In northeastern British Columbia, right near the Alberta border, is a place called Dawson Creek that I know nothing about, except that my brother (who, unfortunately for him I suppose, lived there a number of years) insists that it’s a boring shit-hole. To the west about an hour’s drive is Chetwynd, a town that I know nothing about at all. On the map, smack in the middle of the two, is a community called Groundbirch. Groundbirch appears to be nothing but a few roads shooting off the highway, and perhaps a bed and breakfast. When I looked it up on Google maps, there was one photo uploaded – a black bear in a tree. Nothing hoity-toity to see here, folks.
Somewhere in the vicinity of Groundbirch, though, is where the LNG pipeline expansion was proposed to start. The map shows the pipeline sloping south-west, skimming right past Vanderhoof before syncing into the highway route right around Fort Fraser and following it all the way west to Kitimat, at the coast.
The pipeline has been the source of a lot of planning, agreements, arguments and protesting. Anyone who doesn’t live in the north of BC could be forgiven for not paying much attention, but because I do live here, it’s almost always in the air, floating around. There’s a lot of bickering, a lot of name calling, a lot of willful ignorance. Low-blows, potshots, headbutting. Figuratively, of course. There are the “gotchya” memes that miss the mark, more often than not, and the groups divided on whether the line should go in or not. At the lowest point of it all, out comes the racism.
Full disclosure: I am the whitest white-ass white girl ever. Scottish and German, my skin goes a sickly shade of translucent when I get sick and I don’t tan in the summer – I just “try to neutralize the blue.” So I’m on a learning curve here too mkay?
I have felt for a long time that I don’t have enough information to fully feel pro or anti pipeline. I don’t know the effect it may have on the environment, on lakes and rivers, on wild habitats, on the animals who live there and on all the trees and vegetation. I don’t know how likely it is that the pipeline could develop a leak, how quickly that leak could be contained, or whether this is a safer transport than being hauled by train or truck. I don’t know how many jobs it will create, or whether those jobs will be sustained or short-lived. There are too many things I don’t know, so I’ve sort of idly watched from the sidelines, seeing both sides to an extent really.
First Nations protesters have been out, blocking access as much as they can. Specifically the Wet’suwet’en, a band located around Smithers and Houston. And I’ve heard a lot of confusion from other white folks, who, like me have not had very accurate curriculum with regards to the history of the Aboriginals in Canada.
Questions arise, such as:
“I read that the band chiefs already agreed to the pipeline, why are these people going against what the natives clearly want?”
“They’re just greedy aren’t they, do they just want more money?”
I have a lovely, dear friend who is half Wet’suwet’en. And if not for her, I wouldn’t know the first thing about these protests or why they’re happening, either. I have begun to pay attention, ask questions, and try to step out of my box and learn. I know that there are some people who will refuse to listen to anything that goes against their preconceived notions, but there have to also be some like me who have simply not been made aware. There are a few things that I had never even heard of before.
Elected chiefs vs. hereditary chiefs. And there is some huge confusion going on here, because until mmm…. maybe 6 months ago, I did not even know hereditary chiefs were a thing that existed. Coastal Gaslink consulted with the elected chiefs. These are elected officials that, as I understand, function like any government elected official. Something like a city mayor, they handle financial and planning issues for the reservation. It is their job. But! Hereditary chiefs are the elders, people who have put time and care into the community, who have roots in the community. They are not elected, and they do not receive pay. They are a part of the indigenous culture and are respected as such. Coastal Gaslink did not consult with the hereditary chiefs, who lay claim to the unceded land on behalf of their band. Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs have not approved of the pipeline because they view it as an environmental and humanitarian issue, rather than one of money.
Their concern lies with the health of their communities, threats to the environment, to watersheds, to fish and wildlife. Their protests aren’t to do with greed and they aren’t just waiting for a better offer – they have valid concerns that aren’t being addressed. They’ve been sidelined and basically told that the elected chiefs are what matters, and their concerns are irrelevant.
No matter what the opinion on the pipeline – for or against, the truth of the matter is that a little bit of understanding could go a long way. We have not paid attention to the way that First Nations communities and culture are structured. We’ve treated them as if they run the way we do – because of course everyone is like us, right? Except they don’t, and that’s been disregarded or belittled.
Arguing one side on the basis of the economy and the other side on the safety of the environment is like comparing apples to elephants. You can’t, they’re not the same.
I fully understand the importance of the pipeline as well, the economic benefit not just for us but for Canada. The pipeline connects us faster and easier to markets in Asia, and that makes us more competitive in the global market. Important? Yes. So important. But the argument means nothing when the concern isn’t money.
Rather than seeing this as an us vs. them situation, maybe if people spent more time trying to listen and assuage fears for the land and water that the native people have, there could be less bickering.
When people don’t feel heard, they just yell louder. And the louder you yell, the less you hear. Pretty soon it’s just a buzz of incoherent yelling, yelling for the sake of yelling, nobody listening, nobody thinking, nobody caring about anything except being the loudest and maybe getting to be heard. The things people say have less and less thought put in to them. They get more and more ridiculous, singing to the choir while anyone who doesn’t agree is surely not being swayed because frankly, the argument has devolved into ignorance, ego and insults.
In the meantime we could try, perhaps, to humble ourselves enough to try to understand a culture that our ancestors did their best to wipe out, validate their opinions and their fears, respect them enough not to infantilize them, listen.
We might learn something.