“Petroleum is the worst thing in the world. It is eating the surface of the Earth, poisoning the air and the water.”—a delegate at the first ever United Nations gathering of Indigenous people in 2009
I once read a book to my young daughter about a small dragon that came to live in a boy’s house. His parents refused to acknowledge its presence and so it gradually grew bigger and bigger until it filled the whole building. As soon as the parents admitted their mistake, the dragon shrank down to the size of a cat.
This is the present story of Canada and the expansion of the Kinder Morgan pipeline. The project is scheduled to transport 900,000 barrels of bitumen daily from the Alberta tarsands to Vancouver harbour on the west coast of British Columbia, where oil-tanker traffic will increase 700 percent to more than 400 tankers a year.
A significant part of the Canadian economy continues to rely on resource extraction, and mining fossil fuels is a lucrative source of income. As a result, the Alberta tarsands, along with other threatening dragons, are presently overtaking Canada’s house and sucking oxygen out of all the rooms.
Anthony Cox, executive director of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), which just released the 2017 Environmental Performance Review of Canada, stated:“We applaud Canada’s renewed determination under the current government to tackle climate change…That said, Canada’s own emissions-cutting objectives for 2030 will stay out of reach without swift and concrete policy action and greater use of economic instruments to wean the country off fossil fuels.”
On April 18, the federal minister for energy and climate change, Catherine McKenna, met with the premier of Ontario, Kathleen Wynne, and Michael Bloomberg to discuss Bloomberg's task force, which is encouraging business to measure and disclose the environmental risks and benefits of their activities. Bloomberg, a former mayor of New York City and a successful entrepreneur, acknowledged: “The Canadian banks are some of world’s biggest investors in fossil fuels, [which] undermines the country’s leadership on climate. We’ve got to do something about that. Part of the reason is that the risks of fossil fuels aren’t properly priced. When you interfere with the marketplace, then people do things that are irrational.”
Making a living by burning poisons
Archeologists tell us “fossil fuels” or hydrocarbons, were used by ancient Chinese societies 3,000 years ago. But in the past few centuries, the Occidental view took over. Western Europe encouraged extensive mining and burning of “old sun”, first with coal, which powered the initial Industrial Revolution, and afterwards oil and gas.
After Britain abolished slavery in 1807, most trades transitioned to machine power. Subsequently, the exponential growth of fossil fuels took over where slavery left off, facilitating western society’s transition to modernity. Backed by a worldview that accepted the superiority of the human mind above all else, “enlightened” Europeans justified their right to control nature. This approach, which also helped create the scientific method and market economics, allowed the West to realize widespread industrialization.
Following the Industrial Revolution, many dragons grew far too big for their houses. The absolute power of fossil fuels and the massive change they brought overwhelmed communities. During colonization, western ideas spread around the globe. Burning vast stores of hydrocarbons became commonplace, which helped entrepreneurs become richer and more privileged while less affluent folk, other species, and threatened ecosystems struggled and shrank.
At a certain point in history, the elite of the western world decided that using fossil fuels was the right thing to do. They did this because it benefitted them; but the narrative has turned tragic. The usual moral and ethical checks and balances humanity had employed failed to address western society’s dependence on destructive energy. Traditional religions and philosophy did not have enough strength to withstand the combined force of the free market and industrialization.
Meantime, classical economics morphed from its original state to create even more problems. Now, even prominent business leaders like Bloomberg warn us that these scenarios produce “some real cataclysmic possibilities”.
This is a far cry from the view of Canada’s Indigenous people, who lived in fully self-sufficient societies when the first colonizers arrived 400 years ago. For example, the First Nations who inhabited the islands of Haida Gwaii for millennia imagine taking care of the Earth as a way of life. A quote from their museum declares: “In the Haida language, there is no word for nature. The natural world is indivisible from the human world, animal world, and supernatural world. On Haida Gwaii, all combine to inspire and define our art, culture, livelihoods, and communities.”
