When we arrived in the small First Nations community of Hartley Bay at the mouth of Douglas Channel in northern B.C., we didn’t expect to find ourselves at the centre of the world. After our first week into our 900-kilometre, two-month kayaking journey along B.C.’s coast, we would have been more than content to find a dry place to set up our tents, and if we were lucky, a hot shower. Instead, we found ourselves surrounded by international reporters, photographers, First Nations leaders and several environmental veterans, feasting on some of the best halibut we’ve ever tasted aboard an old wooden fishing boat.
The boat had been converted for use in the Rapid Assessment Visual Expedition. The RAVE had been organized by the International League of Conservation Photographers and local environmental groups to promote the preservation of the world-renowned Great Bear Rainforest, which could soon be threatened by the introduction of oil tankers through B.C.’s northern waters.
Our journey began with a need to know more about the controversial Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline proposal. While unfolding only a short distance away, we felt disconnected from the issue. We embarked on our trip to put ourselves in the thick of it, to meet some of the key players involved, and to evaluate for ourselves what was at risk of being lost. After more than a month meeting with people from the North Coast, we’ve come to realize that this is a story with global reach, connecting to the development of Alberta’s tar sands, reliance on fossil fuels in developing countries, and changing national environmental policies that question what we value as Canadians. The more we paddle, the more we realize that we carry the weight of the world on our three little kayaks.
Our journey has been filled with up-close encounters with wildlife of all kinds. We’ve had pods of humpback whales and orcas surface within metres of our kayaks. Packs of curious sea lions have stared us down from a distance somewhere between exciting and discomforting. We’ve woken up to find circles of wolf tracks, each the size of our hands, surrounding our tents. We’ve become accustomed to the calls of ravens and eagles rather than the rings of our cellphones. We’ve passed through landscapes reminiscent of a world created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, paddled along endless deep fjords surrounded by streaming waterfalls spouting from huge misty peaks.
The Enbridge issue connects us all to difficult discussions about the world’s dependence on fossil fuels, and the arguable safety of crude oil tankers operating through our northern waters. The critical issue here is how the decision to build the pipeline is made. Eighty percent of British Columbians oppose tanker traffic on B.C.’s North Coast. With such strong opposition, how is this proposal even being considered?
One answer is that the development process is driven almost entirely by the proponent, in this case Enbridge. While Enbridge may be able to provide jobs in a part of the province that surely needs them, there remains very strong opposition here. There is an incredible dependence on the land and oceans in the communities we’ve visited, and people are not willing to put that connection on the line. Unfortunately rather than being able to openly uphold their opposition, they must partake in the official federal negotiation and assessment process to be considered a stakeholder.
The federal environmental assessment is essentially a rubber stamp process. Now under the direction of the National Energy Board, there is an apparent conflict of interest between the board’s goals of developing and securing energy resources for Canadians, and ensuring preservation of the environment and resources for future generations through their assessments. The three members of the Joint Review Panel that are in charge of making the final decision on the pipeline are from far outside the potentially affected communities, and two of the three have been critiqued as being highly involved in the oil and gas industry.
Over a month into our journey, it’s only now that I can really articulate why it is we’re here: we kayak because there are limited opportunities for the public to meaningfully participate in the decision making processes. We’ve sent letters to the Joint Review Panel and to members of Parliament, and signed petitions, but with so much at stake it feels like more needs to be done. I think this is a theme we’re encountering throughout our journey, and it’s inspiring to see how the people in these coastal communities are creating spaces for themselves outside of the Joint Review Panel to participate. The RAVE we came across in Hartley Bay is one such example.
When faced with limited options, doing what you love to create change is perhaps one of the most powerful ways to take part.
Ryan Vandecasteyen is a member of the Pipedreams Project, which aims to experience, connect, and engage citizens about the Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline.