As Canada Seeks to Expand a Tar Sands Pipeline, Resistance Grows

May 11, 2015

A broad assortment of activists, from First Nations leaders to poetry professors, have joined forces to protest an oil pipeline expansion that would disrupt life and land on British Columbia’s Burnaby Mountain.

Zack Embree, Mountain of Resistance, 2015. Courtesy the artist.

Text by Lorna Brown

Located just east of Vancouver, Burnaby Mountain is home to the campus of Simon Fraser University (SFU) and a forested conservation area that slopes down to the northerly Burrard Inlet, a narrow channel leading to Vancouver Harbor and out to the Pacific Ocean. Suburban housing clustered in verdant neighborhoods circles the southern side of the mountain. The upland park and conservation areas next to Burrard Inlet encompass more than 165 acres of land preserved to protect and enhance the watershed and the surrounding streams, lakes and wetlands.

Texas-based Kinder Morgan, the fourth-largest energy corporation in North America, has proposed an expansion of its Trans Mountain pipeline that would triple the volume of fossil fuels flowing to its facility at the base of the mountain, on its way to fill oil tankers headed for markets in Asia. The twinned pipeline would carry tar sands bitumen from northern Alberta, resulting in a nearly sevenfold increase in tanker traffic in Pacific waterways. Kinder Morgan’s development application, currently before Canada’s National Energy Board, has engendered massive resistance by local residents, business and political leaders, First Nations peoples, writers, scientists, filmmakers, artists and activists. Though they are united in recognizing the threat posed by the pipeline expansion, their particular concerns are varied—some focus on the health of the parklands and local economies, others on global climate change, others on the safety of their homes.

Fossil fuel production and climate change have devastating health and economic impacts that are felt first and most severely by First Nations communities, which are often located close to mining sites.

The filmmaker and photographer Zack Embree has chronicled this struggle from many perspectives: he has interviewed residents, politicians and business leaders and has documented the many acts of civil disobedience and occupation in the Lower Mainland, including marches that trace the pipeline route and community gatherings held to publicly witness the devastation caused by the mining of the tar sands in Alberta, some 1,500 kilometers to the northeast.

As part of the movement to build awareness of the planned pipeline and the risk it poses to local ecologies, marine ecosystems and human habitation, Embree’s work reveals the breadth of the coalition of community groups, SFU faculty and students, environmental activists and local elected leaders who oppose the policies of Canada’s federal government under Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Harper’s single-minded focus on the extraction of Canada’s natural resources has led to extremes such as the recently passed Bill C-51, which expands police powers to include “preventative arrest” of individuals perceived to be a threat to any critical infrastructure, such as pipelines, that is deemed vital to national economic interests.

Organized resistance along the route of the Trans Mountain pipeline has joined forces with indigenous leadership for a number of reasons. Fossil fuel production and climate change have devastating health and economic impacts that are felt first and most severely by First Nations communities, which are often located close to mining sites. Traversing traditional territories, such projects threaten to displace the inherent aboriginal right to land. The Canadian legal system recognizes aboriginal title as a unique collective right to the use of and jurisdiction over a group’s ancestral territories. In 2014 Canada’s Supreme Court blocked a lumber company from logging on Tsilhqot’in land; the landmark decision offered a new definition of aboriginal title: “It is collective title held not only for the present generation but for all succeeding generations. It cannot be . . . encumbered in ways that would prevent future generations of the group from using and enjoying it. Nor can the land be developed or misused in a way that would substantially deprive future generations of the benefit of the land.”

First Nations-led Healing Walk: hundreds march 13 kilometers through lands devastated by bitumen (tar sands) extraction projects, 2013, Alberta, Canada. Photo by Zack Embree.

First Nations–led Healing Walk. Hundreds march 13 kilometers through lands devastated by bitumen (tar sands) extraction projects, 2013, Alberta, Canada. Photo by Zack Embree.

The cities of Burnaby and Vancouver and their environs are located on unceded aboriginal territory: the ancestral lands of the Coast Salish peoples, including the Sto:lo, the Squamish, the Musqueam, and the Tsleil-Waututh community of the Burrard Inlet. On May 2, 2014, the Tsleil-Waututh Nation launched a legal challenge to the review by the National Energy Board (NEB) of the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain pipeline and tanker project. In this first legal challenge by a First Nation against the new pipeline and tanker proposal, the nation says that serious legal errors made by the federal Crown and NEB have led to a flawed and unlawful review process that puts Burrard Inlet and all peoples who live here at risk.

In late November 2014, as Kinder Morgan crews moved into the conservation lands on Burnaby Mountain to drill boreholes as part of the company’s “research,” an uneasy coalition of diverse groups of concerned populations occupied areas of the forest. Elderly residents, young children, seasoned activists, students and faculty crossed police barriers with the full expectation that they would be charged with civil contempt. Defying an injunction granted by British Columbia’s Supreme Court, more than 100 people were arrested, including Grand Chief Stewart Phillip of the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs. In a statement at the time of his arrest, Phillip condemned the Canadian government, saying it was “provoking a conflict between the environment and the economy.” All charges were dropped because of a GPS error in the Kinder Morgan survey that resulted in inaccurate injunction area markings and unauthorized police enforcement zones: the barriers the activists crossed were in the wrong places.

Prior to these arrests, Kinder Morgan initiated a $5.6 million civil lawsuit against the protesters for “trespassing” on public lands. The Vancouver poet and English professor Stephen Collis was named, along with other individuals, in this strategic lawsuit against public participation, or “SLAPP suit,” intended to silence critics by burdening them with a costly legal defense. In his argument, Kinder Morgan lawyer Bill Kaplan quotes poetry that Collis published on his blog, essentially citing his writing as legal evidence. In the November 5 court transcript, Kaplan states, “underneath the poetry there is a description of how the barricade was made,” a chilling example of a corporation using the courts to turn a writer’s words against that writer. Predictably and strategically, Kinder Morgan dropped the lawsuit after community groups came together to raise funds to cover the defendants’ legal costs.

In Zack Embree’s above video, Mountain of Resistance, we see the scale and implications of tar sands bitumen extraction and how changes to Canadian law and federal agencies pose major threats to the environment, to democratic principles and—through aggressive corporate legal action—to scientific and academic freedom. This story is one of many playing out day-by-day in Canada’s courts and media. Having gained the support of figures such as Chris Hedges and David Suzuki, as well as the commitment of local mayors, grassroots resistance remains firm in the face of a long fight ahead.