Love Will Save this Place

· Articles & Essays · ,

by Naomi Klein

On a drizzly British Columbia day in April 2012, a twenty-seven-seat turboprop plane landed at the Bella Bella airport, which consists of a single landing strip leading to a clapboard building. The passengers descending from the blue-and-white Pacific Coastal aircraft included the three members of a review panel created by the Canadian government. They had made the 480-kilometer journey from Vancouver to this remote island community, a place of deep fjords and lush evergreen forests reaching to the sea, to hold public hearings about one of the most contentious new pieces of fossil fuel infrastructure in North America: Enbridge’s proposed Northern Gateway pipeline.

Bella Bella is not directly on the oil pipeline’s route (that is 200 kilometers even further north). However, the Pacific ocean waters that are its front yard are in the treacherous path of the oil tankers that the pipeline would load up with diluted tar sands oil—up to 75 percent more oil in some supertankers than the Exxon Valdez was carrying in 1989 when it spilled in Alaska’s Prince William Sound, devastating marine life and fisheries across the region. A spill in these waters could be even more damaging, since the remoteness would likely make reaching an accident site difficult, especially during winter storms.

The appointed members of the Joint Review Panel—one woman and two men, aided by support staff—had been holding hearings about the pipeline impacts for months now and would eventually present the federal government with their recommendation on whether the project should go ahead. Bella Bella, whose population is roughly 90 percent Heiltsuk First Nation, was more than ready for them.

A line of Heiltsuk hereditary chiefs waited on the tarmac, all dressed in their full regalia: robes embroidered with eagles, salmon, orcas, and other creatures of these seas and skies; headdresses adorned with animal masks and long trails of white ermine fur, as well as woven cedar basket hats. They greeted the visitors with a welcome dance, noisemakers shaking in their hands and rattling from the aprons of their robes, while a line of drummers and singers backed them up. On the other side of the chain link fence was a large crowd of demonstrators carrying anti-pipeline signs and canoe paddles.

Standing a respectful half step behind the chiefs was Jess Housty, a slight twenty-five-year-old woman who had helped to galvanize the community’s engagement with the panel (and would soon be elected to the Heiltsuk Tribal Council as its youngest member). An accomplished poet who created Bella Bella’s first and only library while she was still a teenager, Housty described the scene at the airport as “the culmination of a huge planning effort driven by our whole community.”

And it was young people who had led the way, turning the local school into a hub of organizing. Students had worked for months in preparation for the hearings. They researched the history of pipeline and tanker spills, including the 2010 disaster on the Kalamazoo River, noting that Enbridge, the company responsible, was the same one pushing the Northern Gateway pipeline. The teens were also keenly interested in the Exxon Valdez disaster since it took place in a northern landscape similar to their own. As a community built around fishing and other ocean harvesting, they were alarmed to learn about how the salmon of Prince William Sound had become sick in the years after the spill, and how herring stocks had completely collapsed (they are still not fully recovered, more than two decades later).

 

The Students Contemplated what such a spill would mean on their coast. If the sockeye salmon, a keystone species, were threatened, it would have a cascade effect—since they feed the killer whales and white-sided dolphins whose dorsal fins regularly pierce the water’s surface in nearby bays, as well as the seals and sea lions that bark and sunbathe on the rocky outcroppings. And when the fish return to the freshwater rivers and streams to spawn, they feed the eagles, the black bears, the grizzlies, and the wolves, whose waste then provides the nutrients to the lichen that line the streams and riverbanks, as well as to the great cedars and Douglas firs that tower over the temperate rainforest. It’s the salmon that connect the streams to the rivers, the river to the sea, the sea back to the forests. Endanger salmon and you endanger the entire ecosystem that depends on them, including the Heiltsuk people whose ancient culture and modem livelihood is inseparable from this intricate web of life.

Bella Bella’s students wrote essays on these themes, prepared to present testimony, and painted signs to greet the panel members. Some went on a forty-eight-hour hunger strike to dramatize the stakes of losing their food source. Teachers observed that no issue had ever engaged the community’s young people like this— some even noticed a decline in depression and drug use. That’s a very big deal in a place that not long ago suffered from a youth suicide epidemic, the legacy of scarring colonial policies, including generations of children—the great-grandparents, grandparents, and sometimes the parents of today’s teens and young adults—being taken from their families and placed in church-run residential schools where abuse was rampant.

