeline route that she said might have been done so “under duress.”
Trudeau responded by urging her to “respect people’s choices to support or not support different projects” and then used Wilson’s first name: “I don’t think we should be criticizing them, just because they disagree with you, Judy.”
Following the exchange, the UBCIC demanded an apology from Trudeau for his comments, calling them “condescending and sexist...patronizing and offensive, as well as threatening” in an open letter.
“You responded by using her first name, which was completely disrespectful and ignored protocol,” the letter read. “You completely minimized the legitimate concerns that she was addressing around the lack of Indigenous consent and instead indicated that her concerns were personal in nature, an overtly sexist approach that attempted to normalize your dismissiveness.”
On Thursday, Wilson said when she raised the question, it “was squarely about consent, and I thought I did it in the best way I could. But it was minimized and I felt he was not using proper protocol.”
“‘I had a lot of Senators, other chiefs and even parliamentary staff saying, ‘That was really disrespectful the way the prime minister responded to you,’” Wilson said.
“It’s not me speaking solely on my own. I’m talking from elders, I’m talking from proper title holders, I’m talking from resolutions from the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs...when he’s putting me down, it’s really all of our people he’s putting down.”
Meanwhile, Grand Chief Serge Simon of the Mohawk Council of Kanesatake implored Canadian governments to pay more attention to the climate crisis instead of pursuing fossil fuel infrastructure. Simon said he embodied the Treaty Alliance Against Tar Sands Expansion, although he was speaking for himself.
"The planet is in deep trouble. Everyone recognizes it except the governments, those that are supporting this industry. The transition must be done, and it must be done soon, if we're going to save our grandchildren's future. What the hell do you not understand about that?" he said.
"You put $4.5 billion into a pipeline, public money. They could have used that money to help find a solution — pay physicists, pay economists, pay engineers — find a solution. Oil and gas are killing our planet. What do you not understand?"
Simon said he saw how far the government was willing to go to get the pipeline built — and that he was willing to go far to protect his right to say no.
“They purchased the pipeline? Fine. I'm more than willing to become a political prisoner of this country, if it means stopping this damn thing and going into something else,” he said.
"We want to help fight for a different economy. I'll put as much gusto into that as I did into this. I'm not against development. We need to make this change, and we need to make it now.”