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A Standing Rock-Style Indigenous Occupation Just Kicked Off in Canada

Via Matt Krogh on Twitter

“Governments might grant permits, but only communities can grant permission,” Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said in 2013, in words he has surely come to deeply regret. Today in Burnaby, BC, the community is showing him exactly what it looks like to refuse this permission.

Early this morning, called by the Coast Salish members of Protect the Inlet, thousands of people gathered to inaugurate Kwekwecnewtxw (“the place to watch from”), while others quickly got to work constructing a “watch house.”

The watch house is a traditional structure for the land’s inhabitants, the Tsleil-Waututh Nation, and is used to defend community from attacks. And in this case, it’s being built right in the attackers’ path: an injunction zone set up by oil giant Kinder Morgan, who need the site clear to start construction on a massive pipeline.

Few attacks could be more existentially threatening than the presence of an 890,000 barrel-a-day tar sands pipeline: tar sands, the most carbon-intensive oil on earth, is the one that former NASA climatologist James Hansen called “game over for the climate”; it’s also impossible to clean tar sands spills in water—a fact that in January led British Columbia to call for a halt to expansion of its shipment through the province (a halt that is now being considered in the judicial system).

The Tsleil-Waututh Nation Chief and Council are also fighting the pipelines in the judicial system, but many members have concluded they cannot simply sit back as the suits wind their way through the system, and Kinder Morgan continues to build. Says Ta-ah Amy George, a tribal elder, “We can’t just stand by and say well, ‘good luck to our Chief and Council’. I have to do what my ancestors did—protect this inlet.”

There are clear echoes of Standing Rock in the fight, which has been indigenous-led from the start. The breadth of the opposition is also reminiscent of Keystone XL—logically enough, since KXL would also carry tar sands, and be about the same size. For KXL and the Dakota Access Pipeline, some of the most passionate concerns were around drinking water; for Trans Mountain, it’s also about the fragility of the Salish Sea (made up of Puget Sound and the waters between Vancouver Island and the west coast of Canada); the pipeline expansion would increase tanker traffic in the region by a multiple of seven, and NOAA admitted years ago that a single spill of even normal oil would likely wipe out the Southern Resident orcas. Tar sands would be far worse.

The fight is one in a long line of “Thin Green Line” battles in the Pacific Northwest. Extraordinarily unified, the opposition to these projects has been passionate, deep, and relentless. Each one of them has been a David and Goliath fight, sometimes with visuals to match, and in every single one of them, David has won. We have won.

This caused one refinery insider to say “Everybody outside the Northwest thinks that’s where energy projects go to die.”

Because fundamentally, Trudeau was right: they do need our permission to devastate the world. There are millions of miles of pipeline in the United States; there are tens of thousands of miles of train track on which they run oil trains; there are tankers in our waters and trucks on our roads. What the industry is learning from all of these fights is that if we want to stop them, we can. More importantly, that’s what we’re learning.

In North Dakota last year, the state legislature tried (and failed) to pass a bill that would have made it legal to run over protestors (as long as you weren’t trying to). Appalling though this is, it shows that they understand: nonviolent resistance is a force so powerful that if they want to stop us, they will have to be murderous.

Similarly, in one of the trials of the five people (including me) who shut off the tar sands crude oil pipelines coming into the US in October 2016, the judge, in denying the use of the “necessity defense”, said “I’m not going to let you put U.S. energy policy on trial”—by which he meant, you can’t let a scientist talk about science in the courtroom, or US energy policy will be on trial. Like the North Dakota bill, this was an extraordinary admission: if we don’t run over protestors, if we do let scientists speak in the courtroom…everything is up for grabs.

The system is that brittle. We are that strong.

We know, of course, that everything is up for grabs in a much less hopeful way, too. If we cherish the idea of a livable future, if we want to restore a stable world for those already suffering from devastating climate impacts, we have to stop these projects. So we have to metabolize the understanding of the North Dakota legislature and the Montana judge: speaking the truth is powerful, and dangerous to those in power, and we can be an irresistible force simply by taking to the streets—or holding space and watching the inlet, in the case of the fight over the Trans Mountain pipeline. Right now, the “watch house” is exactly on the line of the 50-foot “exclusion” zone that the pipeline company received an injunction for last night. If they think that will keep our hopes for a decent future at bay, though, they’d do well to study their recent history.

With every new pipeline, they’d be locking us in, economically, to decades of fossil fuel use—decades we flat-out can’t afford. If we don’t stop these projects, we know that catastrophe lies before us, and we don’t have much time to forestall the worst possibilities (though we’ll always be able to save something). So we can’t let them build them; it’s that simple.

A friend of mine was at the start of the march with his young son today; he was overwhelmed by the feeling of being amongst thousands at such a powerful beginning to a new chapter in the pipeline resistance.

As the drums beat and the crowd stepped back to make way for the elders, a bald eagle circled overhead.

Written by Emily Johnston

Emily Johnston is a Seattle poet, essayist and activist, published also in Slate, Crosscut, The Oregonian and elsewhere. She was also a #ValveTurner during the #ShutItDown action in October 2016. Follow her on Twitter: @enjohnston.