Flash mobs for the protest era

A few observations about LNG’s brusque rite of passage into resource radicalism, from Stewart Muir of Resource Works.

post-image_-_shallow.jpgFor those who watch these things closely, the sudden arrival of a previously innocuous gas pipeline into media prominence wasn’t that big a surprise. Although it’s true that nobody expected to see protestors as far away as Italy in high dudgeon about the project, all the signs of incipient outrage were there. Ever since Coastal GasLink received its approval in 2014, a variety of well-organized groups had been circling the project.

Once the LNG Canada project the pipeline is designed to support received its green light in October 2018, the time had come for the pipeline to be built.

That’s when the fun started, focused on a very specific point on the map. 

The protest action camp (or, if you prefer, healing centre) located south of the town of Houston actually predates Coastal GasLink by years, since it was first established to oppose the Northern Gateway Pipeline before the Trudeau government caved and scuttled that project altogether. No doubt emboldened by this success, the loose coalition of American funders and local organizers behind the camp apparently decided to just keep it going. Located on the eastern slope of the Coast Mountain Range, the Unist'ot'en camp was smack dab in the middle of the only practical route to Kitimat – indeed, on the exact GPS coordinates of the pipeline. The nearby Gitdumt'en checkpoint came later.

From the beginning, it was clear that any project in that corridor would need to face down the protestors at some point.

Once an injunction was granted in December to allow pipeline workers to get past the blockade, it was inevitable that the simmering crisis was headed for the headlines.

The set piece that unfolded last week had all the necessary elements of a textbook confrontation, starting with the most important element of all: media. A hierarchy of communicators was on hand to record events. On the lowest rung, “citizen journalists” claiming to represent various organizations holding their prosumer gear aloft like they’ve seen in the movies, ready to feed the dark green web. Next up, embedded pro-blockade journalists in some cases appearing to also represent major news organizations, trickling in to file stories in requisite I’m-here-at-the-storming-of-the-Bastille tone. Soon, the real journalists showed up bringing a more credible approach to information gathering, by which time the carefully concocted stunt was dialled up to Cultural Event: Defcon 1. 

For years, the federal government had believed that the Unist'ot'en blockade camp represented “the ideological and physical focal point of Aboriginal resistance to resource extraction projects.” The product of the showdown, if the anti-pipeline protestors got their way, would include a rich harvest of imagery in which menacing police in heavy gear dragged wailing individuals wearing traditional First Nations regalia off to waiting vans.

Long before last week, it must have been obvious to RCMP commanders that the international protest movement would be bringing their A-game to the inevitable injunction confrontation, with a ubiquitous camera presence poised to capture the slightest enforcement slip-up that could fuel a tornado of digital fury.

The RCMP shrewdly put into a place a command centre and the support systems necessary for a successful enforcement operation tailored for the media age. The precautions taken resulted in only a few members donning the kind of tactical gear that plays into sinister readings of their intent. This wasn’t surprising given that blockade occupiers have occasionally appeared in social media brandishing weapons. (Whether they did so for hunting or other reasons would have been, from a public safety point of view, beside the point) Most of the Mounties were in more approachable, non-threatening garb. As with the recent removal of “Camp Cloud” on Burnaby Mountain, a safety perimeter was put into place that allowed RCMP to manage the situation to their liking. This included holding back out of view the journalists whose whole purpose for holding vigil in severe winter conditions was to be ready to record the planned arrest imagery.

For protest organizers, the thesis behind the Unist'ot'en action was one nurtured over many years. It was that the legitimate grievances of a small number of indigenous individuals provided the grain of sand that would, once properly seeded, produce a perfect pearl for the media age, drawing followers to a moral crusade drawn in stark black and white as sinister authorities came down hard on authentic indigenous people in full regalia.

For those familiar with the incredibly complex tapestry of law, tradition, and government of the North West the whole thing was, of course, a glaringly transparent sham. This statement must be followed with recognition that the purity of First Nations motives to protect the land cannot be questioned. Indigenous law dictates that the role of land steward be taken with the utmost seriousness. The disputed natural gas pipeline had long been strongly supported by local indigenous leaders from the Wet’suwet’en First Nation whose claim to land stewardship credibility was unimpeachable. 

