Originally published in the Monitor (Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives)
While many Canadians “checked in” on Facebook to Standing Rock Reservation near Cannonball, North Dakota, to express solidarity with the Great Sioux’s protest against the Dakota Access Pipeline, some of their compatriots went down to join the anti-pipeline struggle in what has become its epicentre.
The battle pits the Sioux band, who have set up a protest camp, and its supporters against a militarized Morton County sheriff’s department and the National Guard. The latter have used mass arrests and force in an effort to crush the movement fighting Texas-based Energy Transfer Partners’ planned $3.8-billion, 1,900-km pipeline that snakes across four states from western North Dakota to Illinois, threatening Indigenous heritage sites and the drinking water below.
On December 4, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers denied the company approval to drill under the Missouri River, forcing it to find another route, but the decision is subject to appeal and can be reversed by the incoming Trump administration.
“We’ve been able to greatly rattle the inevitability narrative that big oil continues to weave into the minds of the public,” Clayton Thomas-Muller, the environmental justice group 350.org’s Keep It in the Ground campaigner, told the Monitor from Standing Rock in the wake of the U.S. army’s announcement.
In response to the potentially historic decision, Standing Rock Sioux Tribal Chairman Dave Archambault II issued a statement expressing special gratitude to “all of the other tribal nations and jurisdictions who stood in solidarity with us,” promising to return the favour “if and when your people are in need.”
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s late-November approval of the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain pipeline expansion, which will pump Alberta tarsands oil to the coastal town of Burnaby, B.C., for shipping to Asia, and Enbridge’s Line 3 from Alberta to Wisconsin, means the Standing Rock Sioux will soon have the opportunity to reciprocate in Western Canada.
“Justin Trudeau needs to understand that we’ve faced tougher foes than him and we have removed them from power,” Thomas-Muller, a member of the Mathias Colomb Cree Nation, said. “His administration will bend to the will of the Indigenous rights and climate justice social movements. I guarantee it.”
If it gets built, the Trans Mountain expansion will increase an existing pipeline’s capacity to 890,000 barrels from 300,000, casting doubt over the government’s climate change commitments and vows to improve relations with First Nations.
“Even though it’s down in the United States, our struggle as First Nations is the same everywhere,” said Snookie Catholique of the Dene Nation. The former CBC journalist and Northwest Territories language commissioner had just returned from her second trip to Standing Rock in mid-November when she spoke to the Monitor. “We’re all fighting to protect Mother Earth and for a better, cleaner environment, so that my grandchildren will have the experience I had as a child.”
Thomas-Muller said stewardship of the environment is an essential component of the Indigenous rights movement. “Our livelihoods, our cosmology and our worldview are fundamentally tied to the relationship that we have with the sacredness of place,” he said. “Environmentalism is, for us, a human rights issue.”
Kevin Settee, president of the University of Winnipeg Student Association and a member of Fisher River Cree Nation, also made the trip down to Standing Rock with two comrades in late August. He said part of the reason he went was to send a message to people back home “not to let the United States border divide them and stop them from going south [to support social movements].” Thomas-Muller concurred, calling it a “false border.”
Settee said he sought to learn organization tactics from the demonstrators that he could apply to environmentalist and Indigenous movements back home. “Why is what they’re doing so powerful?” he pondered.
Settee and his allies were some of the first people from Winnipeg to make it down to the protest. When crossing the border, at around 2 a.m., they told the guards they were going to a powwow, fearing that if they told them they were going to Standing Rock they would get turned away.
“Some people said they dealt with border guards who were supportive, giving them thumbs up,” he said, noting that he doesn’t know anyone who was turned back, but many were searched extensively.
At Standing Rock, Settee said he witnessed police intimidation—erecting cement barricades and checkpoints, for example—but also the use of psychological tactics meant to demoralize the demonstrators. “It’s the most peaceful place you’ll ever be in your life…but the Morton Country sheriffs issued a press release saying that we had guns and pipe bombs and that there were shots fired,” a claim Settee emphatically denied.
Protestors faced both state troopers and private DAPL security, Catholique told me, and it was often difficult to distinguish one from another. She said “a few bullets were fired” at a demonstration she attended on her initial trip over the Labour Day weekend, which she suspects came from both the police and security.
Catholique vouched for the peaceful nature of the protests, but said the tension emerged as the standoff wore on. On her first trip, the Lakota Sioux were in charge. “They were the ones who were really putting it out there that this was a peaceful protest. We do not want to lose any lives. We do not want to get into any kind of conflict that is going to linger after everybody leaves.”
She continued, “This time around, the Red Warrior camp tried to take control. They were the ones who were really being aggressive and that was not the original goal.”
Catholique attributed the movement’s prominence, particularly compared with other anti-pipeline struggles, to social media. “It’s at the forefront of media now, but it wasn’t when I was there in September. Our airwaves were being scrambled.” When demonstrators “got online for their livefeeds from camp, then it really took off.”
In late October, two University of Northern British Columbia (UNBC) medical students, Nicole Schafenacker and Katriona Auerbach, were arrested at the demonstration, according to the CBC, which prompted UNBC President Daniel Weeks to issue a statement defending their right “to take a position, to exercise their rights to free speech, to peacefully assemble, and to develop and foster informed opinions across a wide range of subject areas.”
The students were charged with conspiracy to endanger by fire or explosion, engaging in a riot and maintaining a public nuisance, as were dozens of other protestors who were arrested after a police barricade was set on fire. As of November 3 they were back home in Prince George, B.C., but will have to return to North Dakota unless the charges are dropped.
U.S. Green Party leader Jill Stein and Democracy Now host Amy Goodman were also arrested for protesting the DAPL on separate occasions. The rioting charges against Goodman were dropped, while the criminal trespass and criminal mischief charges against Stein had yet to be resolved when the Monitor went to print.
The Sioux had gone to court in September to block the pipeline’s construction, represented by the environmentalist law firm Earthjustice. Their request was rejected on October 11, although the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals acknowledged that their ruling “is not the final word.”
Outgoing U.S. president Barack Obama had been mildly critical of the project, saying it ought to be built along a different route, “to accommodate sacred lands of Native Americans.” Senator and recent Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders had written an open letter to the president the week before, calling on Obama to reject the project, as he had done with the Keystone XL pipeline.
But the surprise election of race-baiting climate change denier Donald Trump, who now wants to proceed with Keystone XL and is able to reverse the decision to reroute the DAPL, underscores the anti-pipeline movement’s urgency, said Settee. “The government is going to be pushing these pipelines through as fast as possible.”
Trump until recently owned between $15,000 and $50,000 in stock with Energy Transfer Partners and between $100,000 and $250,000 in Phillips 66, which owns a quarter of the DAPL. A spokesperson for the new U.S. president told the media in early December that Trump had sold his entire stake in the former company, but would not comment on the latter.
“The more people that we have that organized, that are trained, that are on the frontlines,” Settee said, “the better chance we have for a sustainable future.”