State energy panel: Land-use zone allows oil terminal

EFSEC stresses Tesoro-Savage plan not a done deal

By Aaron Corvin, The Columbian, July 15, 2014

The site where Tesoro Corp. and Savage Companies want to build the Northwest’s largest oil-by-rail terminal in Vancouver is appropriately zoned for such a purpose, the state panel reviewing the proposal decided Tuesday.

But that doesn’t mean the companies will be allowed to launch a rail-and-river operation handling as much as 380,000 barrels of crude per day at the Port of Vancouver, according to the state Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council.

During its regular public meeting in Olympia that was accessible by telephone, the evaluation council voted 8 to 1 to settle what it described as a very narrow question: Does the city’s heavy industrial zone at the port allow for such uses as the oil transfer terminal proposed by Tesoro and Savage?

And while the evaluation council answered “yes,” it also went to great lengths to point out that the question of whether the companies should actually get to build and operate their project is far from settled.

Approval of a narrow land-use consistency matter “does not, by any means, translate into an approval of the proposed project,” Bill Lynch, chairman of the evaluation council, said Tuesday.

The council’s decision was unfavorable to the city of Vancouver. The city had asked the council to put off deciding the land-use consistency issue until the analysis of the oil terminal’s environmental impacts is finished. Bryan Snodgrass, principal planner for the city who was appointed to serve on the evaluation council during the review of the Tesoro-Savage proposal, cast the lone “no” vote Tuesday.

At the same time, the evaluation council’s decision enables the companies to take another small step forward in a slow, grinding environmental-impact review process that looks like it will stretch on further.

Although state law says the evaluation council has one year to make its recommendation on a large energy-project proposal — and gives Gov. Jay Inslee another 60 days to accept, reject or send the proposal back to the council — the law also provides for extensions.

During the hearing, Sonia Bumpus, a specialist for the evaluation council, said the Tesoro-Savage permit application, filed in late August, is nearing its one-year anniversary. A lot more work needs to be done, she said, so more time will be needed.

Language added

The evaluation council also agreed to put language in its land-use consistency approval making it clear that people may still raise numerous concerns about the proposed oil terminal, including everything from potential oil spills and fire risks to negative impacts on neighborhoods and city services.

The language was included in response to remarks by Snodgrass, who said he had concerns with an “unqualified” finding that the Tesoro-Savage proposal fits the city’s zoning rules. Other evaluation council members agreed, saying the zoning approval should be construed narrowly and not taken as a dismissal of environmental-impact and community concerns.

The council’s decision followed a May 28 hearing during which it heard arguments over the land-use consistency issue.

Jay Derr, an attorney for Tesoro and Savage, had argued the land-use issue was a housekeeping matter. The evaluation council should allow the companies and the public to move immediately onto the project’s environmental impact statement, he said.

The city argued otherwise, saying the oil terminal doesn’t automatically comply with the city’s land-use rules and policies. It’s not possible for the city or the evaluation council to decide the land-use matter “without knowing the full extent” of the project’s environmental impacts, Bronson Potter, city attorney for Vancouver, said.

Although the Tesoro-Savage proposal moved forward Tuesday, it still has a long way to go.

The evaluation council’s decision-making process is complex, involving multiple permit reviews, a detailed environmental-impact analysis, many opportunities for public comments and an adjudicative process where arguments fly in an atmosphere not unlike that of a trial court.

The city of Vancouver, which opposes the oil terminal, could still ask the evaluation council to reconsider signing off on the oil terminal’s compatibility with city zoning, in light of the draft environmental impact statement.

And it could present other evidence against the Tesoro-Savage proposal during hearings. Likewise, the companies will be able to push back, presenting their own arguments and evidence.

The evaluation council will eventually make a recommendation to Inslee, who has the final say. Even then, opponents could still appeal the governor’s decision to the state Supreme Court.

Can Canada’s indigenous communities stop Prime Minister Stephen Harper from turning the country into a petrostate?

