VISION: Catalyzing community resistance
MOTTO: keep it in the ground
Photo Credits: Unceded Lines Team
The Canadian Tar Sands & The Thirst for Expansion
One of the critical linchpins to realizing this expansion is the Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipeline (ENGP), approved by the Canadian government in June 2014. Designed to carry tar sands oil from Alberta west to a marine terminal on British Columbia’s rugged coast, ENGP would open up oil exports to Asia. Tar Sands extraction would be able to increase by over 30 percent.
Community Resistance to the ENGP
In addition to the unacceptable threat tar sands expansion poses to climate change, ENGP presents significant localized risks. Along its 731-mile journey, the pipeline would traverse three irreplaceable natural systems: Alberta’s northern Rockies, British Columbia’s Coast Ranges, and the lush Great Bear Rainforest. The pipeline would also cross nearly 800 streams and rivers, including sensitive salmon habitats, and travel through more than 50 different First Nation Territories… all while carrying up to 525,000 barrels of oil a day.
Concerns don’t end at the pipeline terminus either. If the ENGP is built, the stormy waters off the Great Bear Rainforest will be opened to tanker traffic for the first time since a ban was put in place in 1972. An estimated 220 massive oil tankers will be pulling into Kitmat annually navigating the hazardous channels and coastal waters of the Pacific Ocean. The possibility of an oil spill in these rich and biodiverse waterways threatens to destroy the cultural and economic livelihoods of coastal First Nations and communities, which have lived in harmony with these seascapes since time immemorial.
Given the high stakes, one of the most distinct resistance efforts in the history of the North American environmental movement has emerged at the grassroots. One hundred and thirty First Nations have joined forces and formed an unprecedented alliance in opposition to the ENGP crossing their territorial lands—and they are willing to do whatever it takes to win, even if it means going to the Supreme Court.
Around the turn of the century, the Canadian government signed multiple treaties with First Nations, which transferred vast amounts of their Traditional Territories to the government in exchange for various promises, such as reserves of land, schools on the new reserves, annual cash payments, and more—many of which remained unfulfilled. However, in parts of British Columbia and the Yukon, treaties were never signed, leaving the question of legal ownership undecided.
In the summer of 2014, First Nations gained significant legal firepower with the Tsilhqot’in decision, in which the Supreme Court of Canada declared the Tsilhqot’in First Nation has rights to their Traditional Territory. This landmark case has opened the floodgates for other First Nations to assert their rights to their lands. Since ENGP has been approved, more than a dozen lawsuits have been filed. The legal outcomes of these cases will be hugely significant. An estimated 15 additional natural gas pipelines have been proposed for the region.
Ultimately, the saga of the Enbridge Pipeline represents the overlapping nature of social and environmental justice; it also illustrates the outsized impact that community-led action can have on federal policy and the international climate conversation.
Bringing the Untold Story to the Public
In the summer of 2014, Nathan Ratledge and Will Roush, energy and conservation professionals, were struck by what they were reading in the news about ENGP. In some respects it was similar to the battle against Keystone XL, except this story was unique: First Nations and community resistance were winning.
Hungry to understand and share their success, they jumped at the chance to make a film that would bring this untold story into the public eye. Along with Joel Stonington, Kip Pastor, and Alexander Falk, the Unceded Lines Team traveled to western Canada in February 2015 and begin meeting with the First Nations at the frontlines and filming.
The project kicked off with interviews in northern British Columbia on the lands of the Wet’suwet’en, Haisla, and Gitxsan First Nations. They first met Wet’suwet’en Chief Na’Moks, who taught them how to smoke candlefish—named for their ability to burn like a candle once dried—a staple food and trading commodity for thousands of years. They also spoke with young First Nations members, visited resistance camps built on the proposed pipeline path, and talked with local recreational operators, activists, loggers, politicians, and business owners about the effects of development in the area and the pressure to build pipelines.
Following four weeks of extensive interviews, the Team embarked on the second half of their journey: skiing along the most treacherous terrain of the proposed ENGP. Unlike the Keystone XL pipeline that travels mostly along existing corridors, the ENGP is slated to cross a rugged and remote mountainous areas. Starting at the Unist’ot’en reoccupation camp near Houston, BC they crossed the Clore and Burnie Rivers, traversed Nimbus Mountain, and finally, dipped into the Kitimat River valley.
About halfway through the journey, near the confluence of the Clore and Burnie Rivers, the Team started to see the tags that marked the centerline of the Pacific Trails Pipeline—another natural gas pipeline slated for the area. The thundering meeting ground of these two powerful rivers felt like the center of the earth, too wild and untamed to kayak across, much less lay a pipeline. Nathan Ratledge was left wondering, how could someone feel okay blowing a hole through the mountainside here? How are they going to bring equipment in? Where are the tailings going to go? How does this financially make any sense?
Like the proposed ENGP pipeline, their trip finished at the coast in Kitimat, BC, where tar sands crude oil would be pumped onto the supertankers bound for Asia. In Kitimat, the Unceded Lines Team spoke with local politicians and First Nation leaders, who took them out on boats to mark the completion of their journey and allow the Team to experience the power and fragility of the vibrant marine habitat firsthand.
Unceded Lines: The Film
Ultimately, it’s a story of hope designed to empower other communities facing industry-scale energy development projects. As Chief Na’Moks, of the Wet’suwet’en Nation told the Unceded Lines Team, “The way we’ll stop Enbridge is to get everybody united, get everybody educated. Come and see how beautiful this land is, how clean our water is, get to enjoy what we enjoy.”
The Unceded Lines Team
- Will Roush is the Wilderness Workshop’s Conservation Director. His work centers on place-based campaigns to protect wild lands. Will also participates in Canadian conservation efforts through his service on the boards of Ecojustice and the 444S Foundation.
- Nathan Ratledge is an energy and climate economist currently based out of Resources for the Future. He is the former Executive Director of the Community Office for Resource Efficiency.
- Joel Stonington is an independent journalist based in Berlin and former Berlin Bureau Chief at Vocativ. He is currently directing his journalism to telling stories via web-based video production. He has also reported for the New York Times, ABC, and Business Week.
- Kip Pastor is Vice President of Digital Production at Indigenous Media and Founder of Pasture Pictures. He produced and directed the feature length documentary, In Organic We Trust.
- Alexander Falk is a cinematographer and photographer, who has documented social and environmental issues around the globe – alexanderfalkdp.com.