The curse of easy energy
No matter how you look at it, the true story of fossil fuels is not a positive one. Over the centuries, the results of industrialization have helped in certain ways. But the continual extraction, processing, transport, burning, and using up of poisonous substances from deep in the ground is wrong. Hydrocarbons are profitable, so they are overused. When modern free markets offer a cheap supply, demand grows. Energy is then used up for wasteful activities.
The entrepreneurs in charge of this industry have become criminals who make money enslaving the Earth. They take from the natural world as if it is theirs to squander while also creating tremendous waste. And these crimes against humanity and nature are openly imagined as supporting a healthy society.
In Canada, such activities are praised daily and appear as a central vision for a strong, productive nation. How many times have we heard about “growing the economy”, which too often means using up natural resources? The danger to living things, an increase in toxic byproducts, and taking away environmental prosperity from future human generations is rarely discussed. So when Bloomberg talks about investors and markets acting in an “irrational” manner, it is because our present-day economy mostly ignores nature.
Depleting entropic stores of coal, oil, and gas is wrong. And when those are used up, transitioning to more difficult-to-extract fuels—such as deep-sea oil—and processing dirtier ones—like tarsands bitumen and liquefied natural gas (LNG)—is also wrong. Creating poisonous wastelands and adding to runaway climate change—which is breaking up ice sheets and causing extreme droughts, monstrous storms, increased forest fires, sinking shorelines, and bleached corals—is wrong. Humanity should know better by now, since they can actually see the pollution and garbage produced and feel the impacts of weather transformation.
But a bit more than a century ago, the original exploiters were too drunk on their lucky strike to care whether what they were doing was right or wrong. And the ones who had power never told them to stop. Now, those who continue to benefit are highly addicted.
How can any rational, caring individual believe excess fossil-fuel development is justified? It makes living things sick. It destroys life. It wastes finite resources. It feeds the high needs and desires of rich corporations and people. It causes governments to become corrupt. It invades and poisons Indigenous communities because they almost always live close to natural resources. It creates tremendous inequality in society. And it continues to tragically escalate drastic alterations to the earth’s bio- and geochemical systems—a terrible and unexpected reality created by humans who have little knowledge of how to successfully cope with the impacts.
In short, petroleum truly is “the worst thing in the world”. The Indigenous delegate at that first ever United Nations conference spoke the truth in 2009, and nothing much has changed since. He couldn’t understand why western civilization used petroleum as much as they do. Since the Industrial Revolution, western society has exposed and exploited age-old hostile substances that are the antithesis of life. To continue to extract and burn hydrocarbons at this stage is extreme crazymaking.
The pitiful response of government and industry
Clearly, the emperor has no clothes. Shame on the dominant classes for allowing the emperor to parade around on the streets stark naked for almost two centuries! Here in Canada, if reactions from politicians and businesses were not so outrageous, they might be considered funny. For example, in mid-March, McKenna made a statement that the Kinder Morgan—or Trans Mountain pipeline and tanker port—would make the West Coast “safer”.
Then Prime Minister Justin Trudeau claimed that Trans Mountain helped climate change and is considered to be in “the national interest" because it transports resources to market. He believes that without a pipeline, all the provinces won’t sign on to pay the carbon tax. He is also going head to head against B.C. premier John Horgan’s efforts to stop the project.
On April 16, 2018, at an emergency debate in the House of Commons, MP Nathan Cullen, from Skeena-Bulkley Valley in northwestern British Columbia, responded: “[Trudeau] actually is making the claim that by posing significant and important questions about an oil pipeline, the premier of B.C. is somehow ruining the climate-change program of the country. Only in Canada could an oil pipeline of almost 900,000 barrels a day be vital to a climate-change program.”
Recently, Trudeau offered a bailout of more than $2 billion of taxpayers' money to fund the pipeline. He is expecting Canadians to join in helping a multi-billion-dollar industry pollute and spoil our land and waters. Meantime, a recent analysis showed that an oil spill in Vancouver harbour would take at least $40 billion to clean up.