VANCOUVER, Canada — On Canada’s western coast, where rain-forested mountains dip into gray-blue seas, the political anger is ready to explode. The indigenous people, whose ancestors have fished, hunted, and thrived here since the last ice age, are furious about an energy policy dreamed up in Ottawa that they fear could permanently damage their land and destroy their way of life.”Opponents can mock our love of our home as sentimental, but it won’t change what we feel,” the award-winning indigenous novelist Eden Robinson wrote recently in the Globe and Mail. “[T]he mood in our base is simmering fury.”

Robinson lives in Kitamaat Village, a small community some 400 miles north of Vancouver, near where the Kitimat River meets salt water. Its 700 indigenous inhabitants belong to the Haisla nation, one of 630 such recognized “First Nations” across Canada, which has called this coastal region home for thousands of years, going back to long before European settlers first arrived in the 18th century.

Lately the Haisla have had to reckon with a new unwelcome visitor: Calgary-based Enbridge, one of the world’s largest fossil fuel transporters. If the Northern Gateway project the company has been proposing for the past decade goes forward, a pipeline pumping 525,000 barrels per day of heavy crude from Alberta’s oil sands would end within walking distance of Robinson’s home. Tensions in her community are so high, she wrote, that “people will spit at you if they think you support Enbridge.”

It’s likely they will also spit at someone they think supports Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper. In June, his Conservative government approved the $7.3 billion Gateway project, which would ship oil across the Rocky Mountains to the Port of Kitimat, load it onto supertankers, and sell it for a premium to Asian markets. To reach the Pacific, supertankers must first navigate the winding Douglas Channel. In 2006, a provincial ferry crashed and sank in the channel, and people living in the nearby Gitga’at Nation village of Hartley Bay fear that history will repeat itself — but on a scale of environmental and cultural damage hard to fathom. They recently stretched a 2.8-mile crocheted rope in protest of Gateway across the Douglas Channel.

“Each stitch is shaped like a teardrop,” said blockade organizer Lynne Hill, “because this is a very emotional thing for us.”

“Each stitch is shaped like a teardrop,” said blockade organizer Lynne Hill, “because this is a very emotional thing for us.”

For Harper, Gateway promises a $300 billion GDP boost and the prestige of achieving his most important foreign-policy goal, to remake Canada into a global “energy superpower.” But to many First Nations living along the pipeline’s 731-mile-long route, Gateway symbolizes “everything that people don’t want,” Robinson said.

They intend to fight the pipeline in court by arguing for legal authority over land they’ve lived on for millennia and never surrendered to the federal government. A landmark decision from Canada’s Supreme Court on June 26 may have brought groups like the Haisla one step closer to achieving that authority.

Tension between indigenous people and the pipeline project are nothing new. In 2006, Enbridge sent surveyors, chain saws in hand, into the ancient forest near Kitamaat Village to scout sites for an oil terminal. They felled 14 trees that bore living evidence of First Nations history: deep notches made by the Haisla hundreds, or perhaps even thousands, of years earlier. “We compared it to a thief breaking into your house and destroying one of your prized possessions,” Haisla Councilor Russell Ross Jr. told me in 2012.

The relationship between the Haisla First Nation and Enbridge only got worse. Five years after the tree-cutting incident, the company offered a $100,000 settlement, which was “almost an insult” in the opinion of Chief Councilor Ellis Ross, as he stated in a letter to Enbridge’s president. Even worse was Enbridge’s additional offer to make amends with a “cleansing feast.” If such a ceremony was practiced widely in Haisla culture, Ross wasn’t aware of it.

“I have never witnessed Haisla Nation Council initiate a cleansing feast and I doubt I ever will,” he wrote to the firm. “I would appreciate it if your company’s shallow understanding of our culture is kept out of our discussions.”

All along the Gateway route, Enbridge was making similar cultural flubs. These gaffes, along with a negotiating style Robinson described as heavy on “talking points” and light on listening, had by 2011 caused 130 First Nations across British Columbia and Alberta to oppose the project, many of them not even directly impacted by it. “If Enbridge has poked the hornet’s nest of aboriginal unrest,” Robinson wrote, “then the federal Conservatives, Stephen Harper’s government, has spent the last few years whacking it like a pinata.”

