Indigenous Politics Intersect with Contested Energy Developments in Indigenous Legalities, Pipeline Viscosities

Cover for Indigenous Legalities, Pipeline Viscosities

The following edited excerpt is taken from the Introduction of Indigenous Legalities, Pipeline Viscosities: Colonial Extractivism and Wet’suwet’en Resistance by Tyler McCreary. Dr. McCreary is a settler from Wet’suwet’en territory and Associate Professor of Geography at Florida State University.

Indigenous Peoples and the Infrastructure of Colonialism 

In July 2006, Stephen Harper, the newly elected Conservative prime minister of Canada, used his debut international speech to tout the nation’s “emergence as a global energy powerhouse.” Trumpeting the muscularity of Canada’s developing extractive might, Harper declared that Canada had “the most attractive combination of circumstances for energy investment of any place in the world.”3 At the heart of this claim was a particular imagination of Canada as a liberal democracy with a commitment to inclusive free market development. 

The ideal of inclusive development that Harper evoked was illusive if not illusory in practice. While there are vast bitumen reserves under the boreal forests in the heart of the continent, developing these reserves required the transportation infrastructure to link production to global markets.4 And building pipelines has provoked resistance from Indigenous peoples along the Canadian West Coast who have never signed treaties or ceded title to their lands.

With an on-reserve population of 590 in 2006, Witset was a small community that had long played an outsized role in Indigenous struggles.5 On the basis of Wet’suwet’en governance traditions, the hereditary chiefs launched the first Aboriginal title case in Canadian history in the 1984.6 A quarter-century later, they again took a leadership role in challenging colonialism in Canada.

The 2008 Energy Summit on Wet’suwet’en territories represented the opening salvo in a battle against the expansion of tar sands pipelines to the West Coast. The gathering included over two hundred people from Indigenous communities stretching over a thousand kilometres, from the boreal forests of Northern Alberta to the islands of the Northwest Coast. The intensification of tar sands development and the expansion of the network of pipelines and tankers transporting diluted bitumen around the globe threatened the lands and waters of the nations assembled in Witset. Wet’suwet’en hereditary chief Kloum Khun, Alphonse Gagnon, stressed that the environmental burdens of tar sands expansion were being disproportionately imposed on Indigenous peoples. “This Energy Summit was a reminder that the tar sands affects us all,” he said. “We can only protect our lands and waters if we stand together.”7 Other attendees echoed his message, giving voice to their environmental concerns and standing in opposition to a recently proposed Enbridge tar sands pipeline. If Harper’s first international gathering signalled his commitment to continuing Canada’s colonial relationships to Indigenous peoples, the convergence of Indigenous nations in Witset presented its counterpoint: an enduring decolonial commitment to defending the land.

Indigenous Legalities, Pipeline Viscosities examines how Wet’suwet’en territorial claims intersected with the development agendas of the Canadian state and the energy transportation company Enbridge in the governance of the Northern Gateway Project. In order to facilitate tar sands development, Enbridge proposed to develop a set of twin 1,177-kilometre pipelines connecting extractive operations in Alberta to the West Coast for global distribution. The project, which was officially proposed in 2005, faced staunch Indigenous resistance and was ultimately cancelled in 2016. This book unpacks how the fate of this pipeline become entangled with Indigenous mobilizations. Specifically, it examines how state and corporate actors tried to incorporate Wet’suwet’en concerns into formal governance processes and how Wet’suwet’en resistance exceeded these frames, ultimately becoming part of the constellation of forces that blocked the proposed project. The development of the Northern Gateway Project would have expanded market access for Canadian bitumen, impacting the course of world energy development and the associated climate crisis. This is, therefore, a story with global resonance. Indigenous Legalities, Pipeline Viscosities highlights the role that Indigenous movements play in shaping global futures, demonstrating the friction that Indigenous claims have created for the flow of hydrocarbon exports.

But this story is about more than a pipeline. It is a story about how Indigenous territorial claims intersect with settler-colonial resource governance processes. The Wet’suwet’en have governed their territory since time immemorial, developing “a complex system of ownership and jurisdiction…where the [hereditary] chiefs continually validate their rights and responsibilities to their people, their lands, and the resources contained within them.”8 Following the arrival of newcomers to their territories, Wet’suwet’en leaders have been in prolonged negotiations over how the practice of their Indigenous legal order interfaces with settler authorities who purport to act in the name of colonial sovereignty. Often, this has been a story of a conflict of laws, with settler authorities forcibly preventing Indigenous authorities from upholding Indigenous laws. However, it has also involved various connections and concatenations across legal orders. Wet’suwet’en authorities have adopted a variety of strategies to ensure their survival as a people and their ongoing access to means of maintaining livelihoods. Thus, beyond any specific industrial development proposal, it is necessary to examine how Indigenous peoples continue to protect and construct lifeways in the path of development.

