Our future is not for sale

By Leslie Campbell, November 2012

In BC, pipelines have become a moral and spiritual issue.

The line-up of speakers for the October 22 “Defend our Coast” protest at the BC Legislature against pipelines was impressive. It included environmental leaders like Tzeporah Berman, Maude Barlow, Greenpeace executive director Bruce Cox, cofounder of Greenpeace International Rex Wyler (now heading Tanker Free BC), and Green Party leader MP Elizabeth May. Labour unions and the NDP were also well represented.

But all of them followed, and most gave credit to, the real stars of the day and these times: the First Nation leaders who have been in the forefront of the fight against pipelines and tankers for seven years now. About 15 First Nations were represented and their chiefs spoke to the 3500-strong crowd with eloquence—about their connection to the land and their absolute clarity that no pipelines will cross it. For any amount of money.

The women chiefs of the Yinka-Dene Alliance were wonderfully direct. Saik’uz First Nation Chief Jackie Thomas said, “My duty is to let the government know what my people have decided…Mr Harper: No doesn’t mean maybe. No means No!” Dolly Abraham, chief of Takla Lake, pointed out one blessing in the situation: “If it wasn’t for Enbridge, we wouldn’t be here to stand together in unity to fight.” 

Melina Laboucan-Massimo described what’s happening at the source of the pipelines. A young member of the Lubicon Cree First Nation in Northern Alberta, her family has long lived sustainably off the land. But that’s all changing. “We see mines the size of cities…we see beautiful pristine forests being decimated, fragmented and scraped away, all for tar sands oil. Before, my family was able to drink from the waters, but now people no longer feel safe to do so. The air was clean and pure, and now it’s being polluted by tar sands operations.” Her father has a hard time finding moose and people now fear the land, and the berries and medicines that grow there; they wonder if the land is becoming unlivable.

Last year one of the largest oil spills in Alberta’s history happened seven kilometres from her community. People complained of headaches, burning eyes, nausea, dizziness. “It broke my heart telling my family that the oil fumes they were breathing were probably toxic,” said Melina. “Seeing the land dead before my eyes and feeling helpless to be able to protect my family, something deep inside me broke. And still to this day, I continue to carry that grief and the sadness from knowing what our people are going through and what is happening to the land, and that [they] will never be the same. And I would hope no other community would have to go through this. And that’s why I am here today.”

As many speakers noted, not only will the pipelines pose dire risks themselves, but they will encourage faster expansion of the tar sands, called by Rex Wyler “the largest carbon bomb on the planet,” one that will fuel runaway global warming.

Art Sterritt, executive director of Coastal First Nations, told us, “We’ve been stating our opposition for a long time now—we’re so happy that 3000 of you have come out to join with us today…it’s your voices that are needed now.” He told a story about how seven years ago he met with Pat Daniels, president of Enbridge, who said “If you don’t want this project in your territory, we won’t do it.” Each time more evidence of First Nations’ and other opposition was presented, Enbridge has refused to listen—as have “the people in the Legislature,” said Sterritt. “They think we’re for sale…They also think in Ottawa that they can jam this thing through over the backs of British Columbians.” When he asked the crowd, “What are you willing to do to stop them? Are you willing to lie down in front of bulldozers?” he was answered with a resounding cheer of “Yes!” 

Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, president of the BC Union of Indian Chiefs, thanked the protesters on behalf of his grandchildren for letting “the dictatorial government of Canada know that the future of our children and grandchildren is not for sale.” He made it clear that he and his people “will do everything possible to stop this insanity.” 

I’ve heard Chief Stewart Phillip speak before. He has a gentle-yet-strong demeanour. He had us laughing as he gave credit to his wife Joan, beside him, for leading him to activism. “I was a peaceful agrarian First Nations person until Joan came into my life [40 years ago]. Joan said we must, we absolutely must, do the right thing…and we’ve been at the barricades for 39 years.” Finally, he led the crowd (well chilled from the cold) in a rousing chant of “A people united will never be defeated.”

The First Nations voices in general helped crystallize for me something that Rex Wyler and Tzeporah Berman articulated in their respective speeches—that the fight has moved beyond environmental and economic spheres and is now a spiritual and moral one. It’s this deeper appreciation of the meaning of the pipelines and tankers that will draw people to the barricades. It’s why 1000 people were willing to get arrested on that cold and rainy day.

Wisely, the police weren’t interested in a little illegal banner staking. After the speeches, I asked Chief Phillip, as he stood in the rain holding the front-end of the tanker-length banner, if he had really expected to get arrested. He said, “I think the point is that we were fully prepared to be arrested to illustrate and demonstrate the level of commitment to oppose both the Enbridge and Kinder Morgan pipeline projects. It’s been said many times: We’ll carry this fight through the Joint Review Panel hearings, through the courts, and if necessary to the barricades and on the oceans, if it comes to that. And today provides an opportunity to show that we’re prepared to do more than talk the talk; we’re prepared to walk the walk.”

Leslie Campbell is the editor of Focus. Next month, Briony Penn will be reporting on the Kinder Morgan pipeline.