The Vancouver Economic Commission has agreed it is not economically prudent to continue the project. MP and Green Party Leader Elizabeth May tells us Kinder Morgan’s proposal was not thoroughly evaluated; nor is there an independent review that proves it is in the national interest. The National Observer stated that the decision to support Kinder Morgan was made before meeting with First Nations. And the Guardian states: “Canada taxes its oil and gas companies at a fraction of the rate they are taxed abroad…an industry expert who looked at the data says it is a worrying sign that the country may be ‘a kind of tax haven for our own companies.’ ”
Many B.C. residents are making their opposition known. They’ve joined demonstrations near the present Kinder Morgan facility, and protestors continue to be arrested. Some proponents claim that dissenters are being coerced by big environmental groups in the United States. They consider “environmentalists” to be bad people who get in the way of honest Canadians doing their work. How dare they drive cars while also objecting to pipelines!
Cullen, whose constituency fought the Enbridge Pipeline for almost a decade, responded: “For many of the people I represent, this is a movie we’ve seen before. When Northern Gateway was first proposed, it met with stiff and consistent resistance. The voices of those who had legitimate questions about the project; about the safety of our rivers and our ocean environment, were rejected, refused, not allowed to testify, and were, in fact, called at the time by their own government 'enemies of the state', 'foreign-funded radicals'. Do you hear some of that similar rhetoric brewing up again? That those who dare to ask questions, that those who dare to pose significant concerns over something that threatens potentially their lives and their communities, are somehow un-Canadian?”
On April 15, 2018, Trudeau’s official statement about Trans Mountain proclaimed: “We are a vast, varied cooperative federation, built on centuries of compromise. But we are, above all, one country governed by our Constitution and by the rule of law.” Thus, he maintains that his government has “legislative options that will assert and reinforce the Government of Canada’s jurisdiction in this matter, which we know we clearly have.”
But the trees, fish, whales, and birds were never asked their opinion when the settlers arrived and changed the laws of Canada. They did not sign the Constitution and were never subsequently offered “legislative options”. Most Indigenous groups were not properly consulted and continue to be marginalized and ignored.
According to Trudeau, “Canada has completed the deepest consultations with rights holders ever on a major project in this country. And working with our Indigenous partners has been paramount. To date, 43 First Nations have negotiated benefit agreements with the [Trans Mountain] project—33 of those in B.C.” Looking deeper at this statement, it doesn’t sound very positive. If elected representatives from an Indigenous community sign an agreement for benefits, that means they gain an advantage if the development goes ahead. This does not mean every member of the Nation gave consent.
Besides, there are 140 Nations in the path of the pipeline. The other 97 either have not signed or are actively suing the government to halt the development.
To respectfully practice reconciliation with Canada’s First Nations and to honour the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People (UNDRIP) means to uphold the original laws of the natural world and the community who were stewards for millennia. If Canada does not follow those prerogatives—and they don’t appear fully interested in implementing them—it means some people have become too drunk with power and privilege and need an intervention. They are ignoring the Indigenous obligation to care for the land and the waters at their peril.
Addiction requires intervention
The continued present-day dependence on fossil fuels and the financial returns they bring have clouded people’s ability to think straight. It certainly makes us physically sick. If anyone has doubts, notice the toxic fumes you smell next time you fill your vehicle’s gas tank. Then imagine the carnage of a real oil spill. Listen to the story from first responders such as the Heiltsuk First Nation at the sinking of the tug Nathan E. Stewart near Bella Bella in 2016 and the Gitga’at First Nation who helped passengers from the B.C. ferry MV Queen of the North, which sank off Hartley Bay in 2006. Not only were there oil spills in both instances, but poisons still affect fish in the waters and seafood on the beaches; essential foods First Nations have eaten for thousands of years.
Then, ask elder Ta’ah Amy George to tell her story. She is the daughter of the late Chief Dan George—a well-known leader with the Tsleil-Waututh First Nation who face the present Kinder Morgan facility. He was a writer, actor, and activist. Amy is the mother and grandmother of two more generations of activists in her son Rueben and his children, Kaia and Cedar.
Amy is very clear when speaking about her opposition to the pipeline expansion, because she has seen environmental destruction in her community. “Enough is enough,” she says. It’s time to “warrior up”. To Amy, those words mean: “Taking care of the whales, and the salmon, the seal, the clams, the oysters...speaking for the living things that can’t speak for themselves.”
