“New infrastructure to bring in more oil from the tar sands? Forget it, it’s not going to happen,” says Serge Simon, the Kanesatake Grand Chief of Quebec. “What if we gave Canada 20 ‘Standing Rocks’?” He’s referring to the massive protest involving thousands of eco-activists, representatives of 200 Native American tribes, violent clashes with heavily militarized police, accusations of burial ground desecrations, concerns over water supply contamination, and international attention—of the Dakota Access pipeline that took place near the Standing Rock Sioux reserve outside the tiny community of Cannon Ball, North Dakota.
Resistance to the Energy Transfer Partners project was fierce and represented a major escalation from the last big pipeline protest over Keystone XL. How likely is it that Canada’s two tidewater pipeline projects, Trans Mountain expansion (TMX) and Energy East, will face the opposition promised by Simon?
If you believe Kai Nagata, it’s a dead certainty. The Vancouver-based campaigner for the Dogwood Initiative says his group offers “options for people to express their opinion and force their way into the political process that don’t involve confrontation with police or showdowns over construction sites.” But talk is rampant in Vancouver’s trendy downtown coffee shops about emulating Standing Rock in the fight against Kinder Morgan’s pipeline expansion. People feel Prime Minister Justin Trudeau misled voters during last year’s federal election, says Nagata, and they’re angry about climate change and the prospect of more oil tankers plying coastal waters.
Now that Trans Mountain has been given the official greenlight from Ottawa, what can the Canadian government expect from opponents? “[T]hey will see such hell-raising from British Columbia that they will feel it shake the foundation of Parliament,” Green Party Leader Elizabeth May told reporters after a Nov. 19 protest march through Vancouver that attracted over 4,000 people. Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson has predicted more and bigger protests. Burnaby Mayor Derek Corrigan famously promised to throw himself in front of the bulldozers. That’s just a small sampling of elected officials. Environmental groups are girding for the real battle.
Expect plenty of civil disobedience, but with a twist. In October, activists belonging to a small American organization called Climate Direct Action shocked pipeline operators in Canada and the U.S when they used bolt cutters to enter pumping stations and turn off valves on five pipelines carrying Albertan oil sands crude. The activists called the companies 15 minutes beforehand to allow for systems to be shut down. Then they waited for police to arrive. “Tampering with energy infrastructure is a dangerous activity and it could cause harm to citizens and surrounding communities, which is unacceptable,” said Canadian Natural Resources Minister Jim Carr. Afrin Sopariwala, spokesperson for the activists, said the stunt was undertaken in solidarity with the Standing Rock Sioux. “We are acting in response to this catastrophe [global warming] we are facing,” she told Reuters.
Within hours, crowdfunding began to pay for legal defense fees, supported by well-known eco-activists like American Bill McKibben of 350.org (the activist behind the Keystone XL campaign) and Canadian Keith Stewart of Greenpeace in Toronto. In fact, Greenpeace USA’s climate and energy campaign director, Kelly Mitchell, issued this statement to media: “Greenpeace supports the brave activists who peacefully shut down all five tar sands pipelines into the U.S. yesterday, in solidarity with the Dakota Access Pipeline protests. If our leaders won’t take action to protect people and the planet, the climate movement is willing and able.” A few days later the activists were bailed out of jail and posing for photos posted on their Facebook page.
David Tindall, professor of sociology at University of British Columbia, studies environmental movements and how they organize successful protest campaigns. He says that contrary to popular opinion, most groups don’t have a lot of money but they do have a huge network of resources to draw upon. “The environment movement is quite big and it has a lot of resources in terms of people with specialized skills, in terms of communication and certain types of scientific knowledge and that sort of thing, but to a large extent much of the environmental movement really runs on a shoestring,” he says. The Standing Rock protest was significant because it started as a small, local dispute that quickly escalated after the confrontation with pipeline security guards. Within days, environmental groups allied themselves with the Sioux and quickly built an organization to resist on the ground, communicate using media and social media, and fundraise millions of dollars.
One of the Sioux’s first moves was to join the Treaty Alliance Against Tar Sands Expansion, a network of 75 indigenous peoples in Canada and the United States that pledged to block construction of pipeline in both countries. “I can tell you with great certainty that in the event there’s an escalation of aggression on the part of the state or (U.S.) federal government, there will certainly be a response on the Canadian side from indigenous peoples,” said Grand Chief Stewart Phillip of the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs. Hundreds of Vancouver pipeline opponents packed a hall in mid-November to hear Tara Houska, who’s living in the protest village on the Sioux reserve, talk about tactics used against the Dakota Access project. “There really isn’t much of a border when it comes to these issues…and how we can effectively use direct action to make a difference and make a change,” Houska said.
Standing Rock has become both an inspiration and a model for how B.C. First Nations and eco-activists can oppose a pipeline project, says Nagata. “I think that the message of the Nov. 19 rally—and many others to come—is going to be inspired by the situation in Standing Rock and the vision of civil disobedience as a solution to this intractable question around oil and gas expansion,” he said. People who live in B.C.’s lower mainland are angry and frustrated with what they consider to be an illegitimate review process by the federal National Energy Board and a Liberal government that talks out of both sides of its mouth. “They’ve had it with consultation processes that don’t feel sincere, legitimate. They’ve had it with the government backtracking on some of its loftier campaign goals,” he said.
If Grand Chief Simon is right and B.C. First Nations and eco-activists “give Canada 20 Standing Rocks” over the construction of the Trans Mountain expansion, what will that mean for other energy infrastructure projects, such as Energy East and possibly Keystone XL? Will the Alberta oil sands be targeted with the same strategies and tactics? Those questions may very well be answered in 2017, which is shaping up to be a watershed year for the Canadian oil and gas industry. If government and industry can somehow shepherd Trans Mountain through construction, then there is a positive precedent for future infrastructure projects. If not, then all bets are off and industry could face serious market access challenges over the next decade or two.