More than a month after members of the Red Lake Band of Chippewa set up camp atop four oil pipelines to protest Enbridge Inc.’s alleged lack of easements across their tribal territory, they say the company’s main answer so far has been to buzz their encampment with low-flying prop planes and choppers.
But that is only making them more determined.
"We’re going to escalate the situation," said Marty Cobenais, Red Lake Ojibwe, pipeline organizer for the Indigenous Environmental Network. After hearing from an Enbridge spokesperson that the company would be required to leave if the pipeline interfered with “permanent structures” such as fences and buildings, the blockaders have determined to oblige them with some construction.
"If there are permanent structures, they have to shut down, according to an Enbridge employee,” Cobenais told Indian Country Today Media Network in Washington, D.C., during a February protest against the controversial Keystone XL pipeline.
Since several band members lit a sacred fire to launch the encampment, the blockade has grown to include a tipi, a cooking and social tent, and a parking area. Recent bouts of bad weather have not deterred the protesters.
“The weather got really cold here the last week,” said Red Lake Band of Chippewa member Tito Ybarra, the comedian and a member of the troupe the 1491s, in March. “We've been out here 24/7 since we lit the sacred fire on the first day; the fire's been burning for 23 days. Either they shut it off, or move their pipes. That's what we want.”
Calgary-based Enbridge says that in general it has “no objections” to the blockade that members of the Red Lake Band of Chippewa initiated in the northern Minnesota town of Leonard on February 28, as long as there is no risk to the four pipelines targeted. But blockade members, some of the legions of people who oppose Alberta oil sands development and transport, told ICTMN they have no plans to cease until the bitumen stops flowing.
“It's not a question of if these pipes will leak—it's just when, and where,” said Ybarra. “The oil and chemicals they use to harvest and produce this oil are very, very toxic. It gets into the groundwater, which gets into the rivers and streams, and it causes cancer. It's been poisoning communities up in Canada. I, for one, don't want to see that happen here.”
Indeed, the First Nation closest to the oil sands project in Alberta, the Athabasca Chipewyan, has seen a rise in rare cancers and illnesses associated with petroleum-related chemicals. The companies behind oil sands and pipeline projects insist they take health and safety concerns seriously and that their operations pose little risk.
As far as the easements go, Enbridge says it did what was required at the time the pipelines were built. Company spokesperson Lorraine Little admitted that the history of the blockaded property is “very confusing” but insisted that the company had contracted for easements with those it believed had power to grant them when the pipelines were being built between 1949 and 1972. When Enbridge got easements for its lines to cross the neighboring Leech Lake and Fond du Lac reservations in 2008, its officials were not aware that the Red Lake band owned the currently blockaded property, Little said. Since then the ownership has come to light, and today the two sides are negotiating how much the company should compensate the band for the pipelines.
But Red Lake’s tribal leadership disputes the company's claims that it conducted due diligence in obtaining easements, and the tribal council sees little resolution possible over a pipeline that it says has been trespassing on Ojibway territory for decades. Moreover, Cobenais said, Enbridge’s Alberta clipper pipeline is just outside the reservation, and a leak there would also affect tribal lands.
“This issue is nothing new, and the Red Lake band has known about this trespass for many years,” Red Lake Tribal Chairman Floyd Jourdain Jr. told the Duluth News Tribune. “We have had talks with Enbridge, but nothing meaningful came of those talks, so the Red Lake band [has] ordered them to vacate tribal lands and move their lines.”
The occupation is the latest direct action against Canada's oil sands—a series of protests stretching from Texas, where activists were arrested for attempting to block construction of the southern leg of another bitumen pipeline, TransCanada's Keystone XL, to Alberta, where several First Nations have set up highway blockades. As Canada continues its push to ensure the export of its profitable oil sands products—especially as U.S. President Barack Obama deliberates the Keystone XL pipeline through U.S. territory—indigenous groups are vowing to ratchet up efforts to halt several proposed bitumen lines through British Columbia, including Enbridge's Northern Gateway and Kinder Morgan's TransMountain projects.
A rash of recent pipeline spills on both sides of the border, combined with the increased awareness spurred by the Idle No More movement that began in Canada late last year, are further proof that tribes must come together, Ybarra said.
“We're all one people, whether we're separated by the border or not,” Ybarra said. “Whatever affects them up there is going to affect us too. We've got to be in solidarity and support of each other. This isn't just a Canadian issue. This is about Mother Earth, that we're trying to protect.”
With reporting from ICTMN Washington DC Bureau Chief Rob Capriccioso.