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First Nations, First Dibs, Says Canada's Supreme Court

For related articles and more information, please visit OCA's Environment and Climate Resource Center page and our Canada News page.

With just one court ruling, the situation of pipelines in Canada has changed in a big way.

On Thursday, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled on a 14-year-old battle over logging rights on Tsilhqot'in Nation territory in British Columbia. Its decision says that any First Nation land that was never formally ceded to the Canadian government cannot be developed without consent of those First Nations that have a claim to it.

To say that this has huge implications for the Canadian oil industry is an understatement. The only thing that stands between Alberta, the province that is the hub of the country's oil boom, and the Pacific Ocean, which connects Canada to the lucrative oil markets of Asia, is unceded First Nations territory. The Northern Gateway pipeline, which Prime Minister Stephen Harper approved earlier this week, runs along a route that First Nations have already begun blockading, a full 18 months before the pipeline is expected to begin construction.

Harper has claimed a deep respect for Canadians who want to protect their own land, and has blamed most of the agitation against pipelines in Canada on the outside influence of Americans who "would like to see Canada be one giant national park." This ruling is going to put that respect to the test.

Earlier rulings suggested that the territories that First Nations could lay claim might be quite small. But this Supreme Court decision takes into account the semi-nomadic nature of First Nations cultures - particularly at the time the treaties were first made. First Nations do not need to prove that they have maintained an uninterrupted existence in a particular area - only that they hunted, fished, or otherwise made use of it.    

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