The whacks began coming after Harper’s Conservatives won their first-ever majority rule in 2011. Since then, his Conservative Party has made it easier to get oil and gas projects approved, has cut environmental protections, and has proposed contentious changes to indigenous education. “It’s felt like the Conservatives have just been hammering us with legislation,” Robinson said. Tension with the Conservatives are so widely felt among First Nations that in late 2012 there emerged a protest movement called Idle No More, whose sit-ins, rallies, and hunger strikes brought national attention to the cause of indigenous sovereignty.

This May, a United Nations envoy deemed native distrust of Harper a “continuing crisis.” On Gateway, Harper has done little to ease the problem. After the U.S. rejection in early 2012 of TransCanada’s Keystone XL, a pipeline that was supposed to link Alberta’s oil sands to Texas, the prime minister “expressed his profound disappointment” to U.S. President Barack Obama, Harper’s office said in a statement. A week later, at the World Economic Forum, Harper vowed to export oil to Asia instead. Projects like Gateway were now a “national priority,” he declared.

For Harper, the economics of the project provide good reason for its priority status. Enbridge estimates that, once completed, Gateway would boost Canada’s GDP by $300 billion over the next three decades. Ottawa alone stands to gain $36 billion in taxes and royalties. And there is the issue of Canada’s role in the world. One month after the World Economic Forum, in February 2012, Harper traveled to China, where an influential crowd of Chinese business executives that Canada is “an emerging energy superpower” eager to “sell our energy to people who want to buy our energy.”

While Harper delivered that pitch in Europe and Asia, his then-natural resources minister, Joe Oliver (now finance minister), was declaring war on Gateway opponents back at home. In an open letter, Oliver lashed out at the “environmental and other radical groups” that in their protests against the pipeline project “threaten to hijack our regulatory system to achieve their radical ideological agenda.”

It was a tactical stumble, wrote George Hoberg, a University of British Columbia professor who studies the Gateway standoff, that pushed “many moderates who were offended by the style of the attacks into strong opponents of the pipeline.” Oliver’s letter was mentioned again and again during two years of federal hearings on Gateway, for which 4,000 Canadians registered to speak.

By the time those hearings finished last December, Gateway had become one of the top political issues in Canada. Much credit for that is due to a sustained media campaign coordinated by British Columbia’s major green groups, which deliberately evoked memories of Exxon’s 1989 Valdez disaster. On the spill’s 20th anniversary in 2009, they declared a “No Tankers Day.”

“There will be a sacrifice we’re asked to make at some point, and the [ecological] damage will be permanent,” said Kai Nagata from the Dogwood Initiative, one of the leading groups in that campaign. “Nobody’s come up with a compelling argument about why we should accept those risks.”

The continual focus on Gateway’s risks — to one of North America’s vastest wildernesses and to the indigenous people living within it — allowed green groups to broker alliances with First Nations all along the pipeline route. They appeared together at joint press conferences and waged a two-front opposition to Gateway so effective that, by this June, nearly 70 percent of people in British Columbia opposed immediate federal approval of the project, according to a Bloomberg-Nanos poll.

“The reason why Gateway has become such a political albatross for Stephen Harper,” Nagata explained, “is he’s managed to find a way to align the majority of British Columbians with the majority of First Nations.” Not to mention Vancouver’s mayor, British Columbia’s premier, and Harper’s political opponents in Ottawa, all of whom have spoken out against the project.

None of that opposition has deterred the federal Conservatives, though. In mid-June Harper’s government officially approved Gateway, deeming it “in the public interest.” Within hours of the announcement, a coalition of almost 30 First Nations and tribal councils in British Columbia were vowing to “immediately go to court to vigorously pursue all lawful means to stop the Enbridge project,” and promising that “we will defend our territories whatever the costs may be.”

