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Indigenous leaders in Canada fight to protect the Inlet

Indigenous leaders and communities from across Canada are staging ongoing action on Burnaby Mountain to protest the expansion of an oil pipeline that threatens sacred land and water. Thousands recently joined a demonstration and a sit-in outside a Kinder Morgan terminal that ended with 28 arrests. While the actions target one pipeline, Indigenous leaders say this dispute is about something much bigger

British Columbia, 10 March 2018

As Eriel Tchekwie Deranger marches up Burnaby Mountain, she turns to look back behind her at the thousands of people standing behind a bright yellow banner proclaiming “Water is life.” They are all singing - a steady drum beat adding solemnity -  and brandishing placards. The crowd stretches back so far that Eriel cannot see the end of the demonstration.

Eriel is the executive director and founder of Indigenous Climate Action (ICA), and is visibly strengthened in her resolve to protect this sacred land by the number of people who have turned out for the Indigenous-led Protect the Inlet demonstration.

“Look at those banners, look at those people! They’re standing up for Mother Earth! That is what people power looks like!” she shouts, barely audible above the singing.

Thousands of people (ICA believes the number to be 6,500) have turned out both to march against the proposed Kinder Morgan trans mountain pipeline, and to stand up for Indigenous rights. Indigenous leaders from British Columbia, and from all across Canada, have come together to stand in solidarity with the Tsleil-Waututh nation, one of the communities whose land and water stands to be impacted by a pipeline which was approved by the Government in 2016, despite a groundswell of objection.

The watch house

As the demonstration takes place, spiritual leaders from the Coast Salish region build a traditional cedarwood watch house near the Kinder Morgan terminal. The project is called Kwekwecnewtxw, which means “a place to watch from.” The watch house will be occupied by Coast Salish people, and will also be used for their traditional rituals and ceremonies. Behind all this, is a deep desire to protect the waters of the Burard Inlet, in what is now known as British Columbia.

“The water’s very important to us,” says Will George, one of the Tsleil-Waututh people responsible for building the watch house. He explains that the inlet is used for traditional ceremonies, and has important cultural connections.

“To have any company come in here and threaten those ceremonies is a direct violation of our spiritual laws,” he explains.

Houses like this, says Will, would have been used throughout history for people to monitor the activity of their enemies from strategic positions.

The day before this protest, Kinder Morgan was granted an interim injunction against blockades which could prevent work or access to the terminals at Westridge Marine and Burnaby. This covers a 50 metre zone outside the two sites.

The watch house has been built just outside this zone. Ahead of the demonstration, Will George says the injunction means there is now the very real possibility of mass arrest. He is right.

In solidarity for Indigenous rights

Despite the slogans splashed across banners, and the watch house overlooking Kinder Morgan, Eriel Tchekwie Deranger says that this demonstration is about more than stopping the Kinder Morgan pipeline. She says the protest is connected to something much bigger - namely asserting the Indigenous sovereignty of the people in this territory.

“Our people are demanding that we stop desecrating Mother Earth for profit and that we find a way to restore balance. Our people have been bearing the burden of the impacts of industrial development in the tar sands, and now we are facing the consequences of the climate crisis,” she says.

The oil for the proposed pipeline comes from Eriel’s native Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation land, where bitumen is mined from tar sands.

“All our struggles are connected to this struggle. We are all fighting for the protection of our rights to live as we want to live; to eat the foods from the lands, to live in harmony with Mother Earth. We’re here to call for the protection of Mother Earth.”

As the people march, as Indigenous leaders speak, and as the crowd sings sacred songs, both eagles and news helicopters fly overhead. Alongside the banners proclaiming, “This is not free prior and informed consent” and “Kinder Morgan shall not pass”, is a cardboard pod of orca whales, held aloft above the crowd, representing the whales that live in the waters in the area.

Standing in front of the huge crowd gathered around him, President of the Union of BC Indian Chiefs, Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, says: “You all have reason to walk a little taller upon the land and when you go home you’ll know in your hearts that you did a good thing, you did the right thing. Rest assured there will never, ever be a Kinder Morgan trans-pipeline project.”

Putting everything on the line

A week later [17/03/18], Will George’s prediction becomes reality after 28 demonstrators block the entrance to a Kinder Morgan site - some of whom zip tie themselves to the gate  - they are all arrested.

Far from detering the protesters, a national day of action is now planned and in another Indigenous-led demonstration, people will be collecting water from along the tanker route, and delivering it to MP offices on 23 March. Grassroots campaign group 350 Canada says that this will serve as a reminder to all of us that clean water is more important than big oil profits.

Read more about the Indigenous communities standing up for the planet.

Photography by Genevieve Bock-Caron

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