Pipeline Protests: Spilling Democracy

The rugged and dynamic Great Bear Rainforest: no place for pipelines or supertankers.

by Leslie Anthony

The granola-eaters were… eating granola. And yoghurt and fruit and other Whole Earth fare. The rest of us were chasing 7 a.m. cobwebs with bacon and eggs aboard B.C. Ferries’ Queen of Somethingorother. In front of me sat an elderly First Nations woman with hands as large as paddles, her work-wrinkled knuckles like pine whorls. She had a beatific look and chatted amiably with the fashionista, twenty-something granddaughter escorting her—a picture of inter-generational solidarity. Against the wall, eyes closed and fingers touching, a woman sat cross-legged in a blissed-out Lotus, ignoring the surrounding swirl of students excited to be out of school. Around her sat everything from business suits to MEC rain jackets, woollen ponchos to utilitarian parkas bearing various union logos. Some were on their phones or laptops, others sat in circles going over how to be arrested peacefully. It wouldn’t come to that but they were ready.

This was the scene on 22 October 2012, when I’d joined many others heading to Victoria to voice opposition to the proposed Enbridge Northern Gateway (ENG) pipeline and supertanker scheme that would put most of northern B.C.’s vaunted coastline and Great Bear Rainforest at risk of an unconscionable crude oil spill. As documented in “A Failure of Reason,” in the latest Mountain Life Annual, such an event would despoil forever the salmon populations of five major watersheds, destroy the last great steelhead run in North America, and lay waste to lands that power a multi-billion dollar recreation industry and provide sustenance for thousands of First Nations and other citizens. With paddlers, cyclists, climbers, hikers, skiers, surfers, sailers, fishermen and other ENG opponents laying groundwork for what could be the largest climate-action protest ever held in B.C.—and possibly the country—this coming Saturday, November 16, it’s worth recalling last October’s camaraderie and noblesse oblige.

22 October 2012, when 4,000 gathered to protest in Victoria.

Far from the acephalous, nutbar-peppered mobs that descend on G8 summits, those heading to the provincial capital that day were a diverse and legitimate cross-section of British Columbians: doctors, lawyers, fishermen, artists, computer techs, engineers, teachers, professors, an Air Force pilot, families, First Nations, retirees, and bubbly high-school students—among them a mop-topped redhead with a sign risibly proclaiming “Gingers for Climate Action.” We’d flowed off the ferry and into a stream of 4,000 people who’d made the Defend our Coast action at the B.C. legislature an unprecedented display of provincial unity. As one wag put it, “What a healthy democracy looks like.”

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Moving introductions from First Nations leaders focused on the reasons we stood together in the cold. Speeches from a broad range of critics followed—strong on We’re Not Gonna Take It but a tad light on why that might be. Perhaps because gazing over a sea of signs like “There is NO Economy on a Dead Planet,” speakers were already apprised of a collective awareness in a crowd that clearly didn’t buy the economic fear-mongering emanating from Prime Mnister Harper and his trained conservative seals. Here were 4,000 who knew the environmental risks of ENG were too large to be measured; that even if the significant impacts of pipeline construction could somehow be managed, subsequent risks of transporting tar-sands bitumen diluted with highly toxic condensate would skyrocket, and that even a small spill would be catastrophic. Examples were legion but two—prescient of how governments might handle an ENG accident—stood out. The July 2010 Enbridge pipeline rupture that spilled 3 million litres into Michigan’s Kalamazoo River for over 18 hours before anyone noticed, had saddled hundreds with respiratory, gastrointestinal and neurological symptoms while leaving 60 km of water and sediment contaminated. The magnitude of the 4.5 million litres that soaked into the Peace watershed of northern Alberta on 29 April 2011 in the Little Buffalo oil spill, mysteriously went unreported until the day after the May 2 federal election that gave Harper his majority. This last incident was recalled at the rally by Melina Laboucan-Massimo, a Cree from northern Alberta who has also testified before the U.S. Congress about how spills affected the health of her family and impacted a previously sustainable way of life. Despite speaking of it many times, Melina was moved to tearful summation: “Our land and people will never be the same.”

Bumper sticker seen in Terrace, B.C. in the heart of the Skeena Mountains.

The star political speech that day came from Ottawa’s lone Princess Warrior—federal Green Party leader Elizabeth May. May rightly connected pipeline projects like ENG to Ottawa’s secretly penned 31-year FIPA agreement with China, pointing out how the document would make it difficult to stop resource mega-projects without being sued by Chinese state-owned companies. “Christy Clark,” she’d said poignantly, “get yourself a lawyer.” It wasn’t lost on a crowd brandishing “Tarper” and “Chairman Harpo” signs that communist China and our libertarian-ish PM share common ideals: short shrift to workers, unfettered and unregulated capitalism, scathingly low corporate taxes, and little thought or concern for things like the pristine environments of B.C. that most of us consider a national treasure.

Early on, Tsleil-Waututh First Nation’s Rueben George had stirred the crowd. “We’re winning,” he’d begun to loud cheers, noting that pipeline opposition was  rooted in values surrounding the sacredness of land and water. “There’s no price we can put  on these things,” he’d said, stating that his band was going to oppose the pipeline for not only their own children, and those of all who were in attendance. Then, noting that the folks behind the pipeline were too blinded by greed to soberly consider the future, George made the most inclusive gesture of the day. “And we’re going to [fight] it for their children, too.”

Behind me, a pair of large hands had slapped together like wood.

Find out about the nationwide day of action on November 16 for #DefendOurClimate here.

Legendary ski photographer Paul Morrison on assignment for SKIER magazine in Terrace, B.C. last winter.