Led by First Nations elders in regalia, with drums and song, over 500 people took to the streets of Prince Rupert last week to protest the proposed Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline that would bring oil tankers to the north coast of B.C. One young girl held a sign to remind us that we can’t eat oil. Heiltsuk youth, who had travelled all day by boat up from Bella Bella to join the rally, spoke out with powerful words, putting Enbridge on notice that the Heiltsuk First Nation will not risk their culture or their resources or their children’s future, that their home is not for sale.
There was strength in solidarity, with so many standing together, united by a shared commitment to protect the ecosystems, communities, and livelihoods of the coast. First Nations and non-First Nations. Elders and youth. Federal, provincial, and municipal politicians. Young families with children. People who have fought long and hard to stop previous proposed oil projects on the north coast and are prepared to do what it takes to stop this one, and others who are engaging in this way for the first time.
And just how far people are willing to go, to protect this rich and abundant coastline, became even more apparent. “I made a promise to our youth that if Enbridge gets to the point at which it is bringing in the bulldozers, I will put my body in front of it,” said Gerald Amos, a councillor with the Haisla Nation. “How many of you will join me?” More than half the people in the crowd raised their hands.
The rally was timed to coincide with the annual convention of the North Central Local Government Association, a regional organization made up of town councils from across northern B.C. Enbridge was a platinum-level sponsor of the convention. “They can buy all the wine and cheese for municipal councillors they want, but they won’t be able to buy the hearts and minds of the people of the Northwest,” MP Nathan Cullen told the crowd. “Say no to Enbridge, and say yes to a future that is our future.”
Because when it comes right down to it, over 500 people didn’t gather in Prince Rupert, with another 260 at a rally in Masset on the same day, just to stop the pipeline and tankers. We gathered to choose a future we can say yes to with all our hearts—one with sustainable livelihoods, coastal tourism and recreation opportunities, healthy fisheries, communities grounded in culture, and our children growing up knowing the taste of shellfish and salmon.
So often, I am humbled by the richness and biodiversity of B.C.’s north coast ecosystems. When I stand under an ancient tree and think about how many hundreds or even thousands of years this tree has depended on the nutrients from decaying salmon. When I sit soaked in the rain in the Great Bear Rainforest, watching a spirit bear fish for salmon. When I catch a whiff of the stench of whale breath. Or when I sit down to an abundant feast of foods recently pulled from the ocean, hosted by one of the coastal First Nations. These rich ecosystems of the coast have supported First Nations for thousands of years, and today continue to provide livelihoods in fishing and tourism to tens of thousands of British Columbians.
And when I stand with all those who are fighting to oppose oil tankers, in order to protect this beautiful and life-sustaining piece of the world, I am filled with hope and conviction. Because there are politics, and then there are people. And the people of British Columbia overwhelmingly support a legislated ban on oil tankers through the Great Bear Rainforest.
One of Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s first comments to the press following the recent election was that statements made by opposition parties about West Coast transportation and the energy sector “simply did not reflect the needs and concerns” of British Columbians. This is simply not true. Prime Minister Harper is seriously out of step with the vast majority of British Columbians on the issue of oil tanker traffic through the Great Bear Rainforest. Opposition to the proposed Northern Gateway project is strong, united, and growing.
Enbridge Inc.’s Northern Gateway project would pipe Alberta tar sands crude to Kitimat, and ship it to Asia in supertankers that would navigate the perilous channels and inlets of the Great Bear Rainforest—the world’s largest intact temperate coastal rainforest, one of the world’s best carbon vaults, and a source of culture and livelihood to First Nations and other coastal communities. Both marine and rainforest ecosystems, along with all the people and wildlife that depend on them, would be devastated by an oil spill.
Prime Minister Harper, speaking about support for pipelines and tankers only days after one of Alberta’s largest oil disasters spilled nearly 30,000 barrels of oil from a pipeline, causing damage to ecosystems and impacts on human health, shows that he chooses not be bothered by the fact that where oil moves, it spills.
Some things don’t change, regardless of what government is in power. Opposition to the proposed Enbridge pipeline and tankers in the Great Bear Rainforest has not, and will not, go away. Our dependence on the health of the ecosystems that sustain us—for food, culture, livelihoods, and recreation—has in no way diminished. Nor has the urgent need to address global warming lessened in importance. Our vision of a low-carbon future, with sustainable livelihoods and healthy communities and economies grounded within ecological limits, still stands. Extracting and exporting an increasing amount of crude oil would lead us in a different direction, towards a future with jobs in oil spill clean-up and no salmon in the rivers. Regardless of what government is in power, we face a choice for our future.
And for a majority of us, this choice is clear. Tankers were made an election issue in many parts of the province, with a majority of British Columbian voters supporting parties that call for a legislated ban on tankers. Polls show that more than 75 percent of British Columbians support a tanker ban. Coastal First Nations and the Nations of the Fraser Watershed have declared a ban on pipelines from the tar sands and oil supertankers through their traditional territories, using their indigenous laws and decision-making authority. The Union of B.C. Municipalities has passed a resolution calling for a tanker ban. Tanker traffic along B.C.’s coast and through the Great Bear Rainforest is staunchly opposed by opposition MPs from across Canada, and dozens of grassroots and environmental groups. And just last week, First Nations and concerned citizens rallied in Prince Rupert, on Haida Gwaii, and at the Enbridge AGM in Calgary.
We face a new government, and we live in a world that caters to profit over people, ecosystems and communities. But for so many of us, the proposed pipeline and tankers are the line in the sand. For our coastal communities, for our children, for the bears and the wolves and the salmon, we will do what it takes to keep oil tankers out of the Great Bear Rainforest.
Caitlyn Vernon is the Great Bear Rainforest campaigner for Sierra Club B.C.