For the last two years, our four tribal nations have participated in a Canadian regulatory proceeding opposing an oil pipeline most in the United States have never heard of.
The Kinder Morgan TransMountain pipeline, while proposed on Canadian soil, would result in a dramatic increase in oil tanker traffic through the Salish Sea that extends into Washington state waters. This would disrupt our treaty-reserved fishing rights and raise the threat of an oil spill — either small or catastrophic — that would devastate our lives and livelihoods.
We have called these lands and waters home since time immemorial. Our rights to fish the Salish Sea — including Puget Sound, the Strait of Juan de Fuca, the Strait of Georgia, Bellingham Bay, Hood Canal, and the waters around and between the San Juan Islands in the United States and the Gulf Islands in British Columbia, Canada — predate the governments of the United States and Canada, and those rights have been reaffirmed by treaties between our peoples and those governments.
The TransMountain pipeline proposal in Canada puts those rights, and our very way of life, at grave risk.
When the first King Salmon returns to our waters, we have a salmon ceremony, what some of us call the First Salmon Ceremony. We have a salmon bake and share the first salmon. We gather in our longhouse and share that salmon, giving everyone a small piece of fish and a glass of clear water. The water represents the purity of life and the life-giving waters from which it comes.
We, as Indian people, Coast Salish People, believe that we are the voice for Mother Nature. We have to be that voice. These waters are vital to us, and this pipeline puts our waters at risk.
The project would greatly increase tanker traffic through tribal fishing grounds, dramatically raising the risks of an accident and oil spill. Such a spill, whether in U.S. or Canadian waters, would devastate our tribal members who make their living as commercial fishermen and strike a horrific blow against all the people of our tribes.
Even without a spill, the increase in tanker traffic would adversely affect our ability to exercise our treaty rights, limiting access to fishing areas and making the jobs of our fishermen more dangerous.
The fact that we are U.S. tribal nations while the pipeline approval rests with the Canadian government is immaterial to us.
We lived on this land long before any borders were drawn, and the tribes on either side of that border are bound together by our deep connection to the Salish Sea. We are united in our resolve to protect the land, water and air from the threats of this unwise project.
The Canadian government, as a signatory to the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, has an obligation to consider transboundary impacts on native peoples in both Canada and the United States in deciding whether to approve this expansion.
We are also citizens of the world, and in addition to the direct impacts of this project on us, we are concerned about the contribution tar sands oil extraction, refining, and burning will make to hastening global climate change.
The upcoming decision by Canada will be a fateful one.
Much rests in the balance. Our tribes stand united with Canadian First Nations in forcefully asking the Canadian authorities to reject this harmful and potentially catastrophic pipeline.
Melvin Sheldon Jr. is chairman of the Tulalip Tribes. Brian Cladoosby is chairman of the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community. Leonard Forsman is chairman of the Suquamish Tribe. Tim Ballew is chairman of the Lummi Nation.