“We can’t let Alberta get away with blackmailing us into thinking it’s ok for them to over-run our rights as Canadian citizens to do what we want to do in our province,” says John George, nephew of famed Chief Dan George of the Tsleil-Waututh Nation, which claims as its unceded territory the Burrard Inlet, home of Kinder Morgan’s Westridge Terminal, where tankers will fill up with Alberta crude oil from the proposed Trans Mountain Expansion pipeline. The anger in George’s voice ripples through the crowd that eventually grows to an estimated 7,000 people.
Some are dressed in indigenous clothing and banging drums, but most appear to be local Burnaby residents – middle-aged professionals who may teach at Simon Fraser University, couples pushing strollers, college students boisterously waving anti-Kinder Morgan signs.
They have gathered under cloudless blue skies on a pleasant Saturday afternoon in March to show their support for the Tsleil-Waututh, organizers of the protest.
Eventually, Reuben George jumps onto the back of a U-haul cube van and the protest begins.
“The Tsleil-Waututh Nation has been in this battle for almost nine years. We did multiple assessments, we did studies, we have proven over and over again that this pipeline will not go through,” he says, despite intermittent audio problems that make it hard for people in the back of the huge crowd to hear him.
“We stand behind the Canadian constitution respecting our indigenous rights. We believe we will win the Federal Court of Appeal [a judicial review of federal approval for the pipeline project]. We know they will go to the Supreme Court…we will win there, too.”
The protesters cheer lustily. They understand that opposition from coastal First Nations is key to defeating the combined might of the Canadian government (Prime Minister Justin Trudeau approved the project and is adamant it will be built), the Alberta government (Premier Rachel Notley has hotly opposed efforts by British Columbia to hinder construction), and the Texas-based pipeline giant (granted an interim injunction by the BC Supreme Court against protest blockades a day earlier).
The Tsleil-Waututh may not win the judicial review. They and other First Nations involved in the anti-pipeline cause may not win other inevitable legal challenges that will dog the project until it is either built or abandoned.
But the one thing indigenous opponents can count on is public support from Metro Vancouver, especially Burnaby and Vancouver, where that support is highest.
Listening to the protesters chat among themselves, they believe the protest is about a moral crusade, a fight to protect Mother Earth from the ravages of Big Oil and Big Alberta.
No one talks about pipeline spill rates or if diluted bitumen actually floats in a marine environment or the need to cut oil use to combat climate change.
When Reuben George tells them that Trudeau cries crocodile tears over indigenous rights and lies to Canadians about the pipeline, they cheer.
When he says the day will soon come for them to “cross the line” with indigenous spiritual elders, they cheer even louder.
The next half hour is spent in similar exhortations, the crowd increasingly fired up but politely so in a typically Canadian way.
Eventually, elders cut through the crowd and lead it onto the street and the march is underway.
The emotional current is visceral. One wonders if this is how American protesters felt during the golden era of protests, the fight to end the Vietnam war.
Across town, in front of the 2010 Olympic cauldron, another rally gets under way a few hours later, organized by Resource Works, a BC-based organization that promotes the value of Canada’s natural resources, including oil and gas.
Full disclosure: last year Resource Works hired me to write a 6-part series on the Energy Transition.
Executive director Stewart Muir leads off with a speech that extols the benefits all Canadians derive from selling Albert’s crude oil and the how larger that benefit will be when the Trans Mountain Expansion pipeline helps open Asian markets.
“In the absence of sufficient pipeline capacity to get our crude oil to world markets, our LNG and natural gas to world markets, every day we’re giving millions of dollars to the United States simply because we have to give away our precious, non-renewable fossil fuels away, letting them pocket the best part of that,” he says.
The crowd of 300 or so applauds noisily, some holding up placards that say, “Discounted oil and gas exports = discounted quality of life for Canadians” and “We support energy.” Black “I heart Canadian oil and gas” T-shirts are everywhere.
Muir acknowledges some of the rally attendees who have come from out of town, including Alberta and northern BC town Fort Nelson.
Later in the rally, Liberal MLA and former chief counsellor of the Haisla Nation near Kitimat Ellis Ross will speak about the importance of jobs to northern coastal and interior First Nations, many of which support the pipeline.
“We need economic development in our region for the citizens of Skeena and the north coast, of course, but also for the First Nations in our territories,” he says in an interview before the rally gets started. The Alcan modernization project has given his band members a taste of the benefits of good paying jobs and they are anxious to escape the poverty that is far too often the fate for northern indigenous communities, he adds.
When asked about opposition from the coastal First Nations, he points out that the voices of interior indigenous are just as important.
“That’s their [coastal First Nations] right. And every First Nation along the route has got a right to say yes or no to economic development,” he says.
“The way I look at it, if you’re a First Nation that doesn’t need the job, doesn’t need the revenue, that’s great, you’ve found the answer. But there’s many First Nations up in my neck of the woods, which is north coast BC, that haven’t found the answer yet. And they’d like to get the first step out of that poverty.”
Muir and Ross lay out sensible, articulate arguments in favour of Trans Mountain Expansion: good paying jobs in northern communities where jobs of any type are scarce; tax revenue to pay for services and benefits for all Canadians; the Canadian and Alberta commitment to responsible resource development and environmental protection.
Unfortunately, other rally speakers indulged in cheap pipeline jingoism.
There was Vivian Krause, the Vancouver-based researcher, blogger and conspiracy theorist who American-paid environmental activists behind every pipeline protest.
Robbie Picard, the Fort McMurray businessman and organizer of Oil Sands Strong, who earned a modicum of fame dissing Hollywood celebrities that traveled to northern Alberta to opine about the oil sands, and tells a few ridiculous and inarticulate stories about confronting Jane Fonda in a Moxies Restaurant parking lot or his adventures during Leo’s (actor Leonardo DiCaprio) brief fly-in critique of oil sands tailings ponds.
Surprisingly, oil and gas mascot Neil “Bernard the Roughneck” Hancock – not long ago a favourite of the notorious Rebel Media crowd, who once flung both his shoes at an Alberta Legislature door during an anti-carbon tax rally – delivered a heartfelt plea for blue collar workers for whom the oil sands and pipelines paid mortgages and put food on the table.
But the target of all three was environmental non-government organizations (ENGOs), the favourite whipping boy of the Alberta-based industry and most Alberta critics of BC opposition to the Kinder Morgan project.
Albertans need to re-focus.
The protest movement against Trans Mountain Expansion is building and Saturday’s rally is just a taste of the ferocious opposition – likely characterized by violence and police arrests – coming this spring and summer.
Indigneous leaders like Reuben George will be at the forefront of that movement.
ENGOs will play a vital supporting role, providing money, organization, and communication capacity.
But it will be coastal First Nations at the front of the marches.
If there is an answer to the Georges and the elders, it is jobs and economic benefits, just as Muir and Ross argued.
Mocking eco-activists is the wrong answer. That way lies defeat in the coming battle for the hearts and minds of the roughly 50 per cent of British Columbians who still support Trans Mountain Expansion.