Indigenous Sovereignty and the Canadian Colonial State: Pipelines, Orcas and a Poem

by Budd L Hall

I live in Victoria, British Colombia on the traditional territory of the Lekwungen-speaking peoples, the Songhees, Esquimalt and W̱SÁNEĆ First Nations. Indigenous people have been living in British Colombia for at least 16,000 years.  It is the home of 52 different First Nations with about the same number of languages. 

Prior to 1846, the territory from the Colombia River in the current US State of Oregon to the Alaska border was claimed by both the USA and the British. In spite of clear evidence that both colonial powers knew that there were hundreds of thousands of Indigenous people living here, they negotiated a treaty between themselves, the Treaty of Oregon, which divided the territory along the lines of the contemporary Canada-USA border. The contemporary colonial settler state recognizes the date of this treaty as the beginning of British now Canadian sovereignty. It extinguished Indigenous claims on that land. The legal and political struggle over Indigenous land rights lies at the heart of one of the most divisive political issues facing the settler colonial state.

The Canadian economy is highly dependent on resource extraction, on the logging of forests, on the mining of minerals and on exploitation of oil and gas resources.  Land use, ownership of land is critical to the ability of national and global capital to extract resources and build profitability. Fossil fuel extraction is one of the most profitable of all economic sectors. In support of Indigenous land rights there are three key documents which are important to note. The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) which Canada has signed and British Colombia has put into law says in Article 26 that “Indigenous peoples have the right to the lands, territories and resources which they have traditionally owned, occupied or otherwise used or acquired”.

Section 35 of the Canadian Constitution of 1982 states that

 “(1) The existing aboriginal and treaty rights of the aboriginal people in Canada are hereby recognized and affirmed.

(2) In this Act, “Aboriginal Peoples of Canada “includes the Indian, Inuit, and Métis Peoples of Canada.

(3) For greater certainty, in subsection (1), “treaty rights” includes rights that now exist by way of land claims agreements or may be so acquired.

(4) Notwithstanding any other provision of this act, the aboriginal and treaty rights referred to in subsection (1) are guaranteed equally to male and female persons.”[1]

The third document is the decision of the Supreme Court of Canada which on June 26, 2014, granted the Tsilhqot’in Nation a declaration of Aboriginal title to a defined area of land located in the South Chilcotin, Cariboo Region of British Columbia. As title holder, the Tsilhqot’in Nation is able to determine use of and control access to the declared title lands.

Based on these three key legal documents, Indigenous Nations in alliance with environmental and climate activists have been engaged in blocking two major pipeline projects. One is the natural gas pipeline which is designed to provide natural gas from Alberta gas fields east of British Colombia to a port facility being built on the BC coast in Kitimat. Hereditary chiefs with the Wet’suwet’en Nation oppose the project, saying it violates Indigenous law and does not have consent. The second pipeline project is the Trans mountain pipeline which is owned by the Government of Canada. The proposal is to expand the capacity of this existing pipeline to provide up to nine times more of the amount of bitumen to the port of Vancouver, the port on the southern border of British Colombia which connects the Salish Sea to the Pacific Ocean. Opposition to expansion of the trans mountain pipeline has been extensive led by the Indigenous Nations whose land it will impact and environment and climate activists.  An increase in the number of oil tankers in particular is seen to a serious risk to the lives of the resident Orca whales, who are already impacted by shipping in the area and a decline in the salmon, their food stocks.

The poem that I have written tells the story from the perspective of the Orca’s themselves.  I hope that others may take interest and find ways to support the rights of the Indigenous Peoples to protection of their lands and waters and all of our future generations who deserve a healthy and safe environment.

A Letter from the Matriarch of the J Pod of Orcas to an Alberta Oil CEO

I expect that you will be surprised to find a letter from me, a 65 year old Orca. You may be surprised to learn that we have always had the ability to communicate with you out-of-the water humans, but we have managed a reasonable relationship up until now, so I did not think it necessary. I had hoped that the positive energies of the Creator that gave life to both our communities would touch our out-of-the-water humans with a sense of common purpose, a goal to preserve all life both of our water beings and the out-of-the-water beings.

Please don’t shout at your assistants wondering who in heavens is playing a trick on you. It is not Tzeporah Berman or the Coast Protectors or any of the out-of-the-water humans that you might suspect.

I live in the Salish Sea.  I am the leader of what you out-of-the-water humans call J Pod. We call ourselves eeeeeeeeeeeeeoooooooh. Please extend my greetings and the greetings of all the members of my pod to you, your children other out-of-the-water relations. While we may live on different parts of water and out-of-the-water, we share much. There are 70 of us in our pod, but we are not having as many young ones born than we used to. I am the daughter, the grand daughter and great great granddaughter of more than 15000 years of Orcas. We have lived in the Salish Sea for most of that time in harmony with those out-of-the-water humans you call First Nations. But for the last 150 years we have struggled. That is the reason that I am writing today.

We are not feeling well. We are losing weight. It is harder to find salmon than it used to be. When we have calves many of them die young. We share the Salish Sea with many of your ships. Many of your ships carry oil from out-of-the-water to lands far away. Their noise makes it hard for us to talk to each other. Sometimes we are hit by your ships and sometimes we are killed or critically wounded.

I know that the Creator wanted my Orca family and your out-of-the-water human family to live together in the celebration of life on this water not water world of ours. But it seems that your loud machines or incomplete education or confusion about the sanctity of all life has blocked your ears, your eyes and your heart.

We are writing to you our out-of-the-water friends to invite you to a meeting, a ceremony and a feast. We believe that if you can begin to know us better as fellow creatures of the Creator like yourselves, your actions such as increasing the shipping of oil or taking too many salmon will be understood differently.  Let us get to know each other. We can celebrate our common existence as beings of the Creator. We both eat salmon so a meal together would be nice. If we are lucky we might find a tuna to share as well.

We want our pods to continue to live as they have for thousands of years. We want the out-of-the-water humans to live in harmony as they used to do before what you call settler colonialism happened.

We look forward to hearing from you and to working together in the interest of all living beings, beings of the sea and of the out-of-the-water world.

Budd L Hall  wrote this for his grandsons, Quincy, Ashton and Leo.

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