Unlike in the United States, where indigenous peoples were conquered and then settled on reservations, few along Gateway’s proposed route have ever surrendered territory. What power they actually wield over that territory is legally disputed. Yet a Supreme Court decision on June 26 granting land title to the Tsilhqot’in First Nation gives greater legal standing to native groups with unresolved land claims.

The consequences of that decision, as well as the autonomy it ultimately provides to indigenous people, will be decided if groups like the Carrier Sekani Tribal Council, which represents eight First Nations across central British Columbia, challenge Gateway in court as unconstitutional. “What we’ll really be doing is testing our authority and our jurisdiction over the land,” said Terry Teegee, the council’s tribal chief. “It’s really hard to imagine this project going ahead.”

Enbridge is still confident. “We are prepared” for legal challenges, the company’s CEO, Al Monaco, said during a recent conference call, in which he contested the notion that people like Teegee speak on behalf of all First Nations. Monaco argued that 60 percent of indigenous people living along Gateway’s route in fact want to see it built (a claim called “ridiculous” by the Coastal First Nations group). Those court battles that First Nations do bring, in Monaco’s opinion, are likely to be resolved in Enbridge’s favor over the next 12 to 15 months. Gateway’s construction could begin shortly after. “This is not necessarily an endless process,” he said.

For indigenous people like Robinson, as well as the Unist’ot’en husband and wife now living in a wood cabin built intentionally along the pipeline’s path, the fight against Enbridge stands in for a larger cultural struggle. So long as companies and governments continue to view the rights of First Nations “as an impediment to getting what they want,” Robinson said, the struggle will surely continue.

Jennifer Castro/Flickr Creative Commons

Tribe’s Marina Offers Docks to Cruising Yachters, Waterfront Homes to Seasonal Residents

Courtesy Mosquito Creek MarinaSpirit Trail Ocean Homes at Mosquito Creek
Courtesy Mosquito Creek Marina
Spirit Trail Ocean Homes at Mosquito Creek


Heather Steinberger, ICTMN

Cruising boaters who are making their way between Seattle and Alaska, and recreational boaters who seek an engaging spot to spend time on the water and enjoy a vibrant port of call, invariably find their way to Vancouver, British Columbia. As they peruse their options for overnight, weekly or seasonal dockage, many of them will select Mosquito Creek Marina in North Vancouver or Lynnwood Marina at the International Harbour of Vancouver.

They may not realize that these successful waterfront enterprises are owned and operated by the Squamish Nation, a Coast Salish people whose homelands include the “lower mainland” of British Columbia—North and West Vancouver, Whistler, Howe Sound and its tributaries, Burrard Inlet and English Bay. Today, 60 percent of the 3,600 tribal members live on urban reserves in Vancouver, North and West Vancouver and the municipality of Squamish; their nine major communities stretch from North Vancouver to the northern area of Howe Sound.

Despite their optimal location near a major population center and the waterfront, and the fact that it never officially ceded or surrendered title to its lands, rights to its resources or the power to make decisions within its territories, the Squamish Nation had its hands tied until the second half of the 20th Century.

“Prior to 1960, we were dealing with legislative oppression from the Indian Act,” said Chief Ian Campbell, an intergovernmental relations negotiator and cultural ambassador who is currently in his third term as an elected member of tribal council. He also is the youngest of the 16 hereditary chiefs of the Squamish Nation.

“We weren’t even recognized as citizens until 1956,” he said, “so we had no opportunities for economic development at all.”

In the early 1960s, however, everything changed. The tribe, Campbell said, responded vigorously when given the chance to take charge of its resources. It leased land to various tenants, allowing the development of shopping centers, and in 1963 it began marina operations on tribal land at Mosquito Creek.

The Mosquito Creek Marina, also known simply as “The Creek,” is located between Grouse Mountain and Vancouver, a short boat ride from the Lions Gate Bridge and the Georgia Straight, and 10 minutes from Lonsdale Quay and the SeaBus Terminal with ferries to downtown departing every 15 minutes. It can accommodate 530 boats up to 160 feet in length, and its amenities include electric and water hookups, a fuel dock, a 50-ton Marine Travelift mobile boat hoist, and new laundry, shower and restroom facilities.

