Who are the real extremists? On Canada’s pipeline wars and root causes

Coverage of pipeline conflict often neglects issues of racism and Indigenous rights
Photo: Asian Development Bank

I won’t deny it: most of my day I’m thinking about pipelines.

As a young activist deeply concerned about our current economic collision course with the planet’s climate, I often find it hard to take my mind off what’s happening. It’s rare to find deep-rooted solutions to our systemic predicament.

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My personal work in high schools with Beyond Boarding often reminds me of the hopelessness felt by youth and young adults. We’re exposed daily to gloomy apocalyptic facts on climate change, ocean acidification and increasing numbers of climate refugees and deaths.

A scientific consensus tells us that unconventional fossil fuels such as the Alberta tar sands and the shale gas reserves of northeastern B.C. need to stay in the ground. Yet our political leaders on the west coast push approval of LNG pipeline projects while saying our future prosperity lies in expansion of oil and gas industries to export markets.

The science is at odds with our political direction.

But people are waking up to the short-term corporate interests of pipelines. From coast to coast the anti-pipeline movement is growing and using a diversity of tactics including street protests, legal challenges, divestment campaigns and frontline blockades. Increasingly youth are taking action because of the government’s failure in addressing environmental and social injustices and creating the meaningful change we hope for.

A fight against climate change is a fight against all injustice

Pipeline construction and related conflict largely occur in rural areas without access to mainstream media. Last fall though the Trans Mountain pipeline became visible as people in the city saw a resource company in their own backyard.

A media explosion happened on Burnaby Mountain, as over 100 people were arrested in opposing Kinder Morgan’s tar sands pipeline expansion. But in the large media explosion that happened, many forgot that for a month prior the camp was run by a few dedicated young individuals called the caretakers.

What seemed at surface value to be a victory by the people raised some troubling themes upon examination. The symbolic arrests gathered wide attention but they failed to stop Kinder Morgan’s work. The courts, which issued the original injunction, dropped the charges when the company was done with their exploratory drilling.

“The lines get blurry when the endgame of civil disobedience is getting arrested (and into the news),” wrote a friend to me at that time, “rather than not getting arrested and stopping the construction of a pipeline.”

In my experience, the ugliest issue to rear its head on Burnaby Mountain was the racism of our institutions. In jail, I witnessed firsthand the discrimination faced by my Indigenous friends. A blanket and food were withheld from a Kwakwaka’wakw friend, Dan; an officer told him that in prison such things were a privilege. Sut’lut, a Squamish Elder, was refused her heart medication. They were held overnight and made to appear in court the next day, whereas I was fed, given a blanket and released the day of my arrest. I recounted these racist incidents in the media scrum, but they were excluded from publication.

Racism allows the existence of climate refugees from the Global South. It allows the poisoning of drinking water needed by Indigenous communities downstream of the tar sands. Neither of these stories are explored in the daily news.

The colonial construction of the nation of Canada, with its implementation of the Indian Act, dictates how Indigenous people relate to the state. Those whose land the Canadian state depends on are left out of decision making — on issues about resettlement, children being taken and sent to residential schools and pipeline development. Their right to say no is not respected.

Capitalism, with its ideology of infinite growth, deems a pipeline merely a means of transporting another exploited commodity. Entire ecosystems and living species are considered not worth consideration.

Racism, colonialism and capitalism are the roots of pipelines. How do we build knowledge of this connection into our fight against climate change?

A camp of resistance and community

An hour down an old dusty logging road east of Houston, B.C. sits a bridge into Unist’ot’en territory. Free, prior, and informed consent is required to cross it. This kind of consent is built into the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. It was drafted to ensure Indigenous communities have free access to proper information on what is being proposed on their territory and the right to give or withhold consent. Canada was the only country to object to free, prior, and informed consent in the landmark declaration.

The Unist’ot’en people are one of the clans that come from the Wet’suwet’en territory. The hereditary leadership of the Wet’suwet’en alongside the Gitxsan nation were involved with the historic Delgamuukw-Gisdaywa v. the Queen case in 1997. These two nations won a landmark case, where the Supreme Court decided that their aboriginal title had never been extinguished. This ruling on land that was never ceded through treaty establishes a basis for the hereditary leadership to have ultimate jurisdiction.