New Relationships on the Northwestern Frontier

The conflicts between the Wet’suwet’en and pipeline developments sit within a long history of Indigenous struggles in Canada to maintain territorial self-determination and stop the introduction of extractive infrastructure to their lands without their consent. Indigenous struggles for land continue to call into question the territorial foundation of settler society and create spaces to recognize the existence of other ways of being in the world.

Studying Wet’suwet’en interactions with pipeline governance thus provides a lens through which to examine fundamental questions about relationships between Indigenous peoples and resource governance in Canada. On the one hand, it provides an opportunity to investigate how government and corporate entities are addressing Indigenous interests. On the other hand, it highlights how Indigenous mobilizations introduce new considerations into the formulae of resource governance, challenging, modifying, and even blocking programs of extractive resource development. Wet’suwet’en struggles showcase the capacity of Indigenous mobilizations to reshape resource politics in Canada and indeed globally.

The question of Indigenous relationships to resource-extractive development, particularly fossil fuel pipelines, is long-standing. In 1974, the Government of Canada commissioned Justice Thomas Berger to investigate the environmental and socio-economic impact of a proposed pipeline through the Yukon and down the Mackenzie River Valley in the Northwest Territories. In Northern Frontier, Northern Homeland, the 1977 report of the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline Inquiry, Berger depicted the conflict as revolving around two distinct visions on the North: “one as frontier, the other as homeland.” The commission report recommended delaying the pipeline project until political solutions addressed the conflict between Indigenous peoples and industrial development. The project was subsequently and repeatedly delayed as it sought to deal with various political, legal, and financial concerns, eventually being cancelled in 2017.

Colonialism is not a completed historic event or closed historic process that simply transferred territorial control to the settler state; rather it is an ongoing process, continually contested by Indigenous peoples who remain and continue to enact claims to territory that unsettle colonial sureties.16

Building a pipeline necessitated reconciling Indigenous peoples and development. In the fifty years since the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline Inquiry, relationships have evolved substantially. The politics of resource governance now regularly involves complex negotiations between Indigenous and colonial structures of territoriality and jurisdiction; however, the tensions over territorial jurisdiction and land ownership endure.

Questions of land title and political authority remain particularly salient concerns in British Columbia, where the majority of the territory remains unceded by Indigenous peoples.18 Through the last half-century, Indigenous political resurgence has wedged open questions of territorial and jurisdictional authority on the West Coast. Legal mobilizations, particularly in the wake of the 1982 constitutionalization of Aboriginal rights in Canada, have been strategically important within Indigenous efforts to contest colonial power. 

Following the track of unsettled negotiations, this book examines how the governance of resource extraction is continually entangled with, modified in relation to, and offset by Indigenous life projects. It documents how corporate capital and settler-state authorities have sought to effect constrained recognition of Aboriginal rights. The Canadian government increasingly relies upon environmental assessment and project review processes to fulfill its court-recognized duties to Aboriginal peoples.25 Through these regulatory processes, corporations and project review panels address Indigenous interests through Aboriginal traditional knowledge studies and the construction of programs for Indigenous industrial employment, subcontracting, and investment. These forms of recognition, while delimited, serve to modify development plans. However, the extent to which these regulatory processes meaningfully address the legal duties of the government to Indigenous peoples remains an open and highly contentious question, and one that will significantly shape the future trajectory of resource development in Canada.

Parallel to recognition of Aboriginal rights in the Canadian courts, Indigenous peoples have been actively asserting the vitality of their distinct frameworks of governance.26 

In cases where state-led governance processes have failed to protect Indigenous peoples’ relationships to the land or uphold Indigenous peoples’ stewardship responsibilities for the land, community members have mobilized on the basis of Indigenous law.30 By reoccupying traditional lands that are in the way of development and mobilizing against geographies of state and corporate power, Indigenous peoples materialize forms sovereignty that contest the settler authorization of regimes of resource extraction.31 

Indigenous Mobilizations in the Context of Global Energy Dilemmas

Examining the Wet’suwet’en relationship to the Northern Gateway pipelines showcases how Indigenous politics intersect with contested energy developments in Canada and the broader world. Under Harper, reforms to natural resource legislation and policy in Canada removed many legal levers for environmental opposition to extractive development.34 However, pipelines crossing unceded Indigenous territory in British Columbia still face significant legal hurdles. In this context, Indigenous movements, and the political and legal pressure they are capable of exerting, have played a key role in shaping development trajectories. Wet’suwet’en struggles thus showcase the capacity of Indigenous mobilizations to reshape global dynamics of climate change, energy development, and capitalist accumulation.

