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Northern Gateway Pipeline debate

    Free, prior and informed consent

    In November 2016, the federal government closed the door to the proposed Northern Gateway Project, declaring that, “The Great Bear Rainforest is no place for a pipeline and the Douglas Channel is no place for oil tanker traffic.”

    The federal government's actions came after a long - and costly - legal and political battle led by First Nations whose rights had been ignored and repeatedly violated by governments seemingly set on pushing ahead with energy infrastructure development regardless of the impact on Indigenous peoples.

    The proposed project would have built two parallel pipelines to connect the Alberta oil sands to the British Columbia coast. One pipeline would carry a daily average of 525,000 barrels of oil sands bitumen, oil and industrial chemicals to a proposed facility in Kitimat, B.C. where the bitumen and oil would be loaded onto tankers for export, including to new markets in Asia. The other pipeline would carry industrial chemicals to the oil sands for the extraction and transport of bitumen.

    If the project went ahead, it would have lead to pipeline construction across roughly 1000 rivers and streams in the traditional territories of Indigenous peoples in Alberta and British Columbia; the transport of bitumen, oil and industrial chemicals across these territories and through coastal waters vital to other Indigenous nations; and ultimately contribute to increased demand for oil sands extraction on Indigenous territories in Alberta.

    The majority of First Nations whose traditional lands would be crossed by the proposed Northern Gateway project have opposed the pipeline, as have First Nations who depend on the downstream rivers and coastal waters.

    In March 2010, nine First Nations in B.C. issued their own ban on tanker traffic in the coastal waters of their territories. In December 2011, 61 First Nations with territory in the largest watershed on the proposed pipeline route issued a declaration denouncing Northern Gateway as a “grave threat” to “our laws, traditions, values and our inherent rights as Indigenous peoples.”

    The Northern Gateway proposal was the subject of a lengthy public environmental impact assessment. Federal officials described the environmental review as being one of the primary ways that the government will fulfil its court-established, mandatory duty to consult with and accommodate Indigenous peoples who may be affected by this project. However, Indigenous peoples had no input into how this assessment was designed and carried out. Furthermore, many critical Indigenous rights concerns, including those related to unceded Aboriginal land title were deliberately placed outside the mandate of the project review. .

    These criticisms were confirmed by a June 2016 decision by the Federal Court of Appeal which overturned the federal approval for the project, stating that the decision-making process had fallen "well-short" of the standard of consultation required by Canadian law. The Court found that crucial matters such as impacts on Indigenous land title and governace that been excluded from the environmental assessment process had been given only “brief, hurried and inadequate” consideration before the project was approved.


    Amnesty International takes no position either for or against oil and gas development, mining, logging and other resource development per se. However, we do call for the rigorous protection of international human rights standards in every phase of the decision-making process. Meeting these standards means that some projects must be substantially amended or rejected altogether.

    In the case of the proposed Northern Gateway Pipeline, Amnesty took the position that the project must not proceed over the objections of potentially affected First Nations. To do so would be contrary to well-established standards of international human rights, including the standard of free, prior and informed consent, which should be an integral part of government actions in Canada.

    Amnesty International first set out in its position in a June 2010 public statement. We also outlined out concerns in an oral presention to the Joint Review Panel.

    Photo: Susanne Ure

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