Chevron lawyers trying to close courthouse doors in Canada to First Nations communities, say advocates
Amazon Defense Coalition
6 October 2017 - FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact: Karen Hinton at +1.703.798.3109
Toronto, Canada – Oil conglomerate Chevron, which faces a large environmental liability to indigenous groups in the Amazon after it dumped billions of gallons of toxic oil waste onto their ancestral lands, is being slammed by Canadian aboriginal leaders and environmentalists for trying to block a critical court hearing in Toronto by imposing a massive costs order on its impoverished adversaries.
Chevron for years has engaged in forum shopping to evade paying a $9.5 billion environmental judgment in Ecuador in the venue where the company insisted the trial be held, forcing the indigenous groups to chase it into Canada to try to seize assets to pay for the court-mandated clean-up. Although the First Nations groups won their case and have a unanimous Canada Supreme Court decision backing their enforcement effort, Chevron for years has "tried to block the forward progress at every turn in Canada," said Aaron Marr Page, a lawyer for the Ecuadorian communities.
"Chevron's latest request that the very people who the company poisoned must now pay for the company's court costs used to evade a legitimate judgment not only is preposterous, it is unconscionable," said Page. "Chevron's indigenous victims live in huts or makeshift houses with no running water. Their lands reek with oil contamination left by Chevron, and their communities are wrecked by cancer. Now they are being told by Chevron to pay nearly $1 million of the oil company's legal fees to keep the courthouse doors open in Canada."
The environmental claims against Chevron, originally filed 24 years ago in New York, have forced the oil major to spend an estimated $2 billion to hire 60 law firms and 2,000 lawyers to try to delay a resolution of the case. Already, three layers of courts in Ecuador – where Chevron accepted jurisdiction – have found the company dumped billions of gallons of toxic waste into the rainforest, decimating indigenous groups and causing an outbreak of cancer that has killed or threatens to kill thousands of people.
Legal argument over Chevron's extraordinary request to force the impoverished indigenous groups to pay the company's court costs is scheduled for 9:30 a.m. Tuesday, October 10 in Toronto at the Ontario Court of Appeal at 130 Queen Street West. Chevron could use any costs order to freeze enforcement of the Ecuador judgment against company assets – leading to effective impunity for a major corporate polluter, say lawyers for the indigenous groups.
Several prominent Canadian indigenous and environmental leaders, including former Assembly of First Nations National Chief Phil Fontaine, Grand Chief Edward John, and Greenpeace Co-founder Rex Weyler, plan to attend the October 10 hearing to support the Ecuadorian communities and to make statements to the media on their behalf.
"Canadian courts should see Chevron's attempt to impose an exorbitant costs payment on impoverished indigenous communities on Ecuador for what it is – an attempt to block access to justice for some of the most vulnerable people on Earth," said Weyler, who recently posted an article on the Greenpeace International website that criticizes Chevron for its "arrogance" and "irresponsibility" in Ecuador. "Chevron's latest maneuver is designed to obtain impunity for one of the world's worst corporate polluters. Canadian courts should have no part of this charade."
"Canada's judges need to keep the courthouse open for impoverished groups as well as the rich and powerful," said Fontaine, who three times was elected National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations of Canada, which represents roughly 640 nationalities. "They also need to decide whether they are on the side of a major corporate polluter or on the side of access to justice for the people whose lives the company grievously harmed in ways that I have seen with my own eyes. I would like to think the days of aboriginal groups being denied access to the courts in Canada are long since over."
Chevron, which generated roughly $250 billion annually for several years since the lawsuit was filed, has used the dozens of law firms to try to pound the indigenous groups of Ecuador into submission, but without success. After losing the liability case in Ecuador, Chevron fled the country with its assets and has yet to pay even a single dollar to the communities for a clean-up even though it donates millions of dollars for social service projects around the world. The Ecuadorian indigenous communities came to Canada, where Chevron owns interests in several oil fields and refineries, for collection under what normally would be routine foreign judgment enforcement procedures.
"But there is nothing routine about this, given that Chevron has provided a blank check to its army of Canadian lawyers to do all they can to block courts from dealing with the merits of the case," said Page.
At the invitation of the affected communities, Weyler, Fontaine and Ed John recently toured the area of the Amazon where Chevron operated under the Texaco brand from 1964 to 1992. Grand Chief Ed John also urged Canadian courts to allow the affected Ecuadorians to litigate their enforcement claims to conclusion without erecting financial barriers.
"Courts in Ecuador have decided that Chevron should pay $9.5-billion to Indigenous communities for massive damages it caused to their lands in the Amazon," said Grand Chief John, a lawyer and one of the drafters of the United Nations Declaration On the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. "Chevron has taken steps to avoid paying for the damages including selling its assets in Ecuador. Indigenous peoples are seeking redress in Canada's courts. However Chevron is demanding that Canadian courts should force Ecuador Indigenous peoples pay for its legal costs incurred in Canada. Canadian courts should reject Chevron's demands and proceed with the issue of ensuring Chevron pays the $9.5-billion which Ecuadorian courts have determined as proper compensation for remediation and other measures to be undertaken for the safety and health of Indigenous communities."
Under interest provisions in Canadian law, the judgment is now worth $12 billion. The amount is still a fraction of BP's $50 billion liability for the far smaller 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Chevron General Counsel R. Hewitt Pate threatened the indigenous communities in Ecuador with a "lifetime of litigation" if they persisted in their claims.
"When Chevron lost the case in Ecuador, its CEO and top managers squelched its Ecuador debt like common criminals," said Weyler.
Despite the unanimous decision in 2015 from Canada's Supreme Court giving the green light to enforce the judgment in Canada, Chevron has tied up the case in technical issues, claiming that its wholly-owned subsidiary in Canada should not be held accountable. Chevron also has filed actions in other countries to try to collaterally attack the Ecuador judgment, even though Chevron had insisted the trail be held in Ecuador and had promised to pay any adverse judgment.
Luis Yanza, a longtime Ecuadorian community leader and Goldman Prize winner, thanked the Canadians for offering support to the affected communities.
"We really appreciate the solidarity of our Canadian brothers and sisters," said Yanza, who helps coordinate the 80 affected indigenous and farmer communities who led the case into court in 1993. "The principles underlying this case affect indigenous peoples in Ecuador and Canada and indeed throughout the world.
"For us, it is mind-boggling that one of the wealthiest fossil fuel companies on the planet is now trying to penalize some of the poorest people on the planet with a costs payment for trying to collect money the company owes them and refuses to pay," added Yanza. "That just seems backwards."