Here’s What the Future of Pipeline Protest Looks Like
Three generations of activists tell us where they see radical protest going.
When 22-year-old Paige Harwood chained herself to the gate of Kinder Morgan's Westridge marine terminal in Burnaby last month, most political calculations were pointing to a third term for BC's incumbent premier Christy Clark, and a fall 2017 construction start for the controversial $7.4-billion Trans Mountain pipeline expansion.
By the time cops cut Harwood's chains and dragged her away for booking the next day, that political reality was turned completely upside down. Alongside a handful of other environmental activists with wrists locked to the same fence, Harwood watched the province's two leftmost parties move to unseat the premier, livestreamed on a colleague's phone.
As new details from the Green-NDP deal emerged—which included a pledge to "immediately employ every tool available" to "stop the expansion of the Kinder Morgan pipeline, the seven-fold increase in tanker traffic on our coast, and the transportation of raw bitumen through our province"—activists like Harwood were pondering what to do next. If BC does ends up with a pipeline-opposing premier, does that mean it's time to chill out and play nice? Or crank the vigilance to 11?
If you ask young activists like Harwood, we're going to see protest movements in BC and beyond get more radical over the next few years, not less. Urgency around climate change and Indigenous sovereignty is growing, and the rise of a potentially sympathetic government isn't going to change that. To find out what that means for one of Canada's most heated energy battlegrounds, VICE spoke to environmental activists from different movements and generations about what the future of pipeline protest will look like.
After learning of her mischief charge and September court date, Harwood told VICE she doesn't expect an NDP-led BC government to get the extended honeymoon treatment that Justin Trudeau got after his election in 2015. Despite talking about revamping the energy projects review process and nation-to-nation dialogue with Indigenous communities during the campaign, the prime minister went on to approve a massive gas terminal near Prince Rupert as well as the controversial Kinder Morgan pipeline expansion.
"I think people do feel optimistic, but they know they have to continue to keep the pressure on," she said. "When Trudeau got elected he made some fantastic promises, and people became more passive. Then he turned his back on us." The NDP's Horgan will not be given the same good faith, say BC pipeline activists.
Based on the experience of longtime environmentalist and BC "war in the woods" campaigner Tzeporah Berman, that may not be such a bad thing. After all it was an NDP government led by Mike Harcourt that Berman and other Clayoquot defenders battled relentlessly over old growth logging back in the 1990s.
Since her time standing in front of bulldozers, Berman has seen the environmental movement shed some of its ignorance around Indigenous rights and governance. Having spent part of the last decade recentering around First Nations sovereignty, BC's protest movement is positioned to take those battles to the next level.
According to Melina Laboucan-Massimo, a climate campaigner from oil patch territory who has worked to bring renewables to her First Nation community, a truly Indigenous-led movement comes with different timelines, belief structures, culture and protocols that are starting to emerge. We've seen this in action at Standing Rock, or the Unist'ot'en camp that still opposes Enbridge's Northern Gateway pipeline in BC.
Activists VICE spoke to talked about the spread of similar camps across BC in coming months and years. "Standing Rock and Occupy, they're all part of this new wave of occupation of space," Keith Cherry, another activist arrested on Kinder Morgan's property last month, told VICE. Residential blockades offer something that provincial electoral politics can't—a positive vision of a local, alternative society. "It's not just marching or having a rally, it requires a different form of community organization. You have to have food and water and clothes—you have to be your own self-governing community, in a way."
But both Berman and Laboucan-Massimo say there's still more trust to be built between environmentalists and First Nations. "We see that in the environmental movement—using Indigenous people's faces to, say, do fundraising when there's not a real relationship with those communities," Laboucan-Massimo told VICE.
By doing more of this legwork with trust and transparency, Berman says environmental activists are more prepared to work closely in First Nations communities where leaders have signed on to energy megaprojects. "You can't just say, 'Come to our rally, please open our rally!' 'We recognize your territory' isn't good enough," Berman said. "It takes time and work to understand that nation's goals… the most important thing is to operate from that place of respect."
Harwood told VICE the younger generation of activists has grown cynical about NGO photo ops at rallies, and has pushed to bring anti-racism and anti-poverty into the conversation. Berman sees this crossover and collaboration as a point of strength for the moment. "I'm learning so much from the younger generation I'm working with. They have a far more sophisticated understanding of power and privilege, and they're bringing that into the work. The connection between ecological and social justice issues only makes us stronger."
This is part of a VICE Canada project on the future of protest. See more from the Canada 150 series:
- Happy Birthday, Canada. Sorry, We're Still Here
- What the Next Generation of Canadian Activists are Facing
- 'Black Power Hour' Leads the Fight for Prisoners on the East Coast
But with that conversation has come some division, too, something Berman attributes to inexperience and jockeying for moral high ground. Based on her own work at Clayoquot and her more recent campaigning, she worries the focus on who is more woke has created a "new kind of power and privilege."
Cherry doesn't blame activists for "seeking refuge" in closed spaces. But says more needs to be done to preach beyond the converted. "It's really important to meet people where they're at, and not expect everyone to take a jump to your position."
New activists taking on pipelines in BC don't see past waves of activism as a failure—they're building on what came before. "The war in the woods is a good example," Cherry told VICE. "Those activists are still doing amazing work today, informing the modern movement. They didn't accomplish all their goals, but it's not a failure. When what you're looking for is such a fundamental change, you need to be thinking on an extended time scale."
Now projects like the Trans Mountain expansion are being attacked from all angles—financial, legal, and potentially formal political obstruction—but the new generation of protesters say they won't lose sight of the ground game. "Part of the reason all of those are viable is because of bodies on the line," Cherry said.
Still, there are more lessons Berman wishes to pass on to the next generation of protesters, one being not to forget that big powerful people can be useful, too.
"I will say that one of the most critical lessons I learned was clearly identifying the decision maker," she said. "You have to think what you want changed, and who can make that decision."
"We need to remember that on the other side of the barricades are just people who we're trying to reach," Berman told VICE.
For young people like Harwood, for the time being at least, focus is staying on the ground. "People realize it's not up to politicians to make change, it's up to the people to make change," Harwood said. "We don't know what's going on in back rooms."
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