Grassroots Indigenous resistance to the Trans Mountain tar sands pipeline

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Eastern arm of Burrard Inlet from Burnaby Mountain. Image: Vranak/Wikimedia

Will George is a member of the Tsleil-Waututh Nation. Their territory, located in and around what is now called Vancouver, will be directly impacted by the Trans Mountain tar sands pipeline expansion project. Scott Neigh interviews George about the project and about his ongoing grassroots work to oppose it.

The fight against Trans Mountain has been one of the most visible social struggles in Canada in recent years.

There has been a pipeline running from near Edmonton, Alberta, to Burnaby, B.C., since 1953. The expansion project, originally proposed by then-owner Kinder Morgan in 2012, would build a new pipeline along roughly the same path, almost tripling the amount of diluted bitumen carried by Trans Mountain, and leading to a sevenfold increase in tanker traffic to the terminal on the B.C. coast. The National Energy Board and the federal Liberals under Justin Trudeau approved the expansion in May 2016. After it became clear that Kinder Morgan was considering scrapping the project, the Trudeau government spent billions of dollars to buy it in 2018. Later that year, the Federal Court of Appeal overturned the approval of the pipeline, citing flaws in the review. A second National Energy Board review ensued, followed by another approval. Critics have argued that the second review was as flawed as the first, but while there have been multiple court challenges to this second approval, so far none have been successful and construction is underway.

Even from that barebones timeline that only lists elements of the official process, you can get hints about the strength of the opposition to the project -- opposition that knocked the initial plans completely off course and that isn't done yet. A whole host of opponents have been devoted, in varying combinations, to defending Indigenous rights, protecting the lands and waters along the route and on the coast, and opposing new fossil fuel infrastructure that would lock us into ever more disastrous impacts from the climate crisis.

As is true in so many similar struggles across North America, Indigenous opposition has been central. A number of First Nations in British Columbia, including the Tsleil-Waututh and Squamish Nations on the coast and several nations in the interior, led the legal battle, with support from environmental groups. And on the land along the pipeline route, grassroots opposition is being spearheaded by formations like the Tiny House Warriors in Secwepemc territory.

As well, there has been significant activism and organizing against the pipeline by both Indigenous and non-Indigenous people in B.C.'s Lower Mainland. An early high point involved civil disobedience and more than 100 arrests on Burnaby Mountain in 2014. Residents of Burnaby itself have been active in response to the threat posed by the expanded tank farm proposed for the terminal. Various municipal governments along the route oppose the project, and after the NDP-Green coalition took power there in 2017, so did the B.C. provincial government, or at least they did for awhile.

Will George emphasizes that he is not a leader or someone able to represent his nation, but a grassroots member. He didn't much like the sound of it when he first heard about the pipeline expansion project, and there were members of his family who were more directly involved in the issue early on, but he didn't get involved himself. "I'm not a political person or a battler in that way," he said. But a few years ago, with the formal leadership of his nation occupied with the court proceedings, George's elders asked him to step up and get involved in the grassroots opposition.

In March 2018, after six months of preparation, and in conjunction with a march involving thousands of people, he and others erected a cedar watch house in Burnaby's Forest Grove Park in the path of the pipeline. George himself is the guardian of what is meant to serve as a space of gathering, of ceremony, and of opposition.

As well, on a number of occasions when Justin Trudeau has made public appearances in B.C., George has voiced his opposition directly to him. And with his years of experience as a window washer on high rise buildings, George was central to an aerial blockade of the Burrard Inlet in which he and others hung from a bridge for more than 36 hours and blocked tanker traffic. (Regular listeners may recall an episode of Talking Radical Radio in March that featured Sharon Fortney, curator of Indigenous collections and engagement at the of the Museum of Vancouver. She talked about the Acts of Resistance exhibit, which features the 40-foot banners covered in Indigeous art work that were used in the action, and about the broader history of Indigenous peoples and museums.)

Today, despite the COVID-19 pandemic, construction of the Trans Mountain tar sands pipeline expansion project has not slowed. But the watch house still stands, and the opponents remain determined to find new ways to resist in the new circumstances.

Talking Radical Radio brings you grassroots voices from across Canada, giving you the chance to hear many different people that are facing many different struggles talk about what they do, why they do it, and how they do it, in the belief that such listening is a crucial step in strengthening all of our efforts to change the world. To learn more about the show check out our website here. You can also follow us on Facebook or Twitter, or contact [email protected] to join our weekly email update list.

Talking Radical Radio is brought to you by Scott Neigh, a writer, media producer, and activist based in Hamilton Ontario, and the author of two books examining Canadian history through the stories of activists.

Image:  Vranak/Wikimedia

Theme music: "It Is the Hour (Get Up)" by Snowflake, via CCMixter

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