Guests also can purchase needed marine supplies, enjoy a meal at the Marina Grill, and take a walk on the new Squamish Nation Waterfront Greenway, also known as the Spirit Trail. The trail links the Mosquito Creek Marina with the city’s Waterfront Park.

Lynnwood Marina, located on the North Vancouver side of the International Harbour of Vancouver, became part of the Squamish Nation’s marine enterprises in the late 1980s.

“Some of our reserve lands were expropriated in the early 1900s, and they were returned to us in 1982,” Campbell explained.

Lynnwood Marina can accommodate 380 boats up to 70 feet in length (no overnight transients; a minimum one-month stay is required), and it offers repair and maintenance services with a 55-ton mobile boat hoist for haul-outs and launches.

The Squamish Nation didn’t stop there. In the last decade, it started building and selling custom boat shed—which can incorporate upstairs apartments to serve as living quarters—and it has added the high-end, floating Spirit Trail Ocean Homes.

“We’ve constructed 40 boat sheds in about eight years, from 40 feet up to 120 feet,” said Donny Mekilok, general manager of the Squamish Nation Marine Group. “We also build our own heavy-duty timber docks in 10- by 40-foot sections, and we do all the mechanical components on site, including water and sewage.

Rendering of boat sheds with living quarters (Courtesy Mosquito Creek Marina)
Rendering of boat sheds with living quarters (Courtesy Mosquito Creek Marina)


“The ocean homes are in the second phase of development right now,” he continued. “We’ve sold 28, and they range from $500,000 to $750,000.”

“We were looking for ways to add value,” Campbell noted. “These enterprises gave people an opportunity to invest in our lands and waters.”

According to Mekilok, the marine group added a fifth enterprise in the last 12 months. In November, Transport Canada transferred the New Brighton public dock on Gambier Island to the  Squamish Nation. The dock accommodates approximately 30 small vessels, which residents use to travel between the island and the mainland.

“We’re going to rent the dock in its current configuration for two years,” Mekilok said. “Then, we may expand to a full marina with a place for a future yacht club.”

He observed that the Squamish Nation is in an excellent position to provide much-needed services to local and visiting boaters.

“Here in British Columbia, we have some of the best cruising grounds in the world,” Mekilok said. “It’s an important waypoint between Seattle and Alaska, and it’s a huge summertime destination for U.S. boaters.

“Five years ago, we had insane wait lists at the marinas,” he continued. “Even now, after all the economic challenges, we’re full at all of our facilities. To accommodate transients, we make slips available as our renters go out cruising. Then we share the revenue with them.”

The Squamish Nation’s annual powwow is a big local draw, as are Mosquito Creek’s summer solstice party and its Boat Show at the Creek. Now in its 8th year, the show is the largest floating boat show in Canada.

In addition to the Squamish Nation Marine Group, primary employers for tribal members include the band office and Northwest Squamish Forestry. Key sources of revenue for the nation are taxation, leases and Squamish-owned businesses; thanks to the Squamish Valley’s appeal to tourists, these include the marine group, the Capilano River RV Park and the shopping centers whose tenants lease tribal lands.

“Our goal for Squamish-owned businesses is to develop the companies to the point where they can run without subsidization from the Squamish Nation,” Campbell said.

He noted that the marine group is very important to the Squamish Nation, as it provides revenue, job training and employment.

“A percentage of the marine group’s revenue goes to the tribe, and the majority of employees are tribal members,” he said. “Our communities take pride in the fact that we own and operate these businesses. Yes, there’s a lot of pride. And through these enterprises, we demonstrate our environmental concern as well as our interest in economic stimulus and development—good stewardship of our natural resources.”





Washington Congresswoman Airs Oil Terminal Concerns

Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., visits with the public after she held a discussion about raising capital for small business at Vancouver City Hall on Wednesday. | credit: Zachary Kaufman/The Columbian | rollover image for more
Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., visits with the public after she held a discussion about raising capital for small business at Vancouver City Hall on Wednesday. | credit: Zachary Kaufman/The Columbian | rollover image for more


April 17, 2014 | The Columbian

Gov. Jay Inslee, who will have the ultimate say over the construction of what would be the Northwest’s largest oil-by-rail transfer terminal in Vancouver, hasn’t taken a stand on the project. But members of the state’s congressional delegation are weighing in.

