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The Anishinaabe Water Walk to protest the Energy East Pipeline because of what it will do to water in Kenora, Ont. When a court ruling cancelled approval for the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion last month, in part over inadequate First Nations consultations, some called it the end of pipelines in Canada. In his new book Pipe Dreams: The Fight for Canada’s Energy Future, Jacques Poitras digs below the surface of some of the Aboriginal opposition to a previously doomed attempt at building a pipeline: Energy East.

Along the highway in Manitoba, a CP train chugged down the tracks and oil derricks pecked the soil near Virden. The landscape began to change. The topography, though still flat, became greener. There were more trees and rivers. A dank feeling signalled that the arid west was mostly behind me. Route 1 rolled past Brandon and Portage la Prairie and down Portage Avenue into the heart of Winnipeg. Once the great metropolis of the West, it was still the prairie capital of protest politics — the first city on the Energy East route where the pipeline faced real resistance.

Louis Riel first rebelled here, and the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919 was a milestone in the history of organized labour. The city’s universities fostered a progressive constituency willing to charge into the latest struggle. “Winnipeggers aren’t actually looking for a fight,” said Mary Robinson, an anti-pipeline activist with the local chapter of the Council of Canadians, “but when they finally get pushed, they will fight back pretty strongly.” Now the fight was about oil: the TransCanada line that was converted to Keystone sent its oil to the U.S. from a pump station south of Winnipeg; Energy East would carry bitumen east of the city, crossing paths with the municipal aqueduct. “Manitoba has a very agricultural identity, so people really get arguments based on protecting water and soil,” said Alex Paterson, another activist. “Everyone has someone in their family who farms and knows the food system would be messed up by a big pipeline spill.” Phil Fontaine in downtown Ottawa, June 2, 2014. In January 2014, Phil Fontaine, an Ojibway from Manitoba and a former national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, was confronted by the latest iteration of that activism when he was scheduled to deliver a lecture at the University of Winnipeg. Fontaine was widely respected in mainstream politics for his career as an Indigenous leader. He helped put the issue of residential schools on the agenda in 1990 when he revealed that he and other former students were abused at the Fort Alexander Residential School north of Winnipeg. In 2013 Fontaine took a job with TransCanada as a liaison with First Nations communities. Younger Indigenous people, radicalized by the Harper government’s pro-pipeline stance, saw it as a betrayal. “We call it co-optation, being co-opted,” one of them, Kevin Settee, told me.

The lecture never happened. A small number of activists opposed to Energy East unfurled banners as Fontaine began. One banner, held in front of the podium, showed a bloody arrow piercing a snake labelled “TransCanada.” Other protesters began drumming. When Fontaine pressed on, he was shouted down. “How dare you, Phil!” one woman yelled. “On your own people? Anishinaabe people? How dare you sell us out to work for the enemy that’s destroying this earth?” The scene turned chaotic as supporters of Fontaine shouted back, and the lecture was cancelled. Derek Nepinak, the grand chief of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs — though he opposed Energy East — tweeted that Fontaine had been “drowned out by anger and misunderstanding,” and asked, […]

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