No pipelines, no tankers! Freely express this opinion and you may wind up branded by the Harper government a terrorist with ties to organized crime. Sounds far-fetched, doesn’t it? Unfortunately, it’s not only credible, it’s happening all the time. People expressing dissent over the inevitable environmental disaster that is tar sands production and transport are being blacklisted, all in the name of billions of dollars in dirty oil.
Paul Bowles and Henry Veltmeyer, professors of economics and international development respectively, have assembled a series of interviews with pipeline activists in The Answer is Still No: Voices of Pipeline Resistance. These are the collected thoughts of people the government would probably like to silence; the voices of reason Harper doesn’t want you to hear. Indigenous peoples, long-time activists, and new converts — all have a voice in this important book.
Bowles and Veltmeyer didn’t set out to publish a book, though. “We were undertaking research as part of a wider academic project on how northern British Columbia is globalizing.” They wanted to understand why there was such strong opposition to proposed pipeline development.
What they discovered, through interviewing members of the B.C. pipeline resistance, specifically resistance to Enbridge’s proposed Northern Gateway pipeline project, was that “the economic, social, environmental and legal case for the pipeline is so weak and the passion of the opposition so strong that the vested interests of ‘big oil’ and their political backers will have met their match should they try to push the project through.”
Recently, after the National Energy Board’s (NEB) farcical Judicial Review Panel (JRP) ignored more than 90 per cent of submissions (fewer than ten per cent were favourable to Enbridge’s pipeline proposal), the Harper government did what they said they were going to do. They completely ignored public opinion, science and reason, and approved the NEB’s decision to greenlight the Northern Gateway pipeline.
They did so without what interviewee Shannon McPhail, Executive Director of the Skeena Watershed Conservation Coalition, calls social license. “Social license means that you have the blessing of the community … it’s much more involved than the traditional method of operation.” By traditional method of operation she means, “consult with the community, which means you host an open house and you dictate what you are going to do, and then you write down people’s concerns, which you promptly ignore and you proceed anyway.”
McPhail, whose husband works in the tar sands, wasn’t always resistant to pipeline projects. A former supporter of the Harper government, she tells us how she thought of environmental activists as “tie-dye wearing, hippy, dreadlocked, tempeh eating soy freak shows.” All that changed after a meeting with a government official who told her they were going to drill thousands of wells into the headwaters of three watersheds without an environmental assessment, a project that would effectively kill off wild salmon.
“The very foundation that I had built my life and ignorant bliss on crumbled.”
And this realization of how descrutive the pipelines are — and how inconsiderate the process is — is really what is at the heart of this book.
The Answer is Still No collects the voices of no fewer than a dozen pipeline resisters. It looks at every aspect of the pipeline issue:
- increased tar sands production and its link to catastrophic climate change,
- increased rates of cancer in the human population,
- the environmental impact of the inevitable pipeline spills,
- contamination of waterways and what that will mean to wild salmon,
- the ludicrous idea that you can navigate super tankers through the narrow and twisted Douglas Channel (think Exxon Valdez times a bazillion) and, perhaps most importantly,
- the destruction of Indigenous culture and way of life
The Enbridge pipeline will have a devastating impact on more than 160 First Nations, peoples who have been at the forefront of pipeline resistance. “We are going to use whatever means necessary to make sure this project doesn’t threaten our future,” said interviewee Jasmine Thomas, an environmentalist, organizer, and member of the Dene Frog Clan. “The rate of development is just so unsustainable. Just this one project alone, this Northern Gateway pipeline project, could increase tar sands production by 30 percent. That’s one project. One pipeline. Fort Chip(pewa) has already experienced an increase in cancer rates. So, what would this one project do to other communities like Fort Chippewa?”
John Ridsdale, a natural resources coordinator for the Wet’suwet’en and hereditary chief of the Tsayu Clan, tells how he was astonished by what he learned during a visit to Fort McMurray. According to Ridsdale, the tar sands is a no-fly zone. His plane had to fly around the production area, as if it were a military installation. “I’ve never stepped on such dead ground before. I talked to the elders and they can’t swim in their lakes anymore, they won’t drink the water, the berries don’t even grow, they don’t bloom anymore just from the toxicity of the air.” Shared berries are part of the culture, and First Nations around the tar sands now have to have theirs flown in. “I don’t want that for our people … I can’t believe that something would affect us so badly that parts of our culture would have to change severely.”
By interviewing a range of people on a number of pipeline-related issues, Bowles and Veltmeyer have assembled a collection of voices that not only explain the inevitable impact of projects like Northern Gateway, but also give hope by showing us how effective resistance can and will put a halt to tar sands expansion and to other proposed pipeline projects.
Meg Borthwick is a freelance writer and moderator for rabble’s discussion forum, babble.