Tseil Waututh Chief Reuben George (second from right) raises a fist while leading a protest against Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain Pipeline expansion.
Photo: Brian Kahn

BURNABY, BRITISH COLUMBIA—Led by a coalition of First Nations tribes, thousands of protestors took to the streets on Saturday in Canada’s latest pipeline battle.

The fight is over the 715-mile Trans Mountain pipeline expansion, which would allow energy company Kinder Morgan to send 890,000 barrels—nearly three times its current capacity—of diluted bitumen oil from Alberta’s tar sands to the suburbs of British Columbia. The controversial project has pitted provincial governments against each other and First Nations against the Trudeau government.

Signs mocking Prime Minister Justin Trudeau for being in bed with Kinder Morgan rose above the crowd alongside salmon, orcas, and other species that depend on clean water to live. A drum circle of tribal members began a call and response about stopping Kinder Morgan ahead of speeches from tribal leaders that had come from across Canada to stand with the Tsleil-Waututh, Squamish, and Musqueam nations, local tribes leading the protest.

“We are here to hold the government to account,” Bob Chamberlin, vice president of the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs, said to the crowd gathered by the local Sky Train station before the march. “The Tsleil-Waututh have not give their consent to Kinder Morgan.”

Bob Chamberlin, vice president of the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs, holds a bullhorn for Reuben George speaking to the crowd ahead of the protest.
Photo: Brian Kahn

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While that fight will almost surely become more pitched, the protest on Saturday was one where leaders preached unity and love. With indigenous elders and leaders at the front and a mix of tribe members, local citizens, and other Canadians there to show solidarity, the march left the train station in Burnaby for a soccer field located just a few hundred feet from Kinder Morgan property where the pipeline would end. Sunlight drenched the procession as it wound its way up hills and through neighborhoods dotted with cul-de-sacs.

“When we get to the top of this hill and see thousands of people who support fighting this pipeline, it’s going to be beautiful,” Rueben George, chief of Tsleil-Waututh Nation, told Earther from the front of the march as the group nearly crested the first hill. “It’s empowering. Trudeau’s government said it’s going to be British Columbia vs. the rest of Canada. I’ll take that fight. We’re going to have an opportunity to education Canada on the true facts about the destruction [the pipeline] causes.”

The pipeline expansion, which was proposed in 2012 and received federal approval in November 2016, has drawn deep battle lines across the country. Permitting, and thus construction has been held up by the British Columbia government and lawsuits. Most recently, the provincial government said it planned to conduct a scientific review of potential environmental impacts of a dilluted bitumen spill.

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The delays sparked a stewing trade war between the British Columbia government that opposes the pipeline, and Alberta’s government that supports it. Alberta recently announced it would ban British Columbia wines if the pipeline wasn’t completed. Though it later backed down, tension remain high with Alberta’s premiere also threatening to cut off all oil to British Columbia.

The Trans Mountain expansion has also become a flashpoint for First Nations, which have accused the federal government of hypocrisy for not recognizing their rights or living up to its climate rhetoric. Trudeau has positioned himself as a champion of Canada’s tribes and promised reconciliation over the Canadian government’s long history of racism and trampling on indigenous rights. Yet he has also approved the pipeline and voiced his support for it, including as recently as last month in radio interviews and on stage with Bill Nye (don’t ask).

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Construction would cut across First Nations’ land, a move tribes almost universally oppose. On the edge of that property, protestors also spent Saturday constructing a watch house where Will George, a member of the Tsleil-Waututh Nation, will live as a constant reminder to Kinder Morgan that the protest is far from over.

The diluted bitumen the pipeline expansion would carry could create an environmental and economic disaster if it spilled in any of the rivers or streams on the pipeline route. Because it’s heavier than conventional oil, it sinks rather than floats on the water’s surface. A cocktail of trade secret chemicals, which Inside Climate News likened to the consistency of peanut butter, is used to dilute the bitumen and get it to flow, adding another wrinkle to cleanup.

“They say they can clean it up,” a local resident who didn’t give their name told Earther. “If it’s so easy to clean up, why don’t they have a parade showing us the equipment.”

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Once it reaches the terminal in Burnaby, the bitumen would be loaded on tankers and sent through the maze of islands and channels from the Fraser River to the Haro Strait that divides Canada and the U.S. before hitting the global market. The pipeline and terminal expansion would allow tanker traffic to increase from five tankers per month to 35 per month, dramatically increasing the odds of an accident and clogging the already-busy waterways of Canada’s busiest port.

Then there are the climate impacts of mining, processing, and burning the oil. In many ways, that makes the protest and battle over the pipeline much more than a regional or tribal dispute. At some point, humans will have to stop filling the atmosphere with carbon if we aim to have a livable climate.

The Burnaby protest is the latest front in a growing wave of indigenous groups protesting pipelines on their land as an attack on sovereignty and the environment. Tribes were at the center of protests around the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines and more recently, the Bayou Bridge and Atlantic Coast pipelines. What they’re fighting for is universal human rights, a point driven home on Saturday.

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“There are a couple of things we can agree with with Kinder Morgan,” Chamberlin said. “Ask the owners of Kinder Morgan if they can survive without drinking water. Ask them if they can survive without food. Ask them if they can survive without good air to breathe. You’ll find they have to agree with us.”