While Canadians were urged to slow down, stay home and follow good pandemic protocol, resource extraction industries continued business as usual. Bill 1 is an example of the opportunistic policies which took advantage of Canadians being preoccupied with the pandemic. Alberta Energy Minister, Sonya Savage, infamously commented, “Now’s a great time to be building a pipeline because you can’t have protests of more than 15 people, so let’s get it built!”
In addition to opportunistic policy, there was deliberate legislative action to dismantle long-standing environmental protections. In May the Alberta Energy Regulator (AER) suspended environmental reporting regulations to numerous oil sands operations and later expanded it to all energy-related industries in the province. The shocking deregulations prompted legal action from Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, Fort McKay First Nation, and Mikisew Cree First Nation, all of which filed a joint appeal arguing that they were not consulted before the decision was made, a decision that would have significant implications for the communities.
“They’re breaking our constitutionally protected rights to have a say in how the land is cared for,” Chief Marlene Poitras said, referring to the traditional lands of the Fort McKay First Nation, which have been almost completely overtaken by oil sands development,’ VICE reported.
Throughout winter of 2020, citizens across the country mobilized in solidarity with the Wet’suwet’en against the Coastal GasLink pipeline From railway and ferry blockades to resistance camps on unceded lands, protests and demonstrations led by Indigenous communities and Indigenous youth evoked powerful expressions of solidarity from Canadians of all walks of life and ethnic backgrounds.
Alberta lost no time in passing Bill 1, the Critical Infrastructure Defence Act, on May 28. The Bill was initially tabled in February 2020, at a time. Bill 1 was introduced to “protect essential infrastructure from damage or interference caused by blockades, protests or similar activities.” Devin Dreeshen, Agriculture and Forestry Minister, said Bill 1 would be used against Indigenous peoples in Alberta teaching their history and culture to their community in forested areas if the activities of those citizens “interferes with commerce.” Displaying a total lack of understanding of the layered relationship between treaty rights and Indigenous legal frameworks, Dreeshen said simply, No one is above the law.”
The Alberta Federation of Labour’s Executive Council released a statement in response to Bill 1 stating that this law represents a “step away from a free and democratic Alberta, and a step towards a police state.”
Only five sections long, the Bill contains a number of prohibitions and offences relating to activities involving “essential infrastructure.” The Critical Infrastructure Defense Act imposes fines of up to $25,000 on land protectors for blocking, damaging or even entering any area around a pipeline or resource development project that the government deems as “essential infrastructure.” In addition to the steep fines, land defenders can also be imprisoned for 6 months for protesting and interfering in any way on public/private pipelines, oil and gas production, highways, railways and mines. Essentially, the Premier of Alberta passed a law that allows police to arrest and fine Indigenous people for protecting their own land.
This not only takes away the right to protest but also the right for Indigenous peoples to gather, hunt and fish on their traditional lands. The Lieutenant Governor-in- Council now has the authority to deem any location an “essential infrastructure”, and make interfering with corporate interests an arrestable offence.
Bill 1 states that one of its purposes is to dissuade protests and the impact they have on economic interests and public safety through tougher penalties. There is a long list of what the government defines as essential infrastructure. As listed in the bill document, it includes places like pipelines, manufacturing plants, oil sites, pits, phone lines, quarries, railways and trains, power plants, dams, agricultural areas, gas utility sites, highways, amongst many others. Highways, as defined in the Public Safety Act, include sidewalks, roads, streets, alleyways, trails, bridges, driveways, and more. Police officers can also arrest people without a warrant, as mentioned in the document.
Professors at the University of Calgary Faculty of Law recently wrote, “In a democracy, those engaged in peaceful protests must be free to demonstrate in places of safety – places where they are not subject to arrest and punishment simply for being present in a public space. What we see in Bill 1 is an attempt by the government of Alberta to penalize all protests that are group activities, and perhaps individual entry onto essential infrastructure too.”
Here are 5 key protests that could now be illegal under Alberta’s draconian new “Bill 1”:
- 1974: Ojibwa Warrior Society occupy Anicinabe Park to demand healthcare, housing, and an end to police brutality in Kenora, Ontario.
- 1980-82: “Constitution Express” carries thousands of Indigenous Peoples to Ottawa, where sustained protests resulted in the inclusion of Section 35 – protecting inherent Aboriginal rights – in the Canadian Constitution.
- 2012: Idle No More movement sparks teach-ins and round dances in cities across Canada: Chief Teresa Spence carries out a hunger strike in a tipi on unceded Algonkian territory – aka Parliament Hill – to protest conditions in her community of Attawapisket.
- 2014: Rallies against Enbridge’s Northern Gateway pipeline take place in 115 towns and cities across Canada. After 3500 people sign up to speak at hearings opposing the project, Indigenous legal challenges supported by RAVEN and Sierra Club BC stop the project in 2016.
- 2018: 10,000 people march on Burnaby Mountain to witness the opening of Kwekwecnewtxw – the Watch House – built as a way of re-occupying and protecting Tsleil Waututh territory in the path of the Trans Mountain pipeline.
- 2010-2020: Resistance to Enbridge and Coastal Gas Link pipelines engendered a re-occupation of traditional territory in Wet’suwet’en territory and the creation of the Unistot’en, Git’imden and Madii Lii camps. Invasion of Unistot’en camp in 2019 engenders month-long protests and blockades across the country and spurs Federal Government to recognize Aboriginal title in Wet’suwet’en territory.