The need to reduce carbon dioxide emissions has increased scrutiny of the Athabasca tar sands by environmental activists and researchers, in particular because high energy costs of mining and refining bitumen make it a far more carbon intensive fuel than conventional crude oil.39

The global economy’s dependence on fossil fuels has made energy policy change exceedingly difficult. Through the last century, the accessibility of oil as a dense, fluid, and easily extracted energy source has shaped the global organization of political and economic life.40 

Exploiting the Athabasca tar sands requires transportation infrastructure to gain access to the markets that would allow extractive companies to realize their production potential. In the Canadian context, industry backers have expressed considerable consternation about pipeline bottlenecks “inflicting economic and financial losses not only on petroleum companies and their shareholders, but also on governments of oil-producing provinces and territories.”52 Bitumen production in Alberta is effectively networked to refineries in the American Midwest, but not to heavy crude refineries on the Gulf Coast or to tidewaters that would allow global export. Building infrastructure to link hydrocarbon exports to China would have diversified the markets that Canadian bitumen can access and reduced the vulnerability of Canadian producers to changes in US climate policy.

To support the expansion of the Athabasca tar sands, conservative governments in Canada actively sought to remove regulatory barriers to tar sands pipeline development. 

In 2014, the IEA flagged that the main uncertainty in projecting the potential course of bitumen development in Canada “is not related to the resource base, but rather to the transport capacity required to get the oil to market.”59 Environmentalists strategically targeted pipeline infrastructure in order to suffocate the development of the tar sands, particularly linking with local resistance movements in regions where pipelines present the greatest environmental risk and least economic benefits.60 As Canadian resource governance reforms had limited the opportunities available for environmentalists to challenge pipeline development directly, environmental movements were pushed to seek greater alliances with Indigenous movements. As Tony Weis et al. describe, “while the implications of the tar sands extend up to the scale of the whole planet, the movement to stop them fundamentally demands solidarity with the Indigenous communities struggling to defend their land, water, and sovereignty.”61 In addition to greater moral authority, Indigenous peoples possessed constitutional rights that they could effectively leverage in the struggle over climatic and fossil fuel futures.

This strategy has been tremendously effective. Despite government and industry efforts, no major new tar sands pipeline has been built and put in service between 2010 and 2023. Without additional infrastructure, land-locked Canadian tar sands production has been plagued by regional overproduction crises and unable to realize resource value.62 The limits of regionally networked transportation and storage capacity is highlighted by discounted prices for Western Canadian Select—a blended heavy crude oil containing a mix of diluted bitumen and conventional heavy crude oil—as well as periodic collapses in its value.63 While there continues to be substantial financial investment in the oil sector globally, the infrastructural landlocking of the tar sands has led major international investors to withdraw from Canadian production in recent years. In 2017, total capital spending in the Canadian oil and gas sector was $45 billion—“a 44 per cent decline compared to $81 billion in 2014.”64 To better understand the forces shaping pipeline development, and thus global dilemmas around climate change and energy security, it is necessary to pay closer attention to Indigenous struggles against settler colonialism. 

Home on Native Land

Indigenous contestation of colonial regimes of resource extraction are vital forces remaking the world. To understand these Indigenous movements, it is necessary for those analyzing them—such as myself—to embed their analysis in the local politics and traditions of Indigenous communities and these communities’ encounters with colonial regimes.

While this research has national and global resonances, for me it also begins from a personal engagement with the question of how to understand the history, present, and future of my home. It asks what it means to live responsibly on colonized lands. I am the descendant of white settlers, newcomers to Wet’suwet’en territories. I grew up in a small northern town, Smithers, originally built as a railway town to facilitate the export of resources from Wet’suwet’en lands and the broader Canadian Northwest.65 Set in a broad fertile valley, between majestic mountains and imposing coniferous forests, the regional economy around Smithers relied upon the exploitation of its abundant mineral riches and forest resources. The broader resource frontier that I called home, the Northwest Interior of British Columbia, remains now, as it has been for a hundred years, a site of contact and also contestation.66

Learning to see my home critically, in relation to the ongoing history of colonial violence on those lands, was a product of sustained reflection and dialogue. When I left home to attend university, I was introduced to the concept of settler colonialism and to scholarship on Indigenous governance traditions. 

