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Inside Canada's Indigenous Burnaby Mountain Protest Camp

I went to the mountaintop protest camp that's trying to block a pipeline and has attracted an enormous amount of attention in Canada.
November 26, 2014, 9:20pm

Photo by Emma Campbell and Mitch Stookey

This post originally appeared on VICE Canada

On September 3, local contractors cut down 13 trees on unceded Sḵwx̱wú7mesh (Squamish) territory, more commonly known as the Burnaby Mountain Conservation Area, triggering a months-long blockade that has garnered nationwide media attention.

Texas-based oil company Kinder Morgan has been attempting to survey the Burnaby Mountain for the purpose of drilling several 250-meter boreholes into the ground to collect data to determine if the mountain is stable enough to drive a pipeline through it. This proposed pipeline would be a twinning of the existing Trans Mountain pipeline, which currently transports 300,000 barrels of crude oil per day from Edmonton to the British Columbia coast. The second pipeline would nearly triple the capacity of the system.


When I arrived at the parking lot at the top of Burnaby Mountain last week, Marija Brzev was on the phone with her boss, attempting to negotiate her schedule. It was about 7 PM and her employer, the Vancouver-based housing advocacy organization Portland Hotel Society, was trying to convince her to cover the night shift. She spent the previous night alternately sleeping in the back of a pickup parked on the side of the road and sitting by the nearby fire to make sure it burned through the night. After a long day on the mountain, she was in no state to keep awake much longer, much less the whole night, and the shift in question started in three hours.

This is how it began: A handful of people clinging tenuously to things like employment, relationships, and housing in order keep watch over two small patches of mountain. After spending 13 hours locked down to Kinder Morgan's Westridge terminal with and activists Adam Gold, Mia Nissen, Dan Wallace, and Liam Mongeon, Brzev and a few others began spending night and day at the top of Centennial Way in the park, or down at the clearing where the oil and gas giant cleared the first trees.

They were soon joined by friends from out of town, people who quit their jobs to be there more often, and local mothers dropping by every morning and evening with food and clothes and candles. The bike ride up there is wretched, but the view is breathtaking, and after a summer spent doing ​research​ in blockade camps and resistance communities all over BC with my partner, it seemed only right that we should go, too.


Over the course of the past two months, the camp grew from a pile of tarps in the parking lot into a vibrant community space, complete with covered kitchen, sitting areas, and information boards.

After caretakers kicked surveyors off the mountain and surrounding area several times, Kinder Morgan applied for an injunction on the two main borehole sites, and the courts announced on November 14 that it would grant the injunction effective Monday, November 17, at 4 PM .

A mass rally brought hundreds of people to the camp on Monday, but RCMP didn't move in. The mood was quiet, if a bit tense, as everyone waited to see when they'd decide to enforce the court order. Until Thursday, November 20, when Burnaby RCMP—backed by forces from surrounding communities of Delta and Surrey—stormed in and tore the whole thing down.

Now it's national news, with the number of arrests topping 70 and rising every day. And while it seems unlikely anyone will be able to stop work long enough to prevent Kinder Morgan from collecting the data it needs to continue with the project, the impact the camp and the subsequent events are having on both public opinion and investor security is undeniable.

After largely ignoring the people who built the camp on the mountain, the ​

Photo by Emma Campbell and Mitch Stookey

Globe and Mail​ this week ​published a flurry of stories about contr​oversies surrounding the project and the billions of dollars in develo​pment money tied up in court thanks mainly to First Nations–led opposition. Talking heads, aware of the province's strong history of resistance to major development, are conceding that this is big, even for BC.

By all appearances a sweet and quiet young women, Brzev has almost single-handedly dealt with the media, from small independent outlets all the way to national television news. After spending about an hour locked by the neck to a concrete block inside the injunction zone on Thursday, she removed the U-lock herself, shuffled to the outside of the police tape surrounded by an enormous huddle of supporters, and immediately told a group of salivating reporters:


"They're on unceded Coast Salish territory. They have no consent to be here from the Coast Salish people, so there's no reason why this pipeline should be built. The community has come out consistently to say no, and RCMP are here trying to say they're here for public safety, whereas the whole community is out here protecting each other. There's no reason for the line to be drawn."