After the 675-km line got its environmental assessment certificate in October 2014, announcements were soon being made about signed agreements between builder TransCanada and local First Nations regarding benefits related to the project. These included commitments of financial benefits, skills training, employment opportunities, and use of Aboriginal businesses in constructing the project. For years to come, these agreements would grow in number and soon reach 20, at which point the project was able to state that every First Nation along the line was supportive. Consultation? The pipeline company pointed to some 15,000 meetings.

Nevertheless, the distinction between hereditary and elected decision makers, what some might term church and state, was already familiar to many from the Delgamuukw case involving 12 Wet’suwet’en clan houses.

To legal professionals involved in British Columbia disputes of this kind, the hereditary vs elected dynamic is a familiar one. It comes down to the fundamental question of who is the proper rights holder – or, who in band leadership has the authority to speak for members. It bears mentioning that the Unist'ot'en protestors were always there to say no, and not to negotiate, having consistently refused to meet with the proponent for talks. That’s a risky approach for the protestors, who risk the wrath of the court should they enter litigation and are exposed as having failed to make reasonable efforts to engage.

In the case of the Coastal GasLink dispute, it’s clear that legal standards have been met. Governments have passed all the authorizations and done the necessary work. There is a lot of speculation that the pipeline will now become tied up in the courts over indigenous questions. That’s always a possibility, but the truth is that nobody wants to go to costly litigation of this type because the outcome is so uncertain. There is a lot at risk. Right now some hereditary title claims are being made over a very large geographic area. The likelihood is that a lengthy court process would result in the level of title being reduced to a certain, but smaller, area. Gone would be the nebulous uncertainty of the current situation that allows for many concessions to be demanded, and granted.

Armchair lawyers abound on social media, and they most often misunderstand the Delgamuukw and Tsilhqot’in cases. In the Delgamuukw case in 1997, the Supreme Court of Canada clarified issues relating to aboriginal title, but did not outright resolve them. The court said there would have to be another trial to resolve them, but there has not been any such trial yet. In the Tsilhqot’in decision in 2014, the Supreme Court ruled that the Tsilhqot’in Nation had proved its Aboriginal title. It ruled that those lands can be managed according to Tsilhqot’in laws and governance. But the court’s decision applies only to the Tsilhqot’in Nation and its territory. It will take a court, not a social-media campaign by interest groups, to decide if and how it would apply elsewhere.

To say that hereditary chiefs are responsible for the land and that elected councils are responsible for programs and services on the reserve may reflect how a particular community operates but otherwise is an oversimplification.

Provincial government commitments to UNDRIP introduce a big opportunity for project opponents to raise questions about consent and consultation, but this in itself does not invalidate present government authority. UNDRIP also cuts two ways, since it also provides for sovereign states to be protected from activities that undermine a country’s authority.

As it stands, the pipeline, which is needed to serve the LNG Canada plant in Kitimat, is a model of modern infrastructure development. Its 2014 approval mandated that it be constructed, operated and decommissioned in a way that ensures that no significant adverse effects are likely to occur. It must meet 32 conditions including developing a greenhouse gas management plan, mitigating effects on caribou and grizzly bears, and offsetting the effects of the project on existing, protected old growth forest by identifying new areas of old growth forest to be protected.

Contrary to published fearmongering that the pipeline will one day be converted from carrying gas to oil, Coastal GasLink is subject to a 2015 regulation under B.C.’s Oil and Gas Activities Act to ensure pipelines built to support LNG facilities will not be permitted to transport oil or diluted bitumen. The regulation prohibits the British Columbia Oil & Gas Commission from permitting any conversion of a natural gas pipeline supplying an LNG facility. Furthermore, according to project CEO Rick Gateman, the supporting First Nations were given legal undertakings affirming that no such conversion will take place.

It’s a bit of a mystery as to why, years after it was approved, the pipeline suddenly has the appearance of stiff opposition. Many Canadians were astonished that an anti-pipeline campaign was able to spring from literally nowhere one day to having environmentalist icons like David Suzuki, Elizabeth May and Tzeporah Berman addressing a downtown Vancouver crowd the next, at the same time as banner-carrying mobs suddenly showed up in the most unlikely faraway places.

This powerful manifestation of organizational prowess is no mystery to those who have been aware of the groups that have provided resources and strategy over many years for the Unist'ot'en blockade.

