It’s 4 a.m on Sunday, December 10, and Khursten Bullock and Crissy Fox (an alias she prefers to use) are ready for their mission. The mist of their breath trails hangs in the moonlight that dimly lights the rolling grasslands near Kamloops, B.C.

They’ve been tasked with dropping tobacco into one of the bore holes inside the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion’s construction site. A Secwépemc prophecy holds that the tides will shift in their favour once the ceremonial medicine touches the bottom.

They move silently in the darkness ahead, and barely a word is spoken on the short trek from the site of a sacred fire lit by the Secwépemc to the open pit construction site. As they approach the area, they drop off the gravel path, and into a rocky trench alongside it. Floodlights pierce the darkness, lighting up the construction site and anyone approaching it.

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They don’t want to be spotted by Trans Mountain security. Not yet.

Crouching parallel to a barbed wire fence, they approach a small wooden ladder and clamber over the fence. From there, they sprint to the shelter of a clutch of pine trees on a hillside, and tiptoe to their lookout spot. Another ally meets them there, Tim Takaro, a Yale-trained physician-scientist and retired Simon Fraser University professor. He’s already been arrested after spending 16 months in a treehouse protesting the TMX expansion. And in 2022 was sentenced to 30 days in jail for his dissent.

The three sit on the hillside, looking down on the tall chain-link fence, and plan their approach.

About 10 minutes later, Bullock and Fox are at the fence. They shimmy through and frantically race to a wooden staircase that leads to metal scaffolding above the hole.

The noise of the chains they’re wearing around their bodies locking onto the metal scaffolding reverberates in the hollow chamber of the hole’s opening.

Security remain, for the moment, unaware of their presence.

Sacred, and threatened

The construction is happening at a sacred Secwépemc site called Pípsell. Out on the land, a crisp scent hangs in the air, with sage growing in endless clusters mixed with the dry ponderosa pine and Douglas fir trees blanketed with a fresh layer of snow. A trail of clouds lingers over the nearby Jacko Lake, which is home to a Secwépemc creation story.

Yet, the constant banging and shrieking of machinery echoing in the foreground, along with the unnatural pollution of industrial flood lights, is an abrupt juxtaposition.

This is where some of the last of Canada’s TMX project is being stitched together. The project is a cash cow for the Canadian oil economy as it’s the only pipeline carrying crude oil from Alberta to the West Coast. The expansion will increase the current TMX pipeline (built in 1951), from 300,000 barrels per day to 890,000 barrels per day and allow oil companies better access to export markets.

The development of the Trans Mountain Pipeline Expansion (TMX) project at the sacred Secwépemc site of Pipsell in Secwepemcúl’ecw, with a boring hole located along pad two of the path pictured in the foreground at on December 9.
Aaron Hemens

The project has faced continuous delays since its original owner proposed an expansion in 2012. Protests quickly erupted from environmental groups, the City of Burnaby, and Indigenous nations expressing opposition to the expansion cited serious concerns of damage to ecosystems along its route.

It was then bought by the Trudeau government in 2018 after its original owner Kinder Morgan pulled out due to economic uncertainty given the setbacks and public outcry.

Subsequently, the costs of the project have ballooned during its construction from the initial estimate of $5.4 billion to $30.9 billion.

But the pipeline wasn’t supposed to run through the grassland hills near Jacko Lake in unceded Secwépemc territory. The community had opposed the original plans, and had secured assurances from the company that they would avoid parts of the area and use micro-tunnelling instead of the more destructive trenching.

But in September, the Trans Mountain Corporation requested permission from the Canada Energy Regulator to modify the pipeline route by about 1.3 kilometers in the Jacko Lake area, replacing plans for a micro-tunnel with an open trench. The company said it was necessary due to challenges encountered while attempting to micro-drill a tunnel. If the route wasn’t changed, it would delay the completion of the pipeline by at least 10 months and cost an estimated $2 billion of lost revenue.

“Since time immemorial, our people have had an ancestral, cultural, and spiritual connection to the area known as Pípsell, which is considered a ‘cultural keystone place.’”

Despite opposition from the Secwépemc Nation, the regulator approved the route change.