Returning to Wet’suwet’en territories, I began to build new relationships and understanding. The research in this book is informed by more than a decade of study on Indigenous-settler relationships in Northwest British Columbia. 

The Enbridge Encounter with Wet’suwet’en Authority

This book examines the friction that Wet’suwet’en territorial and jurisdictional claims have presented to extractive capital and settler political authorities. Canadian political and economic life relies upon the continual dispossession of Indigenous peoples, on which the nation was founded. These relations are mystified through settler legal discourses that cover colonialism with a patina of consensuality and inevitability. Nevertheless, Indigenous peoples continue to mobilize against the colonial order, challenging the contradictions of settler law and posing alternative modes of governing based on Indigenous legal orders. These Indigenous mobilizations disrupt the legal foundations of the political economy of resource extraction in Canada, throwing into question the territorial and jurisdictional basis of the settler-colonial rule. Throughout Indigenous Legalities, Pipeline Viscosities, I use the case of the Wet’suwet’en in the Northwest Interior of British Columbia to argue that Canadian resource governance processes need to be understood in the context of the unfolding relationship between Indigenous peoples and colonialism.


3. Harper, “Address by Prime Minister.”

4. Hoberg, “Battle over Oil Sands.”

5. Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada, “Population Characteristics Witset First Nation.”

6. Culhane, Pleasure of the Crown.

7. Quoted in Office of the Wet’suwet’en, “Event Galvanizes Opposition.” Kloum Khun is how the hereditary chief’s name is spelled in the press release. Lho’imggin is the updated spelling according to Sharon Hargus, following her work in Witsuwit’en Grammar and Witsuwit’en Hibikinic. From here forward, I will refer to Hargus’s work simply as the Hargus orthography.

8. Sterritt, “Unflinching Resistance,” 277.

16. Wolfe, “Settler Colonialism”; Coulthard, Red Skin, White Masks; A. Simpson, Mohawk Interruptus.

18. Tennant, Aboriginal Peoples and Politics; C. Harris, Making Native Space.

25. Popowich, “National Energy Board as Intermediary”; Mullan, “Supreme Court and the Duty to Consult”; Lambrecht, Aboriginal Consultation; Promislow, “Irreconcilable?”; Newman, Revisiting the Duty to Consult.

26. McGregor, “Coming Full Circle”; Christie, “Culture, Self-Determination and Colonialism”; Borrows, Drawing Out Law; Napoleon, Provost, and Sheppard, “Thinking About Indigenous Legal Orders.”

30. McCreary and Turner, “Contested Scales”; Temper, “Blocking Pipelines”; McCreary, “Between the Commodity and the Gift.”

31. Blomley, “Shut the Province Down”; Napoleon, “Behind the Blockades”; Christie, “Indigenous Authority”; Pasternak, “Jurisdiction and Settler Colonialism”; Belanger and Lackenbauer, Blockades or Breakthroughs?; A.J. Barker and Ross, “Reoccupation and Resurgence.”

34. Haley, “From Staples Trap to Carbon Trap”; MacNeil, “Canadian Environmental Policy”; Fast, “Stapled to the Front Door”; MacNeil, “Decline of Canadian Environmental Regulation”; McCreary, “Beyond Token Recognition”; Peyton and Franks, “New Nature of Things?”

39. Charpentier, Bergerson, and MacLean, “Understanding the Canadian Oil Sands”; Swart and Weaver, “Alberta Oil Sands and Climate”; Englander, Bharadwaj, and Brandt, “Historical Trends in Greenhouse Gas Emissions”; Cai et al., “Well-to-Wheels Greenhouse Gas Emissions.”

40. T. Mitchell, Carbon Democracy.

52. Angevine, “Canadian Oil Transport Conundrum,” 20.

59. International Energy Agency, World Energy Outlook 2014, 122.

60. Hoberg, “Battle over Oil Sands”; Le Billon and Vandecasteyen, “(Dis)Connecting Alberta’s Tar Sands”; Veltmeyer and Bowles, “Extractivist Resistance.”

61. Weis et al., “Introduction,” 3.

62. McCreary, “Crisis in the Tar Sands.”

63. Moore et al., “Catching the Brass Ring”; Galay, “Impact of Spatial Price Differences”; Galay, “Are Crude Oil Markets Cointegrated?”

64. Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, “Canada’s Role,” 14.

65. Shervill, Smithers; Kruisselbrink, Smithers; McCreary, Shared Histories.

66. Glavin, Death Feast in Dimlahamid; Furniss, Burden of History.