Initial skirmishes in the battle to save the coast
By Briony Penn, July/August 2012
The magic canoe is getting bigger as artists, journalists and others join the battle against oil tankers in coastal waters.
When local writer Arno Kopecky returned to Canada in 2011 after an assignment covering the Garcia regime in Peru, he had a bad case of déjà vu, or, as they say in Peru, yo visto. He had been documenting the impacts of mining, oil and timber extraction on the indigenous people during then-President Alan Garcia’s reign for his new book, The Devil’s Curve. Prime Minister Harper’s rhetoric on tar sands and pipelines was sounding awfully familiar. Says Kopecky, “I heard Garcia spouting all this stuff down in Peru about locals and foreign radicals standing in the way of progress. But then to come home to hear exactly the same thing coming out of our leaders’ mouths here…well I thought it only happened in banana republics.”
The fear of where that rhetoric leads was strong enough to prompt Kopecky to call up his friend, Victoria photojournalist Ilja Herb, and propose a voyage up the coast—to document what is unfolding with the Northern Gateway pipeline debacle.
Under the banner of “Oil Man and the Sea,” Kopecky and Herb are heading north this summer with pens and cameras aboard a 41-foot sloop called Foxy to “keep the dialogue alive” about where Harper’s Garcia-like “dog-in-the-manger” policies can lead. “Dog in the manger” refers to the infamous speech published by Garcia in October of 2007 that kicked off four years of violence and environmental degradation in the Amazon and Andes. In his speech, Garcia bemoaned that “there are many unused resources that cannot be traded, that do not receive investment and do not create jobs. And all this because of the taboo of already past ideologies, idleness, laziness or the law of the dog in the manger that says, ‘If I do not do it, then let no one do it.’”
As Kopecky points out in his book, which will hit the bookstores on September 15, Garcia never directly mentions indigenous people, but there is little doubt that the “dogs” to Garcia are indigenous people and others who would uphold their rights. Garcia’s manifesto claims “these are the same people who are against forestry investment in the jungle because it is sacred, against allowing communities to sell their land even if they want to, because the communal lands are sacred, they are against mines being opened because Peru should only be an agricultural country, that there should be no fish farming in the sea…only one-tenth of these [mining] resources are being developed, because we are still arguing over whether mining technologies destroy the environment. This is an issue of the past century. Of course, mining did once destroy it and today’s environmental problems are basically due to yesterday’s mines, but today mines live alongside cities without any problems…” and so the speech continues ad nauseum and frighteningly familiar.
It was Garcia who on June 5, 2009, ordered military forces to open fire on indigenous protesters after his newly-minted free trade agreements gave full access for multinationals—Canadian companies amongst them—to indigenous lands in the Bagua region. One hundred civilians were killed. For Albertan-born Kopecky, who lived through “the ineptitude of the Klein-era where oil pays for everything” the threat of violence is real. “It might seem crazy to think it could happen here, but we have a similar rapid changing of laws to ramp through these development projects, despite massive opposition by the local population. Having seen dialogue break down in Peru and Columbia and now here, it seemed a really good idea to add our voices to keep the dialogue alive before the guns come out.”
And they aren’t alone on the coast, either philosophically or physically. Many are adding their voices to what Gerald Amos, Chief of the Haisla, calls a “magic canoe that just keeps getting bigger and bigger.”
Raincoast Conservation Foundation, under the artistic leadership of Mark Hobson and the marine leadership of Captain Brian Falconer, spent June escorting 50 of some of Canada’s most celebrated artists, many First Nations, on a flotilla of donated commercial sailboats to First Nation villages and ecotour lodges. The artists took up paintbrush and carving tools to portray the coast in the face of threats by oil. Among them was Roy Henry Vickers who stated that the thought of tankers brings him to only one conclusion: “I would rather be a spirit than a human who allowed this to happen.” The line in the waters, anticipated by Kopecky, has already been drawn by individuals like Vickers.
These initiatives follow on Norm Hann’s Standup4Greatbear promotion for the region in 2010 when Hann did a 400-km stand-up paddle boarding trip along the entire length of Enbridge’s proposed oil tanker route from Kitimat to Bella Bella. There was also the highly acclaimed SPOIL documentary that came out last year, which brought the International League of Conservation Photographers to the coast in conjunction with Pacific WILD, the Gitga’at First Nation, LightHawk, TidesCanada, Save our Seas Foundation, Sierra Club BC, and the Dogwood Initiative.
Perhaps one day we will be grateful to Harper for uniting us under a common goal to finally respect indigenous rights and environmental values for the coast.
It isn’t impossible. Look what happened to Garcia. He was defeated in July 2011. One month later, Peru’s new Congress passed—unanimously—The Consultation with Indigenous Peoples Law, making it mandatory to seek Indigenous Peoples’ consent before development projects were allowed to go ahead on their ancestral lands.
Kopecky and Herb’s travels to coastal First Nation leaders, reporting and photographing the faces, wildlife and landscapes of the coast, can be followed on their blog at www.oilmanandthesea.ca. The collected writing and photos will be published in a book and a travelling exhibit into the fall and winter.
The resulting works of the Artists for an Oil-Free coast, combined with prose and poetry by researchers and local poets will be published as an art book entitled Canada’s Raincoast at Risk: Art for an Oil-Free Coast, scheduled for publication this fall. The original works, donated by the artists, will become part of a travelling Canadian art show to raise public awareness of what is at stake on this spectacular coast and why it needs to be kept oil-free.
Briony Penn PhD is a naturalist, journalist, artist and award-winning environmental educator. She is the author of The Kids Book of Geography (Kids Can Press) and a A Year on the Wild Side.