- Prayers on the RecordMobilizing Indigenous Futures and Discourses of Spirituality in Canada’s Pipeline Hearings
Verlie Nelson, a member of the Haisla First Nation’s Beaver Clan, offered an opening prayer on the first day of community hearings held in January 2012 in Kitamaat Village, British Columbia, to weigh the potential effects of building the Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipeline in western Canada.1 The hearings, convened by the Canadian government and presided over by a joint National Energy Board–Environmental Assessment Agency review panel, would provide the evidence and recommendations needed for the federal government to decide whether to approve or reject the Northern Gateway Pipeline. Where government officials and oil-industry advocates had, in the weeks and days before the hearings, positioned the Northern Gateway as key to securing Canada’s future economic prosperity, Nelson’s prayer foregrounded the need to safeguard land, water, and the future of her community.2 In churches, community halls, and hotel convention rooms where the Northern Gateway hearings convened—far away from Ottawa or energy-sector boardrooms—those offering prayers explicitly asked to be heard and listened to while inviting cross-cultural engagement with the concepts, places, relationships, and ceremonies that framed local understandings of past, present, and future. They thus challenged what a shared future looks like across a contested landscape, wherein settlers and First Peoples coexist and must find ways to do so without falling back on colonial (and neocolonial) legacies, structures, and practices.
This paper, in attending to the hearing transcripts, examines a tension between two different futures at work. One, in keeping with Canada’s [End Page 66] settler-colonial history, imagines a future built on continued resource extraction and new export mobility to gain economic prosperity. Another aligns with Indigenous traditions and focuses on land rights, protecting the natural world, maintaining relations between humans and nonhumans, and expressing place-based generational continuity and Indigenous self-determination. Writing as a non-Indigenous Canadian engaging with Indigenous resurgence and decolonial literature, I consider how these futures competed and intertwined and how they can contribute to rethinking the course of environmental sustainability and development in Canada.
To examine how Indigenous futures can be expressed, in this paper I analyze discourses of spirituality entered into the Northern Gateway hearing record, with special attention to the affordances of prayer to allow discussion of the past, present, and future as linked and overlapping time lines. Reading these prayers allows contemplation of relationships ignored in investigations of environmental impacts or economic benefits. Prayers may elaborate on the gifts bestowed to a community by a creator or on questions of inheritance outside a Eurocentric sense of the word. In analyzing prayers shared during the pipeline hearings, the focus of this study, I argue that these discourses are future tethered and show “cultural persistence.”3 The notion of being future tethered—or realizing binding and practice-based relationships between past, present, and future generations—is drawn from my reading of Leanne Simpson’s discussion of how humans are tasked with providing for those who will live after them, elaborated further below.4 I understand this as action-oriented obligation and responsibility. I use Lorna Roth’s concept of cultural persistence as an entry point for unpacking cultural responses to and critiques of a development discourse that privileges externally driven infrastructure projects like oil-sands pipelines and as a way of understanding how communities might strategically assert both their adaptability and their imagined futures beyond and in addition to resistance.
In the following sections, I will outline the pipeline hearing process, which concluded with the conditional approval of the pipeline in 2014. I will then offer a brief literature review to address concepts of life projects, Indigenous resurgence, and sustainability in addition to cultural persistence. Finally, I will analyze a selection of prayers shared on the record during hearings in a handful of British Columbia communities, [End Page 67] including Verlie Nelson’s plea to “Creator God” to preserve and protect her community and its practices. Speaking of spirituality, tradition, and shared common knowledge to support the future needs of her community, Nelson—and others who shared prayers during the review process...