The build started with a single West Coast cedar tree. In the early hours of March 10, against the backdrop of forest-covered Burnaby Mountain on the shores of B.C.’s Burrard Inlet, volunteers carried in wood planks and cement corner stones and set to work.
Within hours, they had constructed a traditional Coast Salish Indigenous “Watch House” on public lands near the gates of Kinder Morgan’s Burnaby tank farm—terminus of the proposed Trans Mountain pipeline expansion, approved by the Trudeau government in 2016 despite significant opposition in B.C.
Spurred by an unprecedented call from Indigenous spiritual leaders and elders for allies to mobilize in peaceful resistance against the expansion, which opponents say threatens the life-sustaining waters in its path, the Watch House serves as a home base and spiritual centre from which to monitor and respond to ongoing construction by Kinder Morgan.
“My ancestors built Kwekwecnewtxw—’a place to watch from’—when danger threatened our people. Danger threatens our people now, as Kinder Morgan tries to send hazardous diluted bitumen through our territory,” said a statement by Watch House guardian Will George, a member of the Tsleil-Waututh Nation (People of the Inlet), who alongside other Nations have called the coastal area home for thousands of years.
Then the waves came.
Wave one saw upwards of 10,000 people take to the streets of B.C.’s Lower Mainland in one of the largest shows of solidarity against the project. A delegation from the 150-signatory Treaty Alliance Against Tar Sands Expansion, led by Indigenous youth water protector Autumn Peltier, were there in support. The Quebec Mohawk, Lakota and Dakota Nations also expressed solidarity.
Next came wave after wave of civil disobedience actions, blockades and mass arrests. At the time of writing this article, almost 200 people had been taken away by police in defiance of a court-ordered injunction against protesting at the site: Indigenous activists and youths, community members, environmentalists, teachers and retirees.
The founder of Canada’s largest software company, OpenText, was arrested. So was a former Trans Mountain engineer concerned with the company’s ability to clean up in the event of a spill. Two sitting MPs—Burnaby South NDP MP Kennedy Stewart and Green Party Leader Elizabeth May—were also booked by the RCMP.
“I suspect [civil disobedience] is just going to keep ramping up over the coming months,” CCPA-BC Director Seth Klein, who was at the March 10 rally in Burnaby, told the Monitor. “The laws of nature and the laws of man are on a collision course, and one of [those] is immutable. The other isn’t.”
Research published by CCPA-BC and the Corporate Mapping Project has shown the pipeline expansion will undermine Canada’s ability to meet its international climate change commitments, and has also debunked the notion that getting Alberta oil to tidewater will fetch a higher price in Asian markets. If completed, the pipeline project would expand Trans Mountain’s Alberta-to-tidewater capacity threefold, leading to a 700% increase in oil export tanker traffic through the wild and rugged coastline of the Salish Sea.
A spill would be catastrophic for sensitive local ecosystems and the people who depend on them. Several court challenges from the cities of Burnaby and Vancouver, the B.C. government and a number of First Nations (including from the Tsleil-Waututh, Coldwater, Stk’emlupsemc Te Secwepemc and Squamish Nations) remain outstanding. To many thousands on the ground the risk is simply unacceptable.
“The Trudeau government campaigned on a promise of real change,” Dustin (Khelsilem) Rivers, a spokesperson and elected councillor with the Squamish Nation, said at a March 9 press conference from Vancouver. “Nothing has changed for our people…. [O]ur Nations are deeply, deeply concerned about the impacts that this [pipeline] will have on our rights as a people today, and the rights of people to come.”
Water is a relentless force of nature. A tiny stream of flowing water will carve its way through the toughest of rock, marking the land in its path for thousands of years. The importance of protecting water is central to the culture, spirituality and long-term prosperity of many of those fighting against the pipeline on the ground. They too are relentless.
“We as First Nations people are left with a decision to make: trust a government to say that ‘we have a plan in case there’s a spill,’” Rivers elaborates. “Our history shows us that we should not trust the government when they make such promises…. They need to change direction and change course because we aren’t.”
The power of water can at times be overlooked, just as the years of Indigenous-led pipeline resistance in B.C. and across North America have often been disregarded or downplayed in the mainstream media and corridors of political power.
Anyone who has watched the waves roll in on the ocean tide will know that is a mistake.
*On April 8, Kinder Morgan announced it would suspend all “non-essential” activities and spending related to the Trans Mountain expansion project due to opposition from the province of B.C. The company plans to consult further with stakeholders and has set a hard deadline of May 31st to determine if the project will proceed.
The CCPA–BC has been debunking the economic arguments for Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain Pipeline Expansion (TMX) proposal for years, and taking a critical look at the reasons for its approval despite the economic and environmental realities. Though the Corporate Mapping Project and with our friends at the Alberta-based Parkland Institute, they’ve also examined the all-too-cozy relationship between governments and the the fossil fuel industry, and published several reports on the larger implications of continued expansion of oil sands production. Click here to view a collection of this work.
Alyssa O’Dell is Media and Public Relations Officer at the CCPA. Follow her on Twitter @alyssaj_odell.