U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., was in Vancouver on Tuesday and stopped to visit with The Columbian’s editorial board.

Cantwell was asked if she were a Vancouver resident, would she support building the oil-handling facility?

“It wouldn’t be something I would be promoting,” she said.

She said safety is one of her foremost concerns. In a letter to the Senate Appropriations Committee earlier this month, Cantwell, along with other senators, called for more federal dollars going toward addressing safety issues related to transporting crude oil by rail.

“We’re certainly willing to introduce legislation to put requirements on rail car safety because we don’t think it exists now and we’re not waiting for a voluntary system. We’re not waiting for these guys to get their act together,” Cantwell said. “We’re going to push this year.”

Earlier this week, BSNF Railway officials told Vancouver city councilors they would spend millions to prepare first responders in case of an oil spill. City officials have expressed concerns over ensuring the oil travels safely on the rail line, which runs through downtown and by the proposed waterfront development on the old Boise Cascade property.

Although city officials don’t have a say over the $110 million project proposed by Tesoro Corp. and Savage Companies, they could join other cities, such as Seattle and Bellingham, that have called for a moratorium on new oil-transport facilities until safety concerns, ranging from oil spills to explosions, are addressed.

“This industry has grown far greater than our capacity to deal with it and we need to slow down and get this right,” Cantwell said.

The proposed Tesoro-Savage oil terminal could handle as much as 380,000 barrels of crude per day. The facility would act as a transfer point for oil, arriving by rail to the Port of Vancouver and leaving by water.

Cantwell said she recently pressed the U.S. Coast Guard for details on any safety plans in place for an oil spill.

“So we did get the comment on the record at the hearing that, yeah, we don’t really have a plan … We were glad we were able to clarify that point because we want people to understand there is no solution there,” she said.

Cantwell said she wants to hear about “what people here say about the situation.”

“I get the sense that Vancouver is painting a different picture of where they want their economy to go long-term,” she said.

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., the chair of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, recently held a hearing to question officials from the Obama administration and city of Seattle about the safety of rail transport of crude oil.

U.S. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Camas, said Wednesday she’s still asking a lot of questions about safety and environmental impacts.

But in the last three years, she’s said, she has heard a lot of talk about wanting more trains, moving more commodities.

“If these folks can demonstrate they will be good community partners and meet environmental hurdles, then we should talk about it,” she said.

The governor is waiting to receive a recommendation from the state’s Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council before making a decision.

Follow reporter Lauren Dake on Twitter: @col_politics.

“My generation has stood up and said, ‘No more’”

Hundreds gather for 4th Annual Unis’tot’en Action Camp against pipelines in ‘BC’

Members of the Wet'suwet'en nation perform a welcoming song to open the 4th annual Unis'tot'en action camp. Photo: Aaron Lakoff
Members of the Wet’suwet’en nation perform a welcoming song to open the 4th annual Unis’tot’en action camp. Photo: Aaron Lakoff

By Aaron Lakoff, Vancouver Media Co-op

From July 10th to 14th, roughly 200 Indigenous and non-Indigenous people gathered in unceded Wet’suwet’en territory in central British Columbia for the 4th Annual Unis’tot’en Action Camp. The Unis’tot’en clan of the Wet’suwet’en First Nation have maintained a blockade on the only bridge leading into their territory since July 2010 in an attempt to keep seven proposed oil and gas pipelines off their traditional lands. The pipelines would carry shale gas obtained through fracking, or bitumen oil from the Alberta tar sands, to the Pacific coast, where it would be exported on mega-tankers towards Asian markets

The action camp brings supporters of the Unis’tot’en to the blockade site in order to learn about the struggle, to network, and to bring action ideas back to their own communities.

