I visited the Unist’ot’en camp near Houston, B.C., a year ago. The people are trying to reestablish a sustainable relationship with territory that has enabled them to flourish for millennia. Ever since colonization and settlement, much of that traditional way of life has been lost or seriously constrained. These are modern people with all the accoutrements of the globalized economy.
As is obvious from news photos of the RCMP intrusion, winter at Unist’ot’en camp is cold, which makes it all the more remarkable. It did not spring up in protest against a pipeline; it began in 2010, in a search for a way to return to living on the land year-round.
Canada’s government has accepted the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and committed to implementing the recommendations of our Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Indigenous rights, legitimacy of Indian Act–imposed band councils, sovereignty over land, and other issues will reverberate through the country for years.
In fighting to protect the land and water and exert traditional values and priorities, the Unist’ot’en pipeline opposition is at the forefront of a fight for all people in Canada. In November 2018, an Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change special report warned that global average temperature has risen by 1° C since the Industrial Revolution. If it increases above another half-degree, we’ll experience climate chaos.
The scale of humanity’s fossil-fuel use, especially by industrialized nations, created this crisis. The IPCC urged emissions reductions of 45 percent by 2030 and 100 percent by 2050 to keep within a 1.5° C rise. Failure to achieve these targets will have unpredictable consequences as the ecological, social, and economic repercussions of our current trajectory threaten the foundations of human civilization. That dramatic scenario comes from a virtually unanimous conclusion of the scientific community.
After almost a decade with a government that did all it could to ignore climate change, Canada elected a new one in 2015. On the global stage at UN climate talks in Paris, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced that Canada was “back”. He not only committed us to the Paris target of keeping temperature rise between 1.5° and 2° C but announced a preference for the lower target. It was a welcome relief to have a government that based its position on science, not ideology or economics.
Despite that promise, Canada has taken little action to achieve the goal, even with the obvious “low-hanging fruit” that could immediately be implemented: cease subsidies to the fossil-fuel industry; put money saved into rapid renewable energy expansion, public transit, and electrification of all sectors; halt approval of new exploration or drilling; help workers with skills in the fossil-fuel sector transition to renewables; phase out extreme energy sources, including oilsands, deep-sea drilling, and fracking; and begin a massive program of public education to reduce energy use and convert to sustainable energy sources.
Trudeau once remarked: “No country would find 173 billion barrels of oil in the ground and leave them there.” It was shocking to hear this justification for expanding oilsands production. He proudly announced approval of a $40-billion facility to liquefy fracked gas, calling it a transition fuel to help China reduce coal dependence, even though fracked gas has a carbon footprint at least as bad as coal (because of fugitive methane release), requires vast amounts of water, and induces earthquakes. The government approved building a megadam at Site C on the Peace River, even though that land could be the breadbasket for the North. And when Kinder Morgan rejected financing of a multibillion-dollar pipeline to increase the volume of bitumen transported from the oilsands to the Port of Vancouver, the government bought the project on behalf of all Canadians!
When we elevate the economy above the atmosphere on our list of priorities, we raise a human construct over the air we breathe—air that brings us climate, weather, and seasons. The people at Unist’ot’en camp show us a perspective and value system based on our immersion in and dependence on the biosphere for our health, well-being, and survival. We owe them a huge debt of gratitude for leading the struggle for us all and those yet to be born.More