At the bridge crossing into the Unist’ot’en territory, visitors are asked not only where they’re from and what skills they bring into the camp, but also how their stay will benefit the Unist’ot’en people. It is a border crossing. In the six years since they’ve reoccupied their traditional territory, the Unist’ot’en have refused access to government and pipeline companies that have been reaping economic benefits from their land without their consent.

When I visited the territory, I was told about the history of the camp at an off-grid solar-powered log cabin. Then I was led to the permaculture garden where the tiny layer of soil that had survived past clear-cut logging on the territory is making a miraculous return to fertility and feeding the Unist’ot’en clan and their supporters.

Inside the newly constructed pit-house, Freda Huson, the camp’s spokesperson, told me of plans to build a healing centre for youth this upcoming summer.

It may sounds like more of a utopic community than a resistance camp, but this off-the-grid cabin was built on the Enbridge Northern Gateway and Pacific Trails pipeline route, and the Coastal GasLink pipeline route runs through the permaculture garden.

The Unist’ot’en stance is clear: no pipelines will be built on their land.

Reconciliation and the future

The camp made me realize that resistance is as much a lifestyle as it is any individual action. Not only does the camp stand as a blockade against pipelines but also as a place of learning, healing, connecting with nature and actively decolonizing. Natural laws and customs have been resurrected in that camp that have supported life on this land for millennia.

At the communal dinner, the youngest baby was served first followed by the elders, reminding everyone we should be working for the future generations. I’m constantly told that “if only young people voted we wouldn’t be in this mess,” but at the camp I was reminded that it’s not the lack of a youth vote that is destroying our climate. It is a culture and political system where young people’s futures don’t matter to those in power.

The government continues to ignore the Unist’ot’en hereditary leadership’s authority over the land. Permits for construction and environmental assessment work have been handed out to TransCanada’s Coastal GasLink and Chevron’s Pacific Trails pipeline.

A camp that has been living on the land, honouring tradition, and rebuilding the soil while establishing a community of Indigenous and non-Indigenous supporters is now confronted with helicopters and trucks daily attempting to enter the territory. Holding strong with supporters, the Unist’ot’en are asserting the wishes of their hereditary leadership, which recently affirmed at the Office of the Wet’suwet’en that there will be no pipelines built on Wet’suwet’en land.

At the same time that workers are being told to enter the territory, the government is negatively branding the camp. The RCMP have described the camp as supported by “violent extremists” and a threat to critical infrastructure for the Canadian economy, according to a recently leaked document obtained by Greenpeace.

Water and a healthy planet are critical to all of us. The ones using aggressive force and putting us all at risk are the pipeline companies willing to extract more fossil fuels than the planet can deal with and a government ignoring Indigenous communities’ right to consent.

The Unist’ot’en camp gives us a glimpse into what reconciliation looks like on the terms of those most affected by colonization. It’s a place where community is built, ecological laws are put above economics ones and future generations are not an externality but a part of everyday life.

A first step

The targeting of the Unist’ot’en camp isn’t unique. It’s part of post-9/11 trend of security bills and measures that restrict civil liberties on the basis of national security, including Bill C-51 enhances CSIS’ powers and broadens the definition of “terrorism,” security certificates allow migrants to be held indefinitely in immigration detention centres and the new citizenship law gives the state the power to revoke Canadian citizenship from those with dual citizenship.

These laws bring up eerie similarities to the suffering and dangers that state control has had on my own heritage and family. It reminds me of the anti-terror legislation used during the Pinochet dictatorship in Chile that led to thousands of disappearances and the fearmongering in WWII that led to the displacement of Japanese Canadians, including my grandparents, from their homes on the west coast.

If we can learn anything from history it is that fear is poisonous to freedom, justice and any democratic society. We don’t go to bed in a tolerant democracy and wake up to police round-ups. To move from one to the other requires intermediate steps and numerous decisions by everyday people.

Yet perhaps this is our government’s last gasp attempt to stop a growing movement that has truth as its backbone and terms defined by responsibilities to future generations instead of a repressive government.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission recently called upon federal, provincial, territorial and municipal governments to fully adopt and implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Yet it’s not only our government that needs to step up, but all of us. A solid first step for the anti-pipeline movement would be to hold governments accountable to respecting the hereditary leadership and responsibilities of the Unist’ot’en clan.

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