“Since time immemorial, our people have had an ancestral, cultural, and spiritual connection to the area known as Pípsell, which is considered a ‘cultural keystone place,’” Stk’emlúpsemc te Secwépemc Nation, which consists of the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc and Skeetchestn Indian Band, states in a news release.

“Through engagement and collaboration over the years, Trans Mountain is aware of the spiritual and cultural significance of the Pípsell area and our obligations to these lands. The sacredness of this area is also recognized by the provincial and federal Crown.”

The Nation only consented to the project under the condition that the project acknowledges and respects their inherent jurisdiction over their territory, as well as their right to safeguard their cultural heritage.

“As I continue to do this work, I am constantly reminded that Pípsell is not just a lake, it is an inseparable area that is also a burial and prayer ground,” Unceded Law Response Group Commissioner and Secwépemc knowledge keeper Mike McKenzie said in an interview.

“We have to do what we can to stop this because it is some of the last if not the last of its kind.”

McKenzie described it to Canadian Press as “our Vatican. This is our Notre Dame. This is a place that gives our people an identity and kept our people grounded since time immemorial.”

‘I want to get arrested’

Cree land defender and Secwépemc ally Bullock has been camping out in and around Pípsell for over a week. Before sneaking past the TMX injunction construction barrier to put down tobacco, she had a plan to stop work and get arrested.

Bullock is one of several allies who arrived in Pípsell, answering a plea for help from the Unceded Law Response Group (ULRG), led by a group of Secwépemc people upholding Indigenous rights and law. ULRG states that it creates, “Indigenous-led spaces for Indigenous peoples and allies to solve complex challenges. We are serving Indigenous peoples while strengthening legal protections and strategies… to prevent harm and to promote the well-being of all on unceded land, including wildlife, the natural world, and the supernatural.”

“The premise was I want to get arrested out here,” Bullock said the day before, with a wide grin.

Cree land defender Khursten Bullock stands by a sacred fire in Pipsell near Jacko Lake in Secwepemcúl’ecw, by the development of the Trans Mountain Pipeline Expansion (TMX) project in the sacred Secwepemc area on December 9.
Aaron Hemens

The Saskatchewan native believes her life purpose is to travel in her camper van to various land defence zones around Canada and put herself on the line for Mother Earth.

“(I do this because) my fear is that there’s going to be no planet left for my grandchildren. That’s what keeps me awake at night. Going to jail for the cause, doing these things, it doesn’t scare me at all,” she declares, decked out in a white and gray-coloured snow suit. Her long brown hair falls out from under a black toque with “LAND BACK” etched in red, and an Indigenous man wearing a Mohawk warrior scarf in the center.

“Leaving this planet a mess for my grandkids, that’s what really scares me. If my grandson or granddaughter isn’t able to see old-growth trees or these bodies of water or all these places that we’re just desecrating, then I didn’t do right by them if I didn’t try as hard as I could to stop; to protect that.”

She’s wrapped chains around her chest and torso and holds the keys in her pocket. Her red-haired comrade Fox pulls on a t-shirt reading, “No pipelines” with intertwining hən̓q̓əmin̓əm̓ language over her long, black puffer jacket. Her chains are also secured around her body.

The two are working with Vancouver-based environmental group Protect the Planet and say they’re aligning with ULRG in solidarity. The two visited Secwépemc Elder Barb Larson at her home in the Skeetchestn Indian Band just days before to seek her blessing to stop work on the TMX pipeline here.

“(I do this because) my fear is that there’s going to be no planet left for my grandchildren. That’s what keeps me awake at night. Going to jail for the cause, doing these things, it doesn’t scare me at all.”

“We wanted to follow protocol,” said Fox, an ecological scientist. “To get permission to block work and get arrested because I’m not Indigenous. Barb said we can do it on her behalf because she can’t be here.”

Bullock adds, “She wishes she could do it, but she can’t. Her husband is dealing with medical issues, and she doesn’t want to be thrown in jail.”

‘This was not their land originally’

For years, Larson has worked diligently, along with the Stk’emlupsemc Te Secwepemc Nation, to establish Secwépemc sovereignty over Pípsell. She has led extensive environmental studies, gathered historical and oral testimony, and established Secwépemc jurisdiction in the area, evidence that was used to stop a multi-billion dollar, open-pit copper and gold mine in Pípsell in 2016.

