Photo: Volunteers construct a ‘watch house’ as a gathering spot for Indigenous elders and people opposing the TransMountain pipeline on Saturday, March 10. Photo by Trevor Mack (National Observer)
Ten thousand people gathered to condemn the expansion of an oil pipeline in Canada on Saturday. Their chants of “Water is life”, “No consent, no pipeline”, and “Keep it in the ground,” filled the air, along with the sound of drums played by members of First Nations. They are standing up to Kinder Morgan, an energy infrastructure giant in North America. “We cannot sit by idly and let this project go with the way it would threaten our livelihood, our lives, our territories, our waters and our culture,” said Dustin Rivers, a Squamish Nation leader. First Nations were further joined in their protest by non-indigenous locals, Greenpeace Canada, and local environmental groups like Stand.Earth.
Kinder Morgan has received the go-ahead from the Canadian government to construct the TransMountain pipeline, which would transport oil extracted from tar sands in Alberta, nearly tripling the flow of oil into the Vancouver area. According to Canada’s National Energy Board, the project “is in the public’s interest,” but would have “significant adverse effects” on endangered orcas that live in the waters off the coast of Washington. A Greenpeace press release presented research expecting the pipeline to spill over 30 times in a 50-year span, threatening drinking water, rivers, lakes, and streams, and risking the extinction of the local orcas.
Protesters erected a watch house on top of the current pipeline and blocking the planned route for the expansion. This initiative is called ‘Kwekwecnewtxw’ meaning “place to watch from.” This indigenous tradition has existed for thousands of years, posting a guard to watch for enemies and dangers to the tribe. A speaker at the protest, Will George, is a Tsleil-Waututh member who has promised to remain in the house “as long as it takes” as a modern defender of the community.
Also planned is the construction of tiny houses. There will be ten homes erected and placed strategically along the more than 500 km pipeline route. This will block access to the pipeline as a tangible assertion of indigenous sovereignty. Each tiny house will provide housing to a Secwepemc family, as the population is facing a housing crisis resulting from “deliberate colonial impoverishment.” Additionally, the project aims to fully power the houses through solar panels, consistent with the community’s efforts against nonrenewable energy. Greenpeace Canada provided manpower and logistical support for this project.
As the next step in the campaign, those allied with the cause are being asked to risk arrest in a mass demonstration of civil disobedience. “Every step of the way, we will continue to oppose Kinder Morgan and the financial institutions bankrolling this climate-killing, Indigenous rights-bulldozing pipeline,” said Mike Hudema, climate and energy campaigner at Greenpeace Canada. The campaign’s website stipulates that violence will not be tolerated.
The struggle is also being fought in the courts. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau once said that “Governments might grant permits, but only communities can grant permission.” First Nations have legally challenged the project, saying that the land Kinder Morgan wants to build on was not and will not be ceded. They are clear that consultation with them was inadequate. If the project continues, it will be without having met the minimum international regulations for extractive practices on indigenous lands, which involve the community’s free, informed, and prior consent. Development is therefore illegal under the International Covenants on Civil and Political Rights and Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and in violation of the protections outlined in Section 35 of Canada’s Constitution.
Indigenous peoples are often on the frontlines of environmental people power movements. Their communities’ traditions have their roots in respect for the land and this uniquely positions them as “defenders of the earth.” Standing Rock’s NODAPL movement is another famous example of an anti-extractive industry campaign led by indigenous peoples, though it by no means stands alone; the UN states that indigenous groups help protect an estimated 80 percent of the planet’s remaining biodiversity. Through the assertion of sovereignty and jurisdictional rights over their ancestral lands, indigenous people are collectively resisting – forming coalitions and strong alliances with women’s, environmental, and youth movements. They are a shining example of people raising their voices against injustice. As climate activist Emily Johnson writes “Fundamentally, Trudeau was right: they do need our permission to devastate the world. . . What the industry is learning from all of these fights is that if we want to stop them, we can. More importantly, that’s what we’re learning.”