Housty recalls, “As I stood behind our chiefs [on the tarmac], I remember thinking how the community had grown around the issue from the first moment we heard rumbling around Enbridge Northern Gateway. The momentum had built and it was strong. As a community, we were prepared to stand up with dignity and integrity to be witnesses for the lands and waters that sustained our ancestors—that sustain us—that we believe should sustain our future generations.”

After the dance, the panel members ducked into a white minivan that took them on the five-minute drive into town. The road was lined with hundreds of residents, including many children, holding their handmade poster-board signs. “Oil Is Death,” “We Have the Moral Right to Say No,” “Keep Our Oceans Blue,” “Our Way of Life Can Not Be Bought!,” “I Can’t Drink Oil.” Some held drawings of orcas, salmon, even kelp. Many of the signs simply said: “No Tankers.” One man thought the panel members weren’t bothering to look out the window, so he thumped the side of the van as it passed and held his sign up to the glass.

By some counts, a third of Bella Bella’s 1,095 residents were on the street that day, one of the largest demonstrations in the community’s history. Others participated in different ways: by harvesting and preparing food for the evening feast, where the panel members were to be honored guests. It was part of the Heiltsuk’s tradition of hospitality but it was also a way to show the visitors the foods that would be at risk if just one of those supertankers were to run into trouble. Salmon, herring roe, halibut, oolichan, crab, and prawns were all on the menu.

Similar scenes had played out everywhere the panel traveled in British Columbia: cities and towns came out in droves, voicing unanimous or near unanimous opposition to the project. Usually First Nations were front and center, reflecting the fact that the province is home to what is arguably the most powerful Indigenous land rights movement in North America, evidenced by the fact that roughly 80 percent of its land remains “unceded” which means that it has never been relinquished under any treaty nor has it ever been claimed by the Canadian state through an act of war.

Yet there was clearly something about the passion of Bella Bella’s greeting that unnerved the panel members. The visitors refused the invitation to the feast that evening, and Chief Councilor Marilyn Slett was put in the unenviable position of having to take the microphone and share a letter she had just received from the Joint Review Panel. It stated that the pipeline hearings for which the assembled crowd had all been preparing for months were canceled. Apparently the demonstration on the way from the airport had made the visitors feel unsafe and, the letter stated, “The Panel cannot be in a situation where it is unsure that the crowd will be peaceful.” It later emerged that the sound of that single man thumping the side of the van had somehow been mistaken for gun-fire. (Police in attendance asserted that the demonstrations had been nonviolent and that there was never any security threat.)

Photo by Kris Krug

Photo by Kris Krug

Housty said the news of the cancellation had a “physical impact. We had done everything according to our teachings, and to feel the back of someone’s hand could hardly have been more of an insult.” In the end, the hearings went ahead but a day and a half of promised meeting time was lost, depriving many community members of their hope of being heard in person.

 

What Shocked Many of Bella Bella’s residents was not just the weird and false accusation of violence; it was the extent to which the entire spirit of their actions seemed to have been misunderstood. When the panel members looked out the van window, they evidently saw little more than a stereotypical mob of angry Indians, wanting to vent their hatred on anyone associated with the pipeline. But to the people on the other side of the glass, holding their paddles and fish paintings, the demonstration had not primarily been about anger or hatred. It had been about love—a collective and deeply felt expression of love for their breathtaking part of the world.

As the young people of this community explained when they finally got the chance, their health and identity were inextricably bound up in their ability to follow in the footsteps of their forebears— fishing and paddling in the same waters, collecting kelp in the same tidal zones in the outer coastal islands, hunting in the same forests, and collecting medicines in the same meadows. Which is why Northern Gateway was seen not simply as a threat to the local fishery but as the possible undoing of all this intergenerational healing work. And therefore as another wave of colonial violence.

When Jess Housty testified before the Enbridge Gateway review panel (she had to travel for a full day to Terrace, British Columbia to do it), she put this in unequivocal terms.

“When my children are born, I want them to be born into a world where hope and transformation are possible. I want them to be born into a world where stories still have power. I want them to grow up able to be Heiltsuk in every sense of the word. To practice the customs and understand the identity that has made our people strong for hundred of generations.

That cannot happen if we do not sustain the integrity of our territory, the lands and waters, and the stewardship practices that link our people to the landscape. On behalf of the young people in my community, I respectfully disagree with the notion that there is any compensation to be made for the loss of our identity, for the loss of our right to be Heiltsuk.”