“We’re caretakers of the land, and this is our duty and it’s too bad that we have to fight you (TMX) to protect the land and do the duty that the Creator gave us,” Larson said.

It was Larson who gave the signal to light a sacred fire at Pípsell.

That ceremonial fire was lit by Secwépemc Matriarch Vi Manuel on the windy afternoon of Saturday, December 9, with singing, drumming and prayer just hours before the land defenders chained up.

The fire represented a new hope for the Secwépemc, some of whom feel powerless to halt the destruction of their sacred land.

With permission of their Elders, members of the Secwépemc Nation lit a sacred fire in the path of the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion, with a plan to risk arrest in an attempt to halt construction through a sacred site named Pípsell.
Aaron Hemens

A young Tkʼemlúps te Secwépemc woman attended the ceremony with her four-year-old son Trayson. McKenna Smith wore a satin blue, white fringed shawl wrapped around her shoulders, a ceremonial ribbon skirt and a single eagle feather secured to the top of her long, dark hair. “We heard there was an event online and thought it would be fun to come out,” she says, while her son jubilantly ran around nearby enjoying the snow.

It’s important to her to teach her son about the topic of reconciliation and the ongoing injustices against her people, she points out.

“Just recognizing that a lot of reconciliation still needs to be done and a lot more acknowledgement needs to be done by government. So, it’s a good way to honour our land… and making him (her son) aware that this was originally not their land, (for them) to say that we can’t be on here.”

Witnessing the pipeline construction at Pípsell is “disheartening,” she adds.

“It feels like voices aren’t heard no matter what. I have so many friends that have relatives that work on the pipeline too, so being open and honest and having my own opinion is kind of hard as well. But being clear that I’m here and attending this event with my son has given me a lot of confidence. And it’s given some power back to our people.”

Livestreaming land defence on TikTok

Back on the scaffolding, Bullock and Fox embrace with pants of relief, and toss a pouch of tobacco into the open pit below. They proudly extend their fists in the air, staring defiantly toward the brightly shining lights and heavy equipment moving above them to the north.

Bullock mounts her phone against a wooden plank in front of her and begins a TikTok livestream. She then sprinkles tobacco around her body and passes it to Fox who says she has a new appreciation for the medicine, which acts as a spiritual barrier of protection.

Bullock is shocked they got in so easily, “We thought it was going to be so difficult,” she laughs.
“Now we’re chained in. We’re feeling good! We’re ready to sit here all day if we have to.”

Fox is thankful their mission was accomplished, “I’m also feeling good that we didn’t get hurt.”

Bullock assesses the depth of the pit below them, shrugs and says, “Yeah, it’s pretty deep. We’d probably die if we fell in there.”

Looking into the bore hole of the TMX pipeline expansion, where land defenders dropped tobacco.
Brandi Morin

Despite the danger, Fox says she’s grounded in her convictions, and is doing her part to help save the Earth.

“I’m feeling humiliated to be a Canadian right now, (with this project happening). And not everybody can do this. I’m really feeling privileged and I’m using my privilege as a shield — I want to be some white skin in those prisons. Over 250 people have been arrested trying to stop this thing. And I know that we’re at a critical moment. I’m glad I took the time out to put some time into something that’s really important, which is the future of the livability of this precious biosphere.”

At least 15 minutes pass and TMX security, which patrols the area 24/7, still hasn’t noticed their worksite has been invaded by the land defenders. Bullock and Fox decide to unchain themselves and scurry down the steel stairs to the bottom of the pit. They use the flashlights from their cellphones to navigate the murky cavern, as I watch from above. Once they reach the bottom, they discover a pipeline hole that cuts underneath the hilly terrain and climb inside.

Reveling in their daring undertaking, they throw more tobacco inside the pipe hole and take pictures of their conquest.

“I’m feeling humiliated to be a Canadian right now, (with this project happening). And not everybody can do this. I’m really feeling privileged and I’m using my privilege as a shield.”

The two women are putting their bodies on the line for what they passionately believe in.

While at the sacred fire the previous night, Bullock said, “I feel like everything has led up to this moment and the universe has opened this path for us. And we just gotta take it and I think this is gonna make some big change…everything in my life has led up to this. Creator brought us all together here at the right place, right time, with the right mindsets. And look what we can accomplish.”

