First Nations community in battle over aging pipeline running through traditional land

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A small London-area First Nation, it was the last opponent left standing to one of Canada’s most controversial oil pipeline projects.

Wednesday, the Chippewas of the Thames will be thrust under a national spotlight as the community finds out if its fight against a pipeline giant over an aging oil line that runs through its traditional territory, is over.

“The decision is crucial to Canada. It’s going to be a decision that talks about traditional territory and consultation with First Nations,” Myeengun Henry, the newly elected chief of the First Nation, located about 30 kilometres southwest of London, said.

The Supreme Court of Canada is expected to rule Wednesday on a bid by the First Nation to halt the reversal of the flow of oil through a 900-kilometre line owned by Canada’s largest oil pipeline company, so that crude — including diluted Alberta oilsands bitumen — can be sent to refineries in Quebec.

It would be a landmark victory for the community of about 1,000, whose appeal of the National Energy Board’s approval of the project was lost in a 2-1 split decision in the Federal Court of Appeal.

A loss in the high court would clear Enbridge to not only reverse the flow of oil in the 40-year-old line, sending it from west to east, but also to raise its capacity to 300,000 barrels a day from 240,000.

Environmentalists and other aboriginal communities, including the Aamjiwnaang First Nation near Sarnia, were critical of the project, fearful of an environmental catastrophe if the line ruptures — higher pressure is needed to push more oil through — and the crude spills out.

But in the end it was the Chippewas of the Thames — backed by other Indigenous groups — that took on the case in the David-and-Goliath showdown.

For Henry, a veteran band councillor five days into his new job as chief, the stakes couldn’t be higher.

“Our spiritual responsibility to that land is even more important than a constitutional law, and we’re going to uphold that in whatever manner it takes,” he said.

The high court heard the case November 30 and is expected to issue its decision Wednesday morning.

Built in the mid-1970s, Line 9 first carried oil west to east but its flow was reversed in 1998, allowing cheaper foreign crude to be sent to the Sarnia area for refining and its petro-chemical industries.

Five years ago, as higher oil prices made North American production more attractive, including from unconventional sources such as the oilsands, Enbridge applied to reverse and expand the line.

One portion of the line, 9A from Sarnia to North Westover near Hamilton, is already reversed.

The second-phase reversal of the line’s stretch going on to Montreal, 9B, which the Chippewas of the Thames appealed, completes the project and was given conditional approval by the NEB in 2014, with the first crude flowing through it in late 2015.

Line 9 runs through the London region and crosses the Thames River in Middlesex Centre, a spot about 35 kilometres away from the reserve but through Chippewas treaty territory.

Dozens of environmental groups and First Nation communities along Line 9 argued against the project during NEB hearings. Critics have held demonstrations, sit-ins and protests.

Henry, who was elected chief on Saturday, defeating incumbent Leslee White-Eye and two other candidates, said the community hopes for the best but is braced for whatever the court rules.

“I feel that it’s going to be positive, but there’s always an area of concern we have when hard decisions come out,” said Henry, a longtime educator and the manager of aboriginal services at Conestoga College.

“We’re going to be prepared for whatever happens. We hope to celebrate but if we don’t, we have something else to do,” he said.


  • Sarnia-Montreal crude oil pipeline built in 1975, began operating in 1976
  • 9A portion runs from Sarnia to a pumping station in North Westover, 25 km northwest of Hamilton
  • 9B portion runs from North Westover to Montreal
  • Carbon steel line coated with polyethylene tape
  • Operated by Enbridge, Canada’s largest oil pipeline company
  • Built to ship crude oil west to east, it’s been going east to west since 1998.
  • Latest move reverses flow again
  • Capacity increased to 300,000 barrels of oil daily, from 240,000
  • Will carry mainly light crude oil, but can also ship heavy crude such as diluted oilsands bitumen

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