The grievances of some claiming to represent hereditary interests are only part of the story behind the Unist'ot'en camp. Chokepoint actions, where for a relatively few dollars foreign groups can effectively place their boot on the throat of the Canadian economy and responsible resource development, are effective investments for the wealthy American foundations that are funding these actions.

The Office of the Wet’suwet’en, which coordinates affairs for the hereditary clan system, in recent years has been heavily funded by a number of American foundations bent on restricting economic development in Canada. (It has also received hundreds of thousands of dollars from Coastal GasLink.) In 2015 and 2017, for example, the Swift Foundation donated $110,000 to the office for what were termed land stewardship activities, but sounded a lot like the sort of organizing that could lead to a land blockade. Swift, a creation of the family that founded United Parcel Service, wasn't done delivering. The Wet’suwet’en hereditary leaders also received over $300,000 from the Santa Barbara-based foundation directly and indirectly through Tides USA, which operates a Canadian branch office called Tides Canada, which boasts offices in Vancouver, Toronto and Yellowknife. Tides USA gave a further $60,000 in 2014 to “address resource extraction projects” (whatever that means), while Tides Canada has been donating directly to the Wet’suwet’en since at least 2010. And between 2014 and 2017, Tides Canada contributed $220,000 including $40,000 earmarked for “land-based cultural camps”.

A network of other groups that oppose pipelines and resource development by amplifying Wet’suwet’en opposition includes the SkeenaWild Conservation Trust, Situ Institute/Yinka Dene Alliance, the Driftwood Foundation and the Skeena Watershed Conservation Coalition. Finally, international funding support for the Unist'ot'en action comes from a range of other groups such as Keepers of the Earth, based in Cambridge, Mass.

The stated intent behind the anti-development funding sources may at first strike some members of the public as altruistic and beneficial. What better use of charitable funds than helping to protect the environment? A thinking person might ask: If there is a deficiency of resources for First Nations to pursue their cultural and environmental aims, what’s wrong with them receiving support from those willing to fill the gap? Criticism of such apparently virtuous intent is bound to come across as churlish. So it’s worth pointing out that these generous American groups are not splashing their cash liberally elsewhere in Canada in places where First Nations are also facing development pressures. Perry Bellegarde, National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations sums up the Canadian picture this way: “In 2015, Canada ranked ninth in the world for quality of life, according to the United Nations Human Development Index. If you apply those same principles to Canada’s Indigenous community, that ranking drops to 63rd.”

The National Aboriginal Economic Development Board found that if Indigenous peoples had the same education and training as non-Indigenous peoples, the resulting increase in productivity would mean an additional $8.5 billion in income earned annually by the Indigenous population. If Indigenous peoples were given the same access to economic opportunities available to other Canadians, the resulting increase in employment would result in an additional $6.9 billion per year in employment income and approximately 135,000 newly employed Indigenous people. If the poverty rates among Indigenous peoples were reduced, the fiscal costs associated with supporting people living in poverty would decline by an estimated $8.4 billion annually. And there would be an increase in GDP of $27.7 billion annually or a boost of about 1.5 per cent to Canada’s economy.

Poverty, unemployment, social issues, suicides, poor-quality housing and numerous other problems are some of the issues first Nations people face. Most wish to have more opportunities. Many of them see LNG and natural gas as long-term sources of employment and education and revenue that will help change their lives for the better. 

The American funders are oblivious to the social problems that plague Canadian First Nations, and which are largely why so many First Nations have authentically, and legally, entered into agreements with Coastal GasLink. Those funders appear unwilling to ask why these governments have seen fit to enter into agreements. 

Increasingly for First Nations, development equals economic sovereignty. It follows that opposing development means opposing sovereignty. In the past week, the sheer nastiness of the growing conflict became readily apparent as local First Nations leaders were targeted with vitriolic treatment in social media and otherwise, so much so that some deleted their Facebook accounts.

LNG and natural gas development can offer jobs. Not just short-term jobs in construction or in work-camps or in workplace security; but careers, real careers: In the trades, for example, LNG can lead to skills and certification that can mean work for the rest of the tradesperson’s life. Or skills and certification in project management, in human-resource management, in technology, in environmental expertise, and other fields. The good news is that some First Nations people are already in training related to LNG and pipeline development. Again and again during my 2018 travels through the territories that lie between Prince George and Terrace in the making of the Homeland Journey series launching soon, I encountered variations on this theme.