They rush back to the top of the scaffolding and re-chain themselves. Half an hour has passed, and no one from the construction site has taken notice.

‘They’re in it! They’re in it!’

Just then a TMX employee slides his feet down the dirt enclosure leading towards the gated hole furiously yelling, “They’re in it! They’re in it!” to someone on his phone.

Soon, another employee opens the gate from the other side and steps in. Shaking his head in dismay, he declares that everyone, including members of the press, is under arrest for breaking the injunction and the RCMP are on their way.

Editors’ note: Precedent has been established in the Brake case and others that journalists have the legal right to follow protestors into an injunction zone.

The two then head over to Bullock and Fox.

“I’m doing this for my kids and my kid’s kids so that they have a future that actually looks bright and doesn’t look like a desolate planet, like this shit,” yells Bullock, motioning towards the hole.
“Do you have kids?” she asks the security guard. “Do you care about your kids and their future?

The workers offer us the opportunity to exit the injunction zone. I stay while my colleagues leave the area.

It’s still dark out, and I’m alone to cover these renegade women chained to the pipeline hole, and whatever comes next.

Continuous threats of arrest follow.

Bullock yells to the security officer that she’s more than happy to be arrested, “Don’t you think I knew the police would come? You think you’re doing something good, but you’re ruining the planet for our kids so that you can get rich, now. I’m protecting our planet.”

“You’re going straight to jail,” he answers.

“I know and I will, I don’t have any shame,” she hollers back.

McKenna Smith and her son, Taysen, from Tk̓emlúps te Secwépemc, are pictured at Pipsell in Secwepemcúl’ecw, with the development of the Trans Mountain Pipeline Expansion (TMX) project behind them in the sacred Secwepemc area on December 9.
Aaron Hemens

More time passes and still no RCMP show up. After more than two hours have passed, the land defenders decide their mission was accomplished and they’re tired of waiting around. So, they nonchalantly unlock their chains and walk out the same way they came in. They’re met on the gravel road by Takaro who high-fives them, signalling a job well done.

When they reach the site of the sacred fire down the road, Bullock pulls out her hand drum painted with a charging buffalo and warms it above the flames. She then beats the hide of the drum and softly sings a warrior song.

“This sacred land really gives me a sense of peace. Being out here, being with the animals, on the land… until I hear the noise of the work — that’s what really gets me,” she says.

Fox contemplates how it was women who undertook the mission to bust into Canada’s high-stakes pipeline project.

“It’s us two against how many men? It’s all men. And for me, this is absolute sacrilege in all ways in what they’re doing to the land. And all these deep-rooted medicine plants, ancient burial sites. The holes. The trenches! An assault to the Earth is an assault on women. I’m just happy I can be a part of it,” she says, before heading out to recuperate at a cabin the group rented out nearby.

Over four hours later members of the Kamloops RCMP arrive at the sacred fire site. A corporal serves a copy of the TMX injunction to Bullock, citing he was called by construction security regarding an “incident,” earlier on.

After a few heated remarks from Bullock the officers leave. She calls McKenzie from ULRC and asks permission to burn the injunction papers in the sacred fire. He gives the go-ahead, saying the RCMP and colonial laws don’t have jurisdiction on unceded land.

Cree land defender Khursten Bullock tosses a copy of the injunction order for the Trans Mountain Pipeline Expansion (TMX) project into the sacred fire at Pipsell in Secwepemcúl’ecw, on December 10.
Aaron Hemens

Later, McKenzie commented that he is, “really glad that the two land defenders made the choice to chain themselves in the bore hole. It is an incredibly hard decision to make and I am sure they came to the decision with serious consideration.”

The TMX pipeline, which stretches over 1,000 km from Edmonton to the west coast of Vancouver is expected to be up and running by early 2024.
The sacred fire continued to burn for four days and nights as per Secwépemc protocol.

More land defenders and Secwépemc members are expected to arrive. For them, this is the eleventh hour. Their last chance to save Pípsell.

In an emailed statement Trans Mountain wrote that they were aware of the incident, and “the individuals have since left the site and the RCMP are investigating.”

“There is a B.C. Supreme Court injunction in place that prevents the blocking or obstruction of access to TransMountain’s work sites and work areas throughout British Columbia.”

With reporting, photos and field work by Aaron Hemens and Geordie Day.