All photos via Arij Riahi.
Oil pipelines are about linking oil-well to terminal, linked from junction to junction along the way, spread out across vast expanses of the Canadian landscape. In Quebec, for example, two pipelines will be covering at least 700 kilomteres, from Kanehsatake, west of Montreal, to Cacouna, a port town on the Gulf of St-Lawrence.
How do you push back against a major infrastructure project that crosses dozens of municipalities, let alone provincial jurisdiction and, importantly, Indigenous territory? For one group of some two dozen environmental activists it has been to walk the 700 kilometre path of those pipelines, so that the links in those towns and municipalities isn't just between cold, metallic pipes, but between the people who are concerned about the oil flowing through them.
"A lot of people along the way didn't know about the pipelines or about the link to the tar sands," said Aurore Fauret, one of the organizers of the walk, dubbed Marche pour la Mère Terre (March for Mother Earth). "We were able to make links between a lot of smaller, local groups along the way... When you have an action [like this march] it can help give momentum to the movement at large."
I spoke with Fauret outside the gym of an elementary school in the Mohawk community of Kanehsatake, west of Montreal. It was the end point of the group's 34 day journey that took them to over 30 towns across the province, where they organized rallies, group discussions, street theatre, and even went door-to-door to talk with people about the dangers of the pipelines and increased oil extraction. Some 200 people participated along the way. The core group of 20 or so walkers who went the whole distance and were gathered at the school were sun-baked, a little scraggly, but in incredibly good spirits. The atmosphere was one more of celebration than of protest, which seemed to fit well with their overall message of trying to bring people together.
At the same time, it was clear what they were there to fight against. The path they walked followed the routes of TransCanada's Energy East and Enbridge's Line 9 pipelines. Both lines have sown controversy because they will serve to transport oil from Canada's west, through Quebec, for export. Both are meant to provide a new outlet for oil from Alberta's ever-expanding tar sands extraction, which needs to be able to reach new markets in order to stay profitable and continue growing.
The marchers and their allies, like the province-wide coalitions Coalition Vigilance Oléoducs (CoVO) and Stop Oléoduc, are concerned about the local dangers of such pipelines: the possibilities of ruptures in pipes carrying the more corrosive and more difficult to clean up diluted tar sands bitumen, and that of tanker spills in the Gulf of St-Lawrence once the oil is sent for export.
Ellen Gabriel speaking to an audience of supporters.
But they are also concerned by the fact that a growing pipeline infrastructure will allow the Alberta tar sands to continue to grow, a fact they find unacceptable, both because of what it says about our continued reliance on oil (and the carbon emissions that it entails), as well as the impacts of the oil extraction on the communities, especially Indigenous communities, who live in the area and bear the brunt of this massive industrial development.
"It's important to show our solidarity," said Nicholas Ouellet, one of the march organizers who spoke at a press conference marking the end of the walk. "It's already begun. We can never accept things that are as senseless as the projects [the government and these companies] are proposing. Projects like expanding the tar sands, which is already a disaster."
Marchers and their supporters recognized that while a 700-kilometre walk was a momentous undertaking, it's still a small start in fighting back against these pipelines. But it was clear from those assembled for the closing press conference, including community organizers from across the province and representatives of both the Quebec and national sections of Idle No More, that they saw it as part of a strong start and growing movement.
Speakers also underlined the importance of building links with First Nations communities. It wasn't a random decision to end the walk in Kanehsatake. The marchers were well-received by the Kanehsatake Grand Chief Serge Simon and other community members, including long time Mohawk organizer and activist Ellen Gabriel. Ouellet expressed how marchers felt that building solidarity with First Nations—on whose unceded land much of the pipeline travels—is an important step in building resistance. But it also felt like there's a long way to go.
Most people, including Gabriel, spoke of this as being the start of creating those links.
The march included one First Nations organizer, and was bolstered by some Indigenous participants along the way. It was difficult to escape a lingering feeling that even if they were ending at a First Nations community, where they were warmly received, that a large gulf still exists between the talk about what it means to be living on Native land and the work that's necessary to truly be collaborating on a nation-to-nation basis with Indigenous peoples.
At the same time, speakers presented strong support and hopefulness for what the walkers had done and are fighting for.
"What we see today going on in the world, it's criminal, it's genocidal, and it must be stopped," said Gabriel. "So I'm truly inspired to see the solidarity and unity that is beginning to take place here in Quebec. For too long we have been excluding each other as neighbours, we have been fearful of each other as neighbours. But now it is time to bed that fear, to walk in peace together, and to make ... fundamental changes to save the human species."
Recent statements from Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper help drive home the the divisions between how the current Canadian government - and much of the business community - see climate change, versus the message being shared that morning in Kanehsatake. During a visit to Ottawa by Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott, Harper said that Canadians are deluding themselves if they think any country would make a decision that would negatively affect jobs and economy, claiming that oil development is the clearest path to economic prosperity and well-being.
“It’s not that we don’t seek to deal with climate change. But we seek to deal with it in a way that will protect and enhance our ability to create jobs and growth, not destroy jobs and growth in our countries,” he said on June 9. "We are just a little more frank about that, but that is the approach that every country is seeking.”
It's also a movement that is gaining in momentum in other parts of the country. Following Tuesday's announcement of the Harper government's approval of the Northern Gateway pipeline, over a thousand people took to Vancouver's streets to denounce the decision. Over 21,000 in BC have signed on to a petition pledging to take action against the pipeline. In northern Alberta and British Columbia, lawsuits and alliances threaten the expansion of the tar sands, and the pipelines needed to carry their output. Albertans aren't engaging in direct action yet, but they are overwhelmingly in favour of greater regulations on the oil industry. And in Ontario, there have been lockdowns at pipeline construction sites.
Opposition is growing in Quebec, too. The day the march started was also the launch date of Coule Pas Chez Nous, a new website that is part of a widespread effort undertaken by several anti-pipeline and environmental groups to inform Quebeckers about the concerns around oil transport in the province, and the overall impacts of the Canadian oil industry. It's backers are growing coalitions like CoVO and Stop Oléoduc, whose chapters, while still small, nearly span the province and are growing.
For Fauret and the other marchers, it's clear that there is still much work to be done, but they say they are up to the challenge. Already, there is talk of forming a kind of "flying squad": that people from various communities who have become connected through the walk are organizing to congregate in each other's communities when support and work is needed.
The walkers may have already come 700 kilometers, but it's clear that in their fight against pipelines, tar sands and climate change, they are just getting started.