Toghestiy, Hereditary Chief of the Likhts’amisyu Clan of the Wet’suwet’en nation, said he was very happy with the high proportion of Indigenous participants at this year’s camp compared to previous years.

“I would say about 40% of the population of the action camp was Indigenous, and they were Indigenous from different parts of Turtle Island,” Toghestiy told the Vancouver Media Co-op (VMC). “So it was amazing to have all these grassroots Indigenous people come together in solidarity with one another. We created an alliance, and it was a pretty beautiful experience. It will help us fulfill our responsibility [to the land] into the future.”

While most participants at the camp hailed from Vancouver and Victoria, people also travelled from as far away as California, New Mexico, and Toronto to lend their support. Amber Nitchman travelled up to the Unis’tot’en Action Camp from Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

“I want to support Indigenous rights and sovereignty everywhere, especially those who are opposing extractive industries,” Nitchman told the VMC while on a night-time security shift at the blockade site. At home, she is involved with anti-coal mining campaigns. “Some of the pipelines [here] are for the same industry, and it’s the land and water being destroyed in both places for profit, and destroying what little is left that people are able to live on in a sustainable way.”

Wet’suwet’en territory is located about 1000 km north of Vancouver. It lies on what has been described as Canada’s “carbon corridor,” a geographically strategic region where major oil companies such as Chevron and Exxon are seeking to connect the Alberta tar sands to the Pacific coast for export. The Unis’tot’en claim that these pipelines, requiring clear cutting and prone to leaks and spills, would threaten watersheds, forests, rivers, and salmon spawning channels—source of their primary staple food.

Some of proposed pipelines on Wet’suwet’en territory are intended to carry natural gas from hydraulic fracturing (or “fracking”) sites near Fort Nelson, BC, close to the border of the Northwest Territories. Wet’suwet’en activists are concerned not only for their own community, but also for communities at tar sands and fracking extraction sites.

“In those territories, those people are suffering from decimated water,” said Mel Bazil, a Wet’suwet’en and Gitxsan activist who has been helping out with the Unis’tot’en blockade. “They have no clean drinking water left in their territories. All of their right to clean drinking water is delivered to them by truck. They allowed their responsibility to clean drinking water that already exists in their territories to be diminished, and in place of that, now they have the right of clean water being delivered to them.”

Water is central to this struggle. The pristine Morice River flows through Wet’suwet’en territory, and is still clean enough to drink and fish from. For contrast, local people often reference Michigan’s Kalamazoo River, devastated by the largest inland oil spill in U.S. history when an Enbridge tar sands pipeline burst in 2010.

At the action camp, Unis’tot’en clan members declared Wet’suwet’en territory to be the epicentre for struggles against the tar sands. The Alberta tar sands are the largest industrial project on Earth and the tar sands mining procedure is hugely energy-intensive. Extraction at the tar sands releases at least three times the amount of carbon dioxide as regular crude oil extraction, and uses five barrels of fresh water to produce a single barrel of oil, according to the activist research group Oil Sands Truth.

“My people have been on these territories for thousands of years, until about 100 years ago when the government forced our people off these lands and put them in reservations,” said Freda Huson, the spokesperson for the Unis’tot’en camp, in an interview under the food supplies tent. “And probably just about four years ago, my generation has stood up and said, ‘No more.’

“There’s too much destruction happening out here, because we grew up on these lands, coming out here all the time. And every time we came out here we saw more and more destruction. So we sat down with our chiefs and said, ‘We can’t just sit by any more and let them keep destroying the lands.’ There will be nothing left for our children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren. We found out about the pipelines and which route they were planning to go.”

In May, the BC provincial government officially opposed one of the proposed pipeline projects on Wet’suwet’en territory, the Enbridge Northern Gateway. Premier Christy Clark cited environmental safety concerns. But Huson was skeptical.

“To me they’re just all talk. I don’t believe anything the government says,” retorted Huson. “They make all these empty promises, and they do exactly the opposite of what they say. Based on how Christy Clark has been talking pro-pipelines, that this is going to get them out of deficit, because we know for a fact that the BC government is in a huge deficit.”