And yet influential, nicely dressed Canadian politicians and business people stand in front of crowds and tell them fossil-fuel mining must continue. Pipelines must be built. Ships must be loaded with bitumen and transported across vast oceans that are home to untold numbers of creatures. Energy must be burned in countries that already have serious pollution problems. The power elite also ignores millions of residents who will have to inhabit the newly fashioned oil port of Vancouver and wait for the fateful day when the waters fill with black toxins while downcast politicians say they are sorry.
Create a precedent: halt destruction while there’s still time
Let the facts be known. There is no conspiracy among the residents of B.C. who march against oil pipelines and tankers, open net-pen fish farms, unnecessary hydro dams like Site C, and LNG production and port facilities. There are no groups subsidizing them. Most of the protest organizers are underfunded and many are volunteers. They are not doing this for ulterior motives. They are not employed by a political party or acting as spies.
Instead, they have simply responded to the Indigenous imperative relayed by the original residents of the land. Protestors are agreeing with all their heart that “enough is enough”. They have the same opinion as Amy George that using hydrocarbons endlessly for human industry is wrong because it destroys too many living things. Dissenters do not want politicians, businesses, and media to insult their intelligence with false rhetoric and half measures.
They are tired of people in power running roughshod over First Nations. They believe it’s time to fully listen and respect what Canada’s Indigenous people have to say.
Protest is part of the history of this province. In 1984, the Nuu-chah-nulth First Nation from Vancouver Island took on MacMillan Bloedel, a giant B.C. forestry company, on Meares Island and won. Then in 1985, a standoff emerged between the Haida and logging companies on Athlii Gwaii, Lyell Island. The South Island was eventually protected and a powerful precedent was set once again.
Then, in 1993, MacMillan Bloedel was preparing to clearcut a large area of isolated and pristine old-growth forest in Clayoquot Sound. Hundreds of protestors arrived to stage a huge rally and block logging roads. After a three-month standoff, the RCMP arrested more than 900 citizens, the biggest mass arrest in Canadian history. And let’s not forget that Greenpeace, a prominent international environmental organization, was founded in the living rooms of Vancouver residents in the 1960s and '70s. They decided it was vital to consciously change the way the world worked.
Time to “Warrior Up”!
The terrifying fossil-fuel dragon overwhelms us. To continue encouraging humanity to “play with fire” is unconscionable. People in British Columbia are marching, being arrested, writing letters and articles, petitioning, meeting, and fighting back against resource-extraction projects because our society does not place adequate value on ecosystems. And yet they provide the only real value on Earth.
Is our species really that desperate and stupid that we have to destroy our common planet for a living? I don’t think so. We are fortunate to have Indigenous people showing us a way forward. I would like to give the creative part of humanity a chance to work fairly with all the species and biodiversity inhabiting our magnificent home.
In the twentieth century, 150 million inhabitants of the civilized world died either by violence or forced starvation. We need the economy of peace. We need to construct healthy communities. We need to rebuild and replant so future generations can enjoy a land where plants and animals are plentiful, not constantly at risk.
I’ll leave the final words to Melina Laboucan-Massimo, a member of the Lubicon Cree First Nation. Her family’s traditional territory and home community of Little Buffalo was impacted by the Alberta tarsands for decades. She spoke to a Kinder Morgan rally on Burnaby Mountain on March 10:
“Prophecy speaks of a time when blue skies will turn brown, blue water will turn black as a result of man's greed. We have two paths to choose from; one that is green and just and one that is death and destruction. I know I, for one, choose life!
"We have a reciprocal relationship to the Earth; what we do to the land we do to ourselves. Where we come from, the air is turning black, the children are getting sick, and we can no longer drink from the waters in the streams. Our people are getting sick from the animals, from the berries, and from the things that have made us well in the past.
"And why is it okay for Canada to destroy our sacred places of prayer? Would we bulldoze their churches; would we bulldoze their graveyards? No! I choose life”More