LNG and natural-gas development offer First Nations business opportunities, such as the chance to start or expand their locally owned businesses leading to employment and training. Revenues from LNG and gas development can also support social programs in each Nation, for example: education, housing, cultural programs, life-skills, and health programs, and they also flow to governments at all levels, enabling them to support education, healthcare, and a host of national, provincial, and local programs.

So everybody benefits, not just First Nations people.

To oppose all of those benefits, the Wet’suwet’en hereditary focus was in every sense a strategic one that must necessarily offer protest backers a satisfactory return on the considerable investments detailed above.

How much longer civil society groups can take advantage of every perceived or magnified slight of indigenous interests to push their agendas? Canadians may be growing weary. Seven-in-ten (69%) of Canadians say the country will face considerable impact if no new pipeline capacity is built, according to an Angus Reid Institute survey released on Jan. 16. The argument that the inability to build new pipelines is a serious problem, even a crisis, is one that resonates most Canadians, according to the polling group.

In British Columbia, after years of back to back or often simultaneous actions by the finely honed anti-everything industry, fatigue is setting in. A majority of BC residents (57%) in the new survey disagreed that local opposition should carry most of the weight in these debates.  

Meanwhile a growing number of First Nations in Canada are voicing their resentment at the incursion of foreign dollars aimed at creating divisions. Yesterday (Jan. 16) I sat in a room with hundreds of First Nations and Métis leaders at Tsuut'ina Nation outside of Calgary. Gathered for the Indigenous Energy Summit, they were positively enthusiastic about bringing home to their communities the benefits of responsible energy development. Their frustration about BC's notorious pipeline gridlock hung thick in the air.

Foreign groups deserve to be accountable for the malign effects of their actions. It seems quite possible that, because of the fresh evidence of their interference, those who have been calling for stiffer legislation against outsider influence in Canadian politics and society will be able to make a stronger case.

What is the true aim of all this protesting? To the knowledge-empowered eye, it appears that the specific strategic objective right now is to nurture propitious public conditions for a new round of litigation, but not ligitation on indigenous issues as you might expect.

The legal flashpoint at present actually stems from the question of whether the Coastal GasLink pipeline has been properly permitted. The blockade theatrics are there for building social and mass media attention, but it would be naive to mistake them for the goal. What really matters is a rather dull procedural matter with, at present, scant outrage value. Opponents with legal expertise are hoping to overturn the provincial process that approved the project in a timely 21 months, and replace it with a federal process that on average takes 70 months for a pipeline to be approved.

In other words: Delay, delay, delay. And we all know how that can end.

One might ask: what's to worry about, this gas pipeline has had its main permit since 2014?

These days, the fact that a project has successfully secured its permits no longer affords the kind of security that it used to, with the Trans Mountain Pipeline Expansion being only the most recent example. Imagine that the effort to throw a major new roadblock in front of Coastal GasLink succeeds, resulting in a whole new process that could take years to complete. If that happens, the Canadian initiative to deliver a cleaner fuel alternative to a world desperately in need of climate solutions, strongly supported by all levels of government, will be thwarted. The window will close on the current phase of LNG development globally, with Canada excluded. The First Nations counting on revenues and jobs from their pipeline agreements will be left to wonder what, if any, economic opportunities will be available to them in future.

What a tragedy that would be.

The teachable moment of last week’s protests is that foreign environmentalists have been incredibly successful in driving a deep wedge between elected and hereditary chief systems, pressuring politicians to respond by taking positions whose full implications those elected leaders may not immediately understand.

The attack on Coastal GasLink, in particular, is particularly damning evidence of the corrosive intent of the eco-campaigner’s strategy. The firmness of police response to the Coastal GasLink blockage is a positive sign of determination to uphold the rule of law, and similar firmness needs to be shown going forward. 

Those among the Canadian public who naively thought that pipeline protestors were concerned about crude oil or bitumen are now scratching their heads, beholding as they do a zero-sum war against a natural gas project that is contributing to lowered global emissions.

Canadian resource investment, and First Nations aspirations, will continue to be frustrated for as long as outside interests believe they can treat our elected leaders and the Canadian public as puppets and props. Will we accept rule by flash mob? That’s a question for every Canadian regardless of their background. 

Meanwhile, we need to get past the conflict and concentrate on rebuilding the ability to provide for First Nations, and for all Canadians. 

Stewart Muir is the executive director of the Resource Works Society

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