Indigenous people from different nations across ‘Canada’ came to the Unis’tot’en camp to make links between struggles against oil and gas pipelines. One of them was Vanessa Grey, a 21-year old activist from the Aamjiwnaang First Nation reserve in southern Ontario.

Aamjiwnaang sits on the pathway of Enbridge’s Line 9 project, which will carry tar sands bitumen eastward towards Maine. Demonstrators have attempted to stop the project through a variety of direct actions, including a five-day occupation of an Enbridge pumping station near Hamilton, Ontario, this past June.

“I feel that there’s a lot here that someone like myself or the youth who have come here can really learn from,” said Grey, sitting in a forest clearing near the Morice River. “Where we come from, the land has already been destroyed and we already see the effects. Here, they are trying to save what’s left of it, and we’re able to see what could have been without the industry.”

During the five days of the camp, participants attended action planning sessions and workshops on a variety of subjects, including decolonization, movement building, and the Quebec student strike. Participants also had the chance to help construct a permaculture garden and pit-house directly on the route of the Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline.

On July 20, just days after the action camp had ended and all of the participants had returned home, a helicopter carrying pipeline surveyors was discovered on Unis’tot’en territory, behind the blockade. The workers were quickly confronted by Chief Toghestiy and were forced to leave.

“We were busy that day working on salmon that day, and locating berry patches to start harvesting for winter. Then all of the sudden we heard a helicopter fly over,” Toghestiy told the VMC over the phone.

Helicopters flying overhead is a common occurrence around the Unis’tot’en territory, but something seemed wrong about this one to Toghestiy. “This one sounded like it was slowing down, and you could hear the rotors ‘whoop-whooping’ really loud. I thought to myself, ‘This helicopter might be landing.’” Toghestiy and a supporter of the camp who was on the scene immediately drove down the road in the direction of the helicopter, and discovered it had landed not far away.

According to Toghestiy, the workers were wearing hard-hats, reflector vests, and had clipboards with them. When confronted, they confirmed that they were pipeline workers, but didn’t know that they had infringed on an Indigenous blockade site. “I told them ‘bullshit! Your company knows [about the blockade]!” said Toghestiy as he recounted the situation.

After he yelled at them to leave, they quickly got back in the helicopter and the pilot restarted the motor and took off. “As they were flying away, the helicopter pilot assured me that they wouldn’t come back, and so did the workers.”

Toghestiy said the workers did not reveal which company they were with, but he observed that “they were standing in the … proposed new alternative route of the Pacific Trails pipeline project.”

The helicopter visit was not the first infringement by pipeline companies onto sovereign Wet’suwet’en territory. In November 2012, surveyors were also found behind the blockade lines, and were issued an eagle feather, which is a Wet’suwet’en symbol for trespassing.

Toghestiy said that expelling these unwelcome workers from unceded Indigenous lands also has a deeper meaning. “We’re stopping the continued delusion that the government is putting out there that they still have right to give out licenses or permits on lands that were never ceded by the Indigenous people. There is no bill of sale that has ever been produced that says they have the right to do that,” he said.

Huson added that if a helicopter is discovered again on her territory, the company’s actions will have more severe consequences. “I’m planning to draft a letter to the helicopter company and other companies working for Apache right now, saying, ‘You’ve received your final warning, and if any more choppers or equipment comes across the blockade again, we’ll confiscate whatever comes in, and workers will be walking out,’” she said in a stern but calm voice.

Indigenous delegates at the camp decided to hold a Day of Action against extractive industries on August 14, 2013, and fundraising is already underway to support the blockade throughout the winter. Meanwhile, Toghestiy and Huson expect even more people to come up for the action camp in the summer of 2014.

For more information about the August 14th Day of Action and next year’s action camp, visit: or their Facebook page.

Click here for full audio interviews and a photo essay from the camp.

Aaron Lakoff is a radio journalist, DJ, and community organizer living in Montreal, trying to map the constellations between reggae, soul, and a liberated world. This article was made possible with support from the Vancouver Media Co-op.