02 March 2012
One of the real benefits of building a cabin on Haida Gwaii is the immense natural wealth there is here. The islands are even shaped like a cornucopia. As they say, “when the tide is out, the table is set.” With some knowledge, it’s almost impossible to starve here. It’s a food-gatherer’s dream. And what better way to spend a day than out in the woods or on the water harvesting
Today, however, I join several hundred people spending a rare sunny day on Haida Gwaii, inside a gymnasium. The hearings with the Joint Review Panel for the proposed Enbridge Northern Gateway project are underway in Masset (I wrote a little about this proposed project on Day 228). For you Americans, this is our Keystone XL pipeline. Our Prime Minister though, seems to be intent on ramming it through regardless of the potentially catastrophic results for the land it crosses, the people, and our coast.
This pipeline would go from the Alberta tar sands to BC’s north coast, through some of our most sensitive country and important salmon-bearing rivers. Hundreds of supertankers would then ply some off the roughest waters in the world, just offshore from here, on their way to China. We regularly see hurricane force winds and massive seas. A tanker spill would be inevitable. You will often hear it said, “It’s not a question of if, but when.” And on land, the oil companies seem to consider a wee bit of leakage from their pipelines just the regular cost of doing business.
I was resistant to going to the hearings because the issue is just so overwhelming. I couldn’t ever wade through the vast amount of information to understand the full scope of what’s in play. All I can do is look at the risk and know that there isn’t anything that could possibly be worth it. I came on the second day of the hearings after I’d heard how moving and informative the personal testimonies had been. Haida had come to speak about the traditional food collecting that is integral to the way that people have lived here for millennia. A way of life that could be all but decimated by a spill of almost any size.
We’re listening to speakers who are trying in every way possible to convey to the three-person Review Panel the magnitude of what’s at stake. I’d heard that none of the panel members have lived in BC, on the coast, or even in any marine environment. If so the speakers are trying to relate experiences that are unlike anything that those on the Panel have lived themselves. Words, as they say, are insufficient, weak tools. It is, I imagine, like trying to explain to someone who has never been a parent, what it is to have a child.
This morning Riki Ott, who had come at the invitation of the Haida Nation, started in on a compelling presentation based on having spent decades in activism around the Exxon Valdez spill. She told us what we could expect based on her real-world experience with the spill up the coast from here in Alaska.
Imagine if a large, wealthy corporation came to your neighbourhood, spilled toxic muck around your home, took away your ability to earn a living and feed your family, forced you into bankruptcy, took away your health, your quality of life and sense of well-being, and fought you for decades over cleanup and compensation. That’s exactly what happened to the communities affected when the Exxon Valdez dumped millions of barrels of oil into Prince William Sound. 23 years later it’s still not over. It’s clear that whatever they say, the oil companies simply do not take responsibility. They will do whatever necessary to preserve profits. And really, what can they do to reverse the damage once it’s done? At the hearings we heard from those who’ve found that you can still go onto the beaches there, almost a quarter-century later, kick into the sand and uncover oil.
The Exxon Valdez spill may have been long enough ago to have faded from the public consciousness but we had a more recent reminder that accidents will happen.
There was a major incident six years ago right along the proposed tanker route. The BC ferry, MV Queen of the North, the predecessor to the one that I sailed up on to get here, failed to make a turn during a routine run in calm weather, struck Gil Island and sank.
Only two people were lost in that accident thanks in large part to the quick response of Hartley Bay. The small Tsimshian First Nation community scrambled to go out in their boats in the middle of the night to rescue over 100 passengers. The ferry is still submerged on their doorstep, burping up diesel. Now, they face the prospect of hundreds of supertankers sailing right past them every year, other accidents waiting to happen.
You can understand why Cameron Hill, a councilor in Hartley Bay, has stated publicly that he’s willing to die to fight against this plan. Two years ago I was fortunate enough to spend time in the home of Hill and his family. We’d been brought there by Norm Hann, a local guide who’d been adopted into the family (Hann would later do a paddleboard expedition along the tanker route, standup4greatbear, to raise awareness). Before moving to Haida Gwaii, this was the first that I’d seen of just how much wealth one could draw from the ocean. The hospitality was incredible, with tables laden with rich red sockeye salmon, halibut, sea cucumber, octopus, shellfish, eulachon grease, seaweed, herring roe. His parents however had seen the harvest diminish in even their lifetimes. They saw the abalone fishery collapse and know what it means to lose even a single species. To lose all marine life in a single incident would be unthinkable.
And that’s just looking from a food perspective. The salmon, for example, aren’t just a protein source for humans. It’s not like we could just strike them off the menu and move on to the next convenient fish. The salmon swim up the rivers, spawn and die. The nutrients from their bodies feed the 1,000-year-old trees and other flora and fauna, the bears, wolves, birds, aquatic life, and thus they serve to feed an entire food chain with their existence. I’m sure that they wouldn’t be the only thing to disappear.
To be truthful, the whole thing makes me not just despair for this corner of the world, but for us as a species. When we proceed with such a plan, despite knowing full well the risks and their implications, the only possible explanation is greed. If it were just ignorance, that would almost be excusable, but we’ve seen what can happen so many times before.
I’m not a knee-jerk greenie who opposes any sort of large-scale development. My background is a degree in economics and an MBA along with time spent working in management consulting, including on a multi-billion dollar infrastructure program that has its own share of opposition. I understand that there are potentially hundreds of billions of dollars of economic activity connected with the pipeline “for Canadians” (mostly for a very specific subset of Canadians and a whole load of multinational corporations). Yes, it’s desirable to diversify Canada’s energy markets etc. But then what is the price of such an environmental disaster? That’s right, you can’t put a price on the cost of losing ecosystems and a whole way of life for directly affected communities. They can’t be bought back for any amount of money.
The media characterizes opposition as coming from “green groups and some aboriginal bands” i.e. special interest groups. This matter however, is really something of interest to everyone. And not just Canadians. True, it may be happening on Canadian soil and in Canadian waters. So if anything, the shame that we would face for the disgraceful handling of our natural endowment would be a national one. But this affects, in one way or another, everyone on the planet.
You’ll have to excuse me if I’m getting preachy or emotional about the topic. But the risks associated with the Enbridge Northern Gateway project are so dire and the plan so incredibly shortsighted that not doing what we can to stop it is nothing short of irresponsible. Whatever little we can do, we must do.
Only when the last tree has died and the last river been poisoned and the last fish been caught will we realize that we cannot eat money.
- Cree Proverb