Environmental Activism After the 2013 BC Election

The election result could be a green light to push destructive pipeline projects which would carry tar sands bitumen to the Pacific for export to Asia. These include Enbridge’s Northern Gateway and a major expansion of the Kinder Morgan pipeline, which terminates on Burrard Inlet in the Vancouver area.

If not stopped, the Pacific Trails Pipeline (PTP) would carry shale gas — obtained by the highly destructive process of fracking — to the northern BC Pacific coast. There are huge reserves in northeast BC, which could be producing over 20% of North America’s shale gas by 2020. A multi-billion dollar series of LNG plants (six and counting) are now being proposed for the Kitimat and Prince Rupert areas. More pipeline projects could be in the works. And they could be designed to carry either oil or natural gas depending on demand.

These projects violate indigenous rights to free prior and informed consent, are ecologically destructive and will contribute to global warming and catastrophic climate change.

In Quebec, the Liberal government’s Plan North to expand capitalist industry was strongly contested by part of the 2012 mass student-led movement. In BC there is no official plan but there is a definite approach to industrialize northern BC and make the province one of the world’s key transmitters (and to a lesser extent producers) of dirty energy for the global market.

Strong opposition to pipelines

There is strong opposition to some projects, especially Enbridge. Indigenous groups have taken the lead in rallying support around the Save the Fraser Declaration. Enbridge has been the centrepiece of most environmental NGO campaigns, and most of the public has been singularly unimpressed by the prospect of having to assume a high degree of risk for few benefits.

The farcically restricted Joint Review Panel hearings on the project have wrapped up, with a decision expected within the year. They generated intense opposition inside and outside the official venues. Rising Tide Vancouver Coast Salish Territories organized a successful noisy demonstration of about 1500 outside hearings in January which included a strong presence of Idle No More supporters.

The BC government has sought to avoid the political heat by not endorsing the Enbridge project, citing unmet conditions. This had led some people to speculate that the project won’t be built. But the decision is up to an industry-stacked panel and, in the final analysis, the Harper cabinet. If they decide to be bloody minded and proceed, Christy Clark won’t lift a finger to stop them. Then blocking the project will take a powerful movement ready to take decisive actions. The Liberals may be more favourably disposed to Kinder Morgan, which is quietly waiting in the wings for the expansion of its pipeline to be approved.

The premier will be touring Asia to drum up markets and contracts for LNG from BC. If money talks that means gas pipelines, more fracking, the rapid loss of fresh water to industrial uses and investing more public money to subsidize capitalist industry. The premier is a big backer of BC Hydro’s proposal to build the $10 billion dollar Site C dam on the Peace River. This is designed to serve the proposed LNG plants which would utilize vast amounts of power.

Meanwhile grassroots indigenous Wet’suwet’en are defending the land in their unceded traditional territories. They are occupying a key point on the proposed route of the PTP and refused to consent to company surveyors entering their land. The start-up of construction of the PTP has been temporarily delayed. However, a major storm is gathering around it.

It is important to mention that BC is also a major producer and exporter of coal, and that the Port of Vancouver is being expanded to accommodate this industry. To make matters even worse, a new coal port is being proposed along the Fraser. This would carry large amounts of thermal coal shipped by rail from the Powder River Basin in the US. The anti-democratic plans for port expansion would make Vancouver North America’s biggest coal exporter.

There is growing awareness that a huge increase in carbon emissions is the main cause of global warming and catastrophic climate change. Drastic action is required to slow down and reverse this process. But it isn’t happening. Those causing the problem — the capitalist energy industry and its enablers (the federal Canadian, Alberta, and BC governments are the prime villains in northern North America) won’t bear the costs. Instead, the worst consequences including mass displacement will be experienced by countless millions of people in the Global South and by indigenous and marginalized communities in BC and other parts of the Canadian state.

What strategy?

All this raises the question of what kind of approach is required to build a movement that can win against the power of money and the capitalist state.

Many environmental NGOs have focused on public education lobbying and electoralist tactics. Some engaged in a “knock the vote” campaign in the recent provincial election that in effect supported the NDP.  While they highlighted some important risks, including that of oil spills, they often shied away from tactically controversial issues (from fracking to indigenous sovereignty) for various political and funding-related reasons. No NGOs raised the need for overall system change.

