Why I oppose the Enbridge Northern Gateway, part 1

As the title suggests, this is the first of a series of blog entries, detailing the reasons for my opposition to the Northern Gateway, and deconstructing some of the arguments in favour of the project. I’d like to begin the series with the following disclaimer:

My own analysis of Enbridge’s Northern Gateway pipeline proposal has persuaded me that the drawbacks of such a project would outweigh its benefits. You are, of course, welcome to disagree. But I’ve also come to appreciate, specifically after reading this opinion piece in the Prince George Citizen by former B.C. Social Credit MLA Bruce Strachan, that there seem to be several misconceptions about the implications of this project among its proponents. Although I’ve made up my mind already, I hope to provide fair and accurate information here, so that you can make an informed decision on your own. I also hope you enjoy the read.

The Kermode “spirit” bear is a cousin of the common black bear, with white pigment in its skin and fur. It is indigenous to the Great Bear Rainforest. Image c/o Valard LP/Flickr

Rain is the lifeblood of British Columbia’s rugged Great Bear Rainforest, the fuel that drives an intricate engine of biodiversity. Some sections of this untamed realm receive well over 100 inches of the elixir each year, lapping down the mossy slopes in cascading rivulets, nourishing a seemingly boundless wealth of flora and fauna, including species undocumented in the annals of biology.

Vagrant clouds hang low, a perpetual wreath around the flanks of the prodigious mountains as they cast their somber shadows over the archipelago. Ample cedars and Sitka spruce predating the Battle of Hastings dominate the skyline, swaying in the wind and sheltering a panoply of lifeforms. Eagles and ravens rule the sky; humpbacks and orcas abound in the winding glacial channels; salmon populate the churning streams; and the territory’s namesakes – black bears, grizzlies and the ghostly white Kermode – are the lumbering sovereigns of the land.

Through a mix of design and happenstance, this ancient ecosystem, one of the last intact coastal temperate rainforests on the planet, has remained largely unblemished by the noisome impulse of industry to exploit our world’s bounty.

But if Calgary’s Enbridge Corporation gets its way, if a dual oil pipeline stretching from the Alberta tar sands to the town of Kitimat gets built, the coastal denizens stand to lose much more than the serenity they’ve enjoyed since time immemorial.

First Nations and the pipeline

Kitimat is a planned industrial town, developed by aluminium giant Alcan in the 1950s. However, the community’s name derives from ‘Kitamaat’, meaning ‘people of the snow’, a Tsimshian moniker for the Haisla people. Though the area wasn’t industrialized until the middle of the 20th century, the aboriginals of B.C.’s North Coast have inhabited the luxuriant forests and rocky beaches of its environs for centuries.

Many First Nations regard the coastal wilderness with sublime deference; for them it is a sacred, spiritual place, a purveyor of inspiration, a fount of mythology, the provenance of their livelihood. And the role they continue to play in determining its fate is considerable.

The subject of First Nation governance is complex in Canada, and particularly in B.C., where distinct bands are numerous, yet few treaties exist between government and its aboriginal counterparts. The politics of these communities is multifaceted and divisive. And indeed, any effort on the part of Enbridge and the Canadian state to shoehorn the nuances of First Nation decision-making into a concrete, corporate statement, typically leads to gross misunderstanding and misinformation.

Last month, Enbridge spokespeople boasted that their Northern Gateway proposal had attained the support of 60 per cent of First Nations along the anticipated development corridor. And indeed, Enbridge has succeeded in persuading several indigenous communities to accept part of a 10 per cent stake in the pipeline’s projected windfall. But even a cursory deconstruction of Enbridge’s bluster reveals it to be dubious at best.

Speaking to the CBC, Art Sterritt, executive director of the Coastal First Nations, decried Enbridge’s claims as a “complete sham” – and with good reason. According to Sterritt, the company’s approach included artificially expanding the ambit of the development corridor, seeking out and effectively bribing band councils in areas that would be unaffected by a potential spill. Also included amongst these “supporters” are the Metis, who hold no land title whatsoever along the development corridor.

Beside this, Enbridge oversimplified the position of signatories – some of whom have simply conceded that the pipeline will inevitably get built, and if they’re certain to face its consequences, they might as well be party to its financial avails. To communities in B.C.’s northern interior that have witnessed the steady erosion of their culture, languages and livelihoods through more than a century of implacable federal and provincial mandates, through the systematic transgressions of colonization, assimilation and persecution, a grudging signature on a dotted line hardly betokens fervent support for the Northern Gateway.

Enbridge would have us believe otherwise. But even the corporation admits it’s struggled most to make inroads among coastal First Nations, whose opposition remains steadfast. And it is the coast, as opposed to the interior, that plays host to an entirely more frightening array of considerations…


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