Though no one mentions it, except to make jokes about how many babies they know were the result of cold nights spent camped out during Occupy, one of the first things to emerge from the camp was a shy romance between 22-year-old Brzev and her 25-year-old compatriot Skinteh. A wild-eyed mountain man who is impossible to pin down, Skinteh is in his element in the woods. If you want to talk to him for longer than 45 seconds, you better be prepared to follow him into the forest, help him haul out a 12-foot log, and hold it steady while he nails it to the barricades.

Watching him the last few weeks has been a lesson in knowing the difference between paranoia and preparedness. The camp, surrounded by fallen trees and shored up with rusted out car parts and broken statuary, looks insane, and there was talk of blocking off more and more trails to keep out cops.

RCMP officer Mike Kalanj, the mental health coordinator for the Burnaby detachment, served as spokesperson for the police force, and checked in almost every day since the injunction was granted, mostly to play nice and tell everyone that police had no orders to enforce that day. He said the same thing to camp police liaisons around 8 AM last Thursday, roughly ten minutes before two vanloads of police arrived on the scene.

​ Photo by Emma Campbell and Mitch Stookey

​ Police told the caretakers the injunction lines would be clearly marked according to the GPS coordinates listed in the court document, and instead they taped off the public access road that leads up to the top of the mountain and Horizons restaurant, and then proceeded to push that line further and further out, choking peaceful protesters and throwing an elderly women to the ground. Police said protesters would be given the opportunity to stand in the safe zone without being arrested, and instead grabbed multiple people, dragged them across the police line, and arrested them.


In spite of most of the media coverage focusing on the midd​le-class white ​person angle, some of the most powerful forces behind the blockade have been indigenous women.

When the weather turned cold, Sḵwx̱wú7mesh elder Sut-lut arrived and made a sacred fire—lit ceremonially and kept burning and free of anything but wood until the person who lit it chooses to put it out—and she and her sister Clarissa came almost every day to tend it. Sut-lut said that after hearing about 18-year-old Jakub Markiewicz chaining himself under a Kinder Morgan Jeep on October 29, she was compelled to come up to the mountain and start talking to the caretakers. As grandmother and mother, she said, she feels a special connection to the mountain and to the people defending it. She was on Burnaby Mountain, up the hill from the camp, on May 31, 1997 when she got the news that her only daughter had been murdered.

Photo by Emma Campbell and Mitch Stookey

"Then I understood why I needed to come up here and defend this place. It's a very special place for me." Most days she arrives wearing a T-shirt over her warm clothes with a picture of her daughter on the front.

"My daughter's gone so I'll do it for Christy Clark's son, Hamish Clark."

Arrested on Thursday after lying down on the cedar log her younger brother is carving into a totem pole, next to the spot where Kinder Morgan has been drilling 24 hours a day, she has returned almost every day to tend the fire, along with indigenous women from these territories and others. They have kept the fire burning through the night, inviting elders and young people to come sit with them. RCMP moved the fire from its original spot inside the camp to an area out of the way of Kinder Morgan's equipment, but it's still inside police lines, which means anyone hoping to get near it needs police permission and escort.

As drilling continues and Kinder Morgan gets closer to finishing this round of work, people continue flood the mountain. A group of women acting in solidarity with the Klabona Keepers, the Tahltan elders fighting an injunction to protect the Sacred Headwaters of northern BC, spoke out yesterday and crossed police lines. A bus full of organizers and activists from Victoria got on the ferry to spend some time on the mountain. Burnaby residents continue to supply food and firewood in spite of the road closure and heavy police presence.

Kinder Morgan will likely finish its drilling and leave with the information it came for, but the caretakers have ensured the company will at least think twice before coming back again.

Follow Erin Flegg on ​Twitter.