Nepinak is a member of the Treaty Alliance Against Tar Sands Expansion, a coalition of 121 First Nations and other Indigenous tribes from across North America that are united against major projects stemming from the Alberta tar sands.
In its push for energy transformation, the Treaty Alliance's latest targets are the financial institutions currently funding major oil pipelines across Canada and the United States.
"The Treaty Alliance is really about establishing an alternative discussion space and an alternative to the popular narrative," Nepinak recently told Truthout in a telephone interview from Manitoba, in central Canada.
"It's an alternative narrative looking at the need to transition to sustainable forms of alternative energy," he said.
Earlier this month, the Treaty Alliance, alongside a coalition of other Indigenous groups, launched a new campaign to divest from banks that are funding four tar sands pipeline projects coming out of Canada, as well as the Dakota Access pipeline in North Dakota.
Organizers hope to put pressure on Energy Transfer Partners (a US oil company), and on the three companies involved in the Canadian tar sands pipelines: TransCanada, which owns the Keystone XL and Energy East pipelines; Kinder Morgan, which recently got a green light to expand the Trans Mountain pipeline from Alberta to British Columbia; and Enbridge, which plans to replace the Line 3 pipeline, which runs between Alberta and Wisconsin.
There are 64 banking institutions that fund at least one of the projects on the full divestment list, but 17 banks that fund the Dakota Access pipeline and all four pipelines from Canada have been specifically targeted. These include Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase, Deutsche Bank, Barclays, Bank of Montreal, Scotiabank and Wells Fargo.
The campaign is pushing the banks to stop funding the pipeline projects altogether, and develop ethically sound banking policies. It is also calling on "neighbors, elected officials, and pension managers to close all accounts with these banks unless they immediately stop financing tar sands pipelines." A petition with those demands has garnered more than 95,000 signatures to date.
Nepinak explained that the campaign is working to educate people about how their money is used.
"When you put your money in the bank, it's not just going to sleep; that money is actually being used to invest in projects that you may not agree with," Nepinak said. "People need to be aware of that. People need to be aware of where their banks are sending their money."
The tar sands in western Canada are one of the most resource-intensive oil extraction systems, and one of the largest greenhouse gas emitters in the world. The extraction process releases between 18 percent and 21 percent more carbon into the atmosphere than the extraction of conventional crude oil in the United States, according to a recent study.
Matt Remle, an Indigenous organizer based in Seattle, told Truthout that activists were not going to win a moral or environmental argument with the heads of corporations and banks that are backing major oil pipelines, so it is crucial to target what they do care about: dollars.
"They're not moved by those sort of arguments, but they are capitalist and they understand money, and if you go after their bottom line, either they respond, or maybe we can stop some of these pipelines in their tracks," he said.
Without concerted action from the opposition, pipeline construction is set to accelerate. US President Donald Trump signed a presidential memorandum in January to approve construction on the Dakota Access pipeline, the 1,100-mile pipeline that will carry about 500,000 barrels of crude oil every day from North Dakota to US oil markets.
Trump also approved construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, a project that was blocked by former President Barack Obama, and which would pump tar sands oil from Alberta, Canada, to Nebraska.
Earlier this month, TransCanada Corp., the company behind the Keystone XL pipeline, said it was reassessing whether US oil producers were still interested in the pipeline. TransCanada spokesman Matthew John said the company plans to re-engage with prospective shippers "because of a lot of changes in the oil market," according to The Associated Press.
Last November, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau approved a plan to replace the Line 3 continental pipeline from Alberta, Canada, to Wisconsin, and to expand the Trans Mountain pipeline, which would run from Alberta to an export terminal on the coast of British Columbia.
As opposition to the Dakota Access pipeline was mounting, Remle was one of the key organizers who succeeded in getting the City of Seattle to cut financial ties with Wells Fargo -- over $3 billion -- over the bank's lending in support of the Dakota Access pipeline. The divestment campaign was part of a much broader effort: the #NoDAPL movement was one of the largest Indigenous-led uprisings in recent years, garnering support from dozens of Indigenous communities across the US and Canada. Last year, Indigenous-led resistance was organized to block construction on the pipeline, which the Standing Rock Sioux and other Indigenous water defenders said would endanger freshwater resources and disrupt their sacred sites.
The #NoDAPL mobilization set up a large encampment at the proposed pipeline site, and water defenders organized marches and other nonviolent actions in an attempt to have the project shut down.
Police used water cannons and violently arrested and injured many of the people in Standing Rock as they attempted to remove them from their camp.
"I'm from Standing Rock. I'm Dakota. Every single person just witnessed colonialism in 2017," Remle said of the state repression that occurred at Standing Rock. "Colonialism in the 1800s was about coming in, removing us from our lands to get access to resources to benefit the settler-colonial populations.... That's exactly what happened with Standing Rock."
After people nationwide witnessed those scenes of violence, interest in the #NoDAPL movement spread to areas across the US and internationally and, Remle said, Seattle's divestment campaign "had a ripple effect" of its own.
Divestment efforts spread to other US cities, including Los Angeles and San Francisco, and to activists as far away as Berlin, he said.
More than $4.3 billion in city investments and nearly $90 million in personal funds have been withdrawn from the banks involved in the Dakota Access pipeline alone, according to the website DefundDAPL.
While ending the relationships between cities and big banks may have the biggest financial impact, Remle said anyone concerned about the pipelines can get involved by taking their own money out of the banks.
"We have to utilize everything that we can to fight these billion-dollar corporations," he said, stressing that divestment is just one tool among many that activists are using to apply pressure on these projects.
"On the personal level, [divestment is] probably the easiest thing you can do," Remle said. "It's going to add up. These people are ... out for the bottom line, and if they get a mass wave of people closing their accounts, things are going to hopefully change."
Meanwhile, Nepinak said, while large Canadian banks targeted for divestment had not responded to the demands so far, the successful US efforts show that the campaign is gaining ground.
"As long as we continue to carry a message that talks about hope and a future where we're actually sustaining the environment, instead of destroying it, I think we can actually create a culture shift," Nepinak said. "Every time we hear something happening, from the west to the east coast, to the north, it's positive."
Author: Jillian Kestler-D'Amours