 

The Power Of This Ferocious Love is what the resource companies and their advocates in government inevitably underestimate, precisely because no amount of money can extinguish it. When what is being fought for is an identity, a culture, a beloved place that people are determined to pass on to their grandchildren, and that their ancestors may have paid for with great sacrifice, there is nothing companies can offer as a bargaining chip. No safety pledge will assuage; no bribe will be big enough. And though this kind of connection to place is surely strongest in Indigenous communities where the ties to the land go back thousands of years, it is in fact Blockadia’s defining feature.

I saw it shine brightly in Halkidiki, Greece, in the struggle against the gold mine. There, a young mother named Melachrini Liakou—one of the movement’s most tireless leaders—told me with unswerving confidence that the difference between the way she saw the land, as a fourth-generation farmer, and the way the mining company saw the same patch of earth, was that, “I am a part of the land. I respect it, I love it and I don’t treat it as a useless object, as if I want to take something out of it and then the rest will be waste. Because I want to live here this year, next year, and to hand it down to the generations to come. In contrast, Eldorado, and any other mining company, they want to devour the land, to plunder it, to take away what is most precious for themselves.” And then they would leave behind, she said, “a huge chemical bomb for all mankind and nature.”

Alexis Bonogofsky (who had told me what a “huge mistake” the oil companies made in trying to bring their big rigs along Highway 12) speaks in similar terms about the fight to protect southeastern Montana from mining companies like Arch Coal. But for Bonogofsky, a thirty-three-year-old goat rancher and environmentalist who does yoga in her spare time, it’s less about farming than deer hunting. “It sounds ridiculous but there’s this one spot where I can sit on the sandstone rock and you know that the mule deer are coming up and migrating through, you just watch these huge herds come through, and you know that they’ve been doing that for thousands and thousands of years. And you sit there and you feel connected to that. And sometimes it’s almost like you can feel the earth breathe.” She adds: “That connection to this place and the love that people have for it, that’s what Arch Coal doesn’t get. They underestimate that. They don’t understand it so they disregard it. And that’s what in the end will save that place. Its not the hatred of the coal companies, or anger, but love will save that place.”

Photo by Gregory Smith

Photo by Gregory Smith

This is also what makes Blockadia conflicts so intensely polarized. Because the culture of fossil fuel extraction is—by both necessity and design—one of extreme rootlessness. The workforce of big rig drivers, pipefitters, miners, and engineers is, on the whole, highly mobile, moving from one worksite to the next and very often living in the now notorious “man camps”—self-enclosed army-base-style mobile communities that serve every need from gyms to movie theaters (often with an underground economy in prostitution).

Even in places like Gillette, Wyoming, or Fort McMurray, Alberta, where extractive workers may stay for decades and raise their kids, the culture remains one of transience. Almost invariably, workers plan to leave these blighted places as soon as they have saved enough money—enough to payoff student loans, to buy a house for their families back home, or, for the really big dreamers, enough to retire. And with so few well-paying blue-collar jobs left, these extraction jobs are often the only route out of debt and poverty. It’s telling that tar sands workers often discuss their time in northern Alberta as if it were less a job than a highly lucrative jail term: there’s “the three-year-plan” (save $200,000, then leave); “the five-year-plan” (put away half a million); “the ten-year-plan” (make a million and retire at thirty-five). Whatever the details (and however unrealistic, given how much money disappears in the city’s notorious party scene), the plan is always pretty much the same: tough it out in Fort Mac (or Fort McMoney as it is often called), then get the hell out and begin your real life. In one survey, 98 percent of respondents in the tar sands area said they planned to retire somewhere else.

 

There Is A Real Sadness to many of these choices: beneath the bravado of the bar scene are sky-high divorce rates due to pro-longed separations and intense work stress, soaring levels of addiction, and a great many people wishing to be anywhere but where they are. This kind of disassociation is part of what makes it possible for decent people to inflict the scale of damage to the land that extreme energy demands. A coalfield worker in Gillette, Wyoming, for instance, told me that to get through his workdays, he had trained himself to think of the Powder River Basin as “another planet.” (The moonscape left behind by strip mining no doubt made this mental trick easier).

These are perfectly understandable survival strategies—but when the extractive industry’s culture of structural transience bumps up against a group of deeply rooted people with an intense love of their home- place and a determination to protect it, the effect can be explosive.

 


Naomi Klein is a Canadian author, social activist, and filmmaker known for her political analyses and criticism of corporate globalization and corporate capitalism. She is best known for her international bestseller, No Logo.

From This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate, Copyright © 2014 by Naomi Klein. Reprinted with permission of Simon & Schuster.

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