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Canadian chiefs deliver warning to Obama’s transition team

WASHINGTON – Several chiefs from Canada’s First Nations recently traveled to the nation’s capital to meet with members of President Barack Obama’s transition team. Their main objective was to get the new president to apply international pressure on the Canadian government to share oil resource wealth with the indigenous people of Canada.

“Today, we are here to deliver a message to the U.S. government and President-elect Obama,” Glenn Hudson, chief of the Peguis First Nation and spokesman for the seven First Nations of Treaty One, said at a National Press Club event.

“We want to raise American awareness that this is not a Canadian domestic issue but a homeland security issue for the U.S.,” Hudson said. “A disruption of Canadian oil supply would have a devastating impact on the U.S. economy.”

He said the chiefs are hopeful that Obama “will embrace the attitude of respect, compassion and support” by engaging in fair trade discussions directly with First Nations leaders. They feel the Canadian government and energy sector has not treated them fairly on oil issues, so they might as well try to deal directly with the U.S. government.

Some indigenous people have taken action to physically halt oil production from Canada. In September, two blockades by First Nations in the Saskatchewan sent shockwaves through the industry as construction was grounded for four and six days at two pipeline sites.

The press club event was held Jan. 8 soon after Hudson and several chiefs met with unnamed members of Obama’s transition team. The chiefs said they were asked not to say with whom they had spoken.

They did, however, share what they had spoken about. They explained to transition members that Canada is the leading importer of oil to the U.S., but the Canadian government fails to pay royalties to indigenous communities on which the oil pipelines run.

Treaty One’s territory of 16,700 square miles lies directly in the path of both Enbridge and TransCanada pipelines. The pipelines are being constructed through Treaty One lands without prior approval by the Natives of the region.

Additionally, two major pipelines, the Enbridge Alberta Clipper and the TransCanada Keystone Project, being built through three provinces are expected by 2012 to carry an additional 1.9 million barrels of oil a day to the U.S.

Many indigenous people are angry about this situation – along with the failure of the Canadian government and energy sector to rectify it.

Anger was apparent in a video shown during the press club event by the chiefs. The video depicted recent blockades of oil pipelines by members of First Nations, and showed the need for more action in the future.

The chiefs said the Canadian government has eliminated the right to property for indigenous peoples. It’s an area where the chiefs said the U.S. government has done better by their Native people than the Canadian government has done with its indigenous people.

Sheldon Wuttunee, one of two chiefs who coordinated the blockade in Saskatchewan said it was necessary.

“We don’t want to act as terrorists, but desperate times call for desperate measures,” said Wuttunee, who leads the Red Pheasant First Nation. “We don’t want to stop the export of oil; we don’t want the white men’s money; we just want a share of our own wealth.”

Despite the strong language, Roseau River Chief Terry Nelson said they did not come to Washington to rain on Obama’s parade.

In fact, Nelson noted with enthusiasm that Obama said during his campaign that he was willing to look at re-opening the North American Free Trade Agreement. It was a statement that Nelson said pleased him. “We want to be part of that discussion.”

In a question and answer session with members of the media, Nelson later said indigenous people do not want to have to resort to acts of aggression over oil issues. They would prefer to peacefully settle differences with the Canadian government, and Obama, they hope, could help that process along.

The chiefs urged Americans to phone their members of Congress to let them know that indigenous rights matter.

Dennis Banks, a longtime Indian activist, said during the conference that it is important for American Indians to support their Canadian indigenous counterparts.

Soon after the chiefs’ visit to Washington, Canada’s prime minister said energy and the environmental impact of Alberta’s massive oil sands operations will be priorities when Obama visits Canada on his first foreign trip as U.S. president.

The province’s oil sand deposits have helped Canada become one of the few countries that can significantly ramp up oil production amid the decline in conventional reserves.

Still, Obama advisers said during his campaign for president that greenhouse gas emissions resulting from converting the sands into oil are unacceptably high.

“We want to work together with the United States on environmental and energy issues,” Prime Minister Stephen Harper recently told a Calgary radio station.

The timing of Obama’s trip had not been announced as of press time.

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