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These remarks were delivered January 31 in Vancouver to a session of the Joint Review Panel hearings on the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline.
Thanks for having me here. My name is Christine Boyle. I’ve lived on unceded Coast Salish territory for most of my life. I’m the third-generation in my family to settle here, and a fourth generation Canadian. I’m a citizen of Vancouver, British Columbia and of Canada. I’m here speaking simply in my role as a citizen, in a democratic country, whose future matters deeply to me.
I’ve been following these hearings closely, and have read many of the transcripts. I know that you’ve heard enormous opposition to this project, for a myriad of important reasons. I’ve been reflecting on what I can say that you haven’t yet heard. And I’ve been trying to put myself in your shoes.
As we know: Your task, as members of this Panel, is to listen to the public and evaluate this project proposal.
I do have concerns, and maybe you do too, that before the work of these hearings had even begun, the federal government was already expressing opinions, making statements of support for the proposed project that pre-empted your findings.
I want to say that I don’t know what all of this has been like for you. But as I said, I’ve been following the hearings closely, and I have a sense of the intensely emotional toll that this sort of pressure can take on anyone, and I can only imagine that it has been draining and destabilizing. To be in your role, as these many, many long months come to a close, and to be imagining what you are to do and say at the end of it all. To be, at a deep level, considering and deliberating on what is of value, and what your own purpose is within it.
Much of my work is in social and environmental justice movements. However much of my academic background is in theology. That work encourages me to think about what this experience means for you. So while I don’t know you well, I have studied and trained to consider questions about purpose and value. And I want to tell you what I know, and then make a very big request of you. It may feel for a moment like I’m going off topic, but stay with me.
What I know is this: Our lives are short, and we inherently yearn to make them matter.
The thousands of people who have shown up to testify before you, our efforts are rooted in this yearning. We have spoken, rallied, danced, prayed and done everything in our power to make our voices matter in this conversation. From all corners of this province, and from across the country, people have stood up to join in. Many of the usual suspects, yes. And also many people who hadn’t before recognized in themselves the ability to stand and be heard.
Which brings me to the second thing I know: In the end, what matters most is not how much power we accumulate over time, but how we used our power and our voices.
For whatever reason of fate, or divine design, or random happenstance, you have been given a weighty responsibility at this particular moment. You are ultimately not in control of the decision on this pipeline. But you have been given a louder megaphone than the rest of us, and your mighty responsibility is to use it well.
So let’s talk about what it could look like to use it well. My sense is that people will expect one of two responses from you at the end of these hearings.
One expected response is a report that sticks to very conservative frames of value and importance, and determines that despite opposition from radicals like myself, the proposed project is indeed in the best interest of Canadians. That would be disappointing, but not surprising. You would be fulfilling a script that many felt was written long ago.
A somewhat more reasoned response might include reiterating the oil industry’s claims that this project will be good for the economy, but weighing that against the economic risks and implications of what you could call a ‘potential’ spill. This version of the report might even determine that, based on the cost-benefit-analysis, the proposed pipeline route is too risky to be in the best interest of Canadians at this time. Which, in my view, would be good. But this approach, while preferable, remains very narrow. It reinforces the notion that the economy is more important than the environment, and focuses only on localized oil spills rather than the global climate crisis.
So, I’ve told you what I know. Which is that: Our lives are short, and we inherently yearn to make them matter. And that you have been presented with a mighty opportunity at an important moment, and your responsibility is to use it well.
With that in mind, I want to present a third option. Now, I know that this option would be immensely difficult. It would require a type of moral courage, the likes of which most of us don’t know we have within us until a moment like this. Here is what I hope your report might say:
It would be great if your report gave expression to the public’s frustration, and maybe even your own frustration, at the process of the hearings, and the way in which their potential influence was watered down, right from the get-go. For the sake of future Energy Board hearings and environmental assessments, and Canadian democracy more broadly, I’d like you to call out the myriad ways in which the government has constrained this process, and sought to discourage public participation. Knowing the risks involved, I’m asking you to name this chilling behavior.
But I hope you won’t stop there. Despite deep flaws in the process, you have heard from thousands of people across Western Canada. It would be great to hear you speak to the wisdom, passion and conviction of these people. These people who are experts in their fields, in economics and the environment, labour, engineering, health, science and the arts. These people who have such a strong sense of place, who know the value of the land and are committed to protecting it.
I’d hope to hear you say that while the immediate question at hand may have been the localized environmental impacts of this particular project, it is impossible to do that question justice without equally considering the global implications.
I’d like to hear you name that we are facing a climate crisis, the implications of which are already being felt in the form of disastrous and unpredictable weather events, globally. And that in the face of the indisputable science of climate change, we have no reasonable choice but to dramatically change course, if we are to have any hope of ensuring our own survival.
I’d like to hear you say that an infrastructure project on the scale of this proposal would be taking an enormous step in exactly the wrong direction, and that it is therefore imperative that we reject it.
Lastly, I’d like you to name that the federal government is both legally obligated to adequately consult with Aboriginal communities, and is morally obligated to honour Aboriginal rights and sovereignty. This is as true within the treaty system in Alberta as it is on the unceded lands that comprise nearly all of British Columbia. And I would like you to speak to what you have heard from Aboriginal communities, speak to the enormous gatherings at each stop of the hearing, speak to the unprecedented unity in opposition to this project. Name that Canada has an atrocious history of disrespecting Aboriginal people, and that this too needs to change. Pushing this project ahead would again be a step in the wrong direction, and therefore, on this front too, it is imperative that we reject it.
I don’t envy your situation. There must be immense pressure on you. You may feel that you are just commissioners, tasked with specific terms of reference, and who are you to break the mould.
But the mould is already broken. Scientists have shown that we cannot afford to further ignite the carbon bomb that is the tar sands, and neither can our interior and coastal waters stand the inevitability of a spill of bitumen. Economists have shown that the job numbers laid out by the corporations who stand to gain the most, aren’t honest. The job numbers will be much lower, and as has happened with mining jobs in B.C., there’s no guarantee that they will be good jobs for Canadian workers. But most importantly, the majority of the people of B.C. have shown that they have heard the risks and benefits, and they have made their decision.
So now it is your turn, to make your decision.
We are hard pressed to remember a recent environmental review of as much consequence as yours. Perhaps this is an opportune time to suggest that the terms of reference are too narrow. Perhaps that is your purpose at this moment.
Christine Boyle is a community organizer and communications strategist in the Coast Salish Territories. She tweets @christineeboyle
Photo: Zack Embree