Some environmentalists have focused all their attention on tar sands. This choice is partly understandable, given their vast and rapidly expanding scale. But it ignores the huge contribution to greenhouse gas emissions made by other fossil fuels, included fracked natural gas and coal.

It is time to reassess this strategy. We need to build an oppositional movement willing to use  mass and direct action tactics and act in solidarity with indigenous people and others resisting pipeline projects.

The Idle No More movement galvanized indigenous people across the Canadian state and posed a fresh alternative to the politically impoverished electoral process. Idle No More has added new energy to ongoing indigenous resistance to pipelines in BC.

But not all colonially-imposed governance bodies are on board with the movement. For instance, the PTP backers claimed that natural gas is a benign alternative to oil and enticed local band councils to enter into partnership deals. However, grassroots indigenous people on their traditional unceded territories have rejected the authority of band councils to sign deals on their behalf. All five of the Wet’suwet’en clans have refused to consent to any pipelines being built through their territory.

The Liberal government is also actively seeking to expand and promote the mining industry in the province. Here again grassroots indigenous groups are organizing to say no to mining companies destroying their traditional territories.

The Unis’tot’en clan took the lead in saying no well before the inception of Idle No More. They have held action camps to build solidarity and plan actions in opposition to pipelines and mining projects. Last summer’s camp drew 150 participants, and a report-back from the camp was the impetus for forming the grassroots environmental justice group Rising Tide Vancouver Coast Salish Territories. Another camp is planned in July 2013 (further information is available at the RisingTide604 web site and from Victoria Forest Action).

The Unis’tot’en determination to say no and engage in non-violent direct action against development in their traditional territory has garnered support from grassroots anti-pipeline activists as well as allies of indigenous sovereignty elsewhere in BC and beyond.

Allies need to offer material support (for example, raising funds and gathering supplies), deepen their understanding of — and work against – colonialism, and build support in non-indigenous communities.

Climate justice activism: Rising Tide

Many people, especially younger activists, look to movement building and solidarity as the most effective way to achieve change. There is a good deal of discontent with capitalism in terms of both its disastrous effects on the environment and on social inequality and injustice.

Movements can ebb and flow. There some are definite dead zones in BC. But that’s certainly not the case around ecological issues. Momentum is clearly growing around climate justice, protecting the earth, and solidarity with indigenous people’s struggles against colonialism.

Rising Tide Vancouver Coast Salish Territories is an important expression of this trend.  It is both rooted in the local context and loosely connected to the Rising Tide Network in the US and Rising Tide groups in the UK and other places, which have been organising climate justice struggles for years.

Rising Tide favours the kinds of community-based civil disobedience and direct action tactics which developed out of the global justice movement. It stands against capitalism, colonialism, imperialism, racism and sexism, which in combination are endangering all forms of life. It seeks to develop a systemic rather than piecemeal understanding of mushrooming energy projects. It acts on the basis of a climate justice perspective that makes the connections between social and racial justice issues, environmental devastation and climate change caused by capitalist development.

Rising Tide has a movement-building perspective which educates and builds relationships, including among both settler and indigenous communities. It seeks to learn from diverse perspectives, especially those of indigenous peoples, gathering stories from the front lines of resistance. It engages in mass-oriented mobilizations along with smaller events and direct actions. For example, Rising Tide helped organize a Global Day of Action against Chevron; in Vancouver, activists blockaded the Chevron refinery in the suburb of Burnaby. More recently, it organized an anti-fracking tour of northern BC to highlight the danger it poses to water, the land and human health. It has held a fundraiser to help get people to the Unis’tot’en camp, with priority going to indigenous youth.

If we want to get serious about preserving the planet for future generations capitalism’s endless expansion must be stopped and some things need to stay in the ground. And we need to quickly transition to a very different kind of economy based on alternative forms of energy and usage.

Now that the Liberals have been re-elected, the best way to take a step towards that goal is to support indigenous resistance on the land along with environmental justice organizing in urban and rural areas against the expansion of resource extraction projects in BC that will make the ecological crisis even worse.

Harold Lavender is a longstanding Vancouver activist. He is active with Rising Tide Vancouver Coast Salish Territories, and one of the editors of New Socialist Webzine.