Treaty makes pipeline expansion illegal in Coast Salish law

by Irwin Oostindie

Ceremony at Tsleil-Waututh Nation Community Centre
Ceremony at Tsleil-Waututh Nation Community Centre. Gabriel George (foreground) L-R: Leonard George (Tsleil-Waututh), Jewell James (Lummi), Jeri Sparrow (Musqueam), Chief Maureen Thomas (Tsleil-Waututh). Photo: David Ball.

• First Nations from the Lower Mainland, Vancouver Island and Washington State have come together to sign a historic treaty to protect the Salish Sea from tar sands oil and related threats. The treaty prohibits the increased transport of tar sands products through the Salish Sea and specifically makes the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain Expansion Project illegal in Coast Salish law. Notably, the treaty contains a provision in which the signatories agree to take collective action, if necessary, to enforce the protection of the Salish Sea under Coast Salish, Canadian or international law.

Gabriel George spoke at the Coast Salish Spiritual Leaders’ Gathering on September 21. George is the Language & Culture Manager for the Tsleil-Waututh Nation’s Sacred Trust, an initiative working to stop the Kinder Morgan pipeline expansion into their unceded territory. Speaking in traditional Hən̓q̓əmin̓əm̓ language is just one of the culturally based methods the Tsleil-Waututh have been using to fight the powerful US-based oil and gas distribution company, which is attempting to push up the daily travel of supertankers through Vancouver’s harbour.

“By signing this treaty, we have agreed to mutually and collectively use all lawful means to stop this project,” said Rueben George of the Tsleil-Waututh Nation Sacred Trust Initiative. “Kinder Morgan’s expansion project will never get built.”

The treaty signing followed a full day’s caucus of spiritual leaders from affected First Nations who discussed the sacred obligations to protect the Salish Sea. It also featured a feast where half of the 400 guests were non-Indigenous allies learning about these spiritual and cultural practices. The Friends of the Sacred Trust is a movement inspired by the Tsleil-Waututh’s desire to reach out to its neighbours to win the pipeline fight.

This cross-cultural movement is happening within the backdrop of the City of Vancouver declaring its jurisdiction as Unceded Coast Salish lands. Just last year, the Rally for Reconciliation brought 70,000 people out to rain-soaked Vancouver streets. With hundreds of Vancouverites supporting local First Nations efforts to protect the Salish Sea, the pipeline fight is having a secondary benefit of bringing people together across cultures and faiths. Supporting the Tsleil-Waututh is a practical action for reconciliation and redress.

A serious oil spill would devastate an already-stressed marine environment, jeopardize the remaining salmon stocks and cause further contamination of shellfish beds, wiping out Indigenous fishing and harvesting rights. It would also devastate Vancouver’s tourism industry and impact the shared lands and waters which Vancouverites take for granted.

In the face of a common enemy, First Nations are inspiring all people to look at what we share, rather than what separates us. The call to protect the sacred is an invitation to work respectfully for our shared future.

Irwin Oostindie is a Dutch settler who grew up in Tseil-Waututh Territory and is helping the Friends of the Sacred Trust. Visit or follow on Twitter at @TWNSacredTrust

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