By Kyle Farquharson
This year, nearly 200 people — including federal parliamentarians Elizabeth May and Kennedy Stewart — have been arrested on Burnaby Mountain for civil disobedience actions against the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain pipeline expansion. Never having been arrested before, not even for a traffic infraction, I didn’t take my decision to join them lightly. On March 22 — World Water Day — I sat at the gate of Kinder Morgan’s Burnaby Mountain tank farm facility and got arrested.
My motivations were both moral and practical. I know we need to address climate change and the degradation of our ecosystem to ensure our descendants and the most vulnerable members of the human family a viable future. I’ve concluded — reasonably, I think — that politicians and governments can’t be relied upon to deliver serious solutions absent public pressure to force their hand, including protest, public engagement, and, when appropriate, civil disobedience.
I blocked a gate at Kinder Morgan’s facility with the intention not of breaching a court order per se, but of causing delay and hindering the company’s efforts. A blockade has the advantages of being non-violent and effective at frustrating construction of fossil fuel infrastructure. Judging from its own admissions to investors and from its demand for strict police enforcement of an injunction it sought in order to deter such blockades, Kinder Morgan recognizes the effectiveness of the tactic too. At least we agree on something.
As a law-abiding citizen, both highly privileged and schooled in the importance of discipline, responsibility, and respect for institutions, I feel a strong temptation to outsource my conscience to the relevant authorities. That would certainly be more convenient for me. Yet I can’t avoid reckoning with an inconvenient truth: human history is full of abominations that were either legal or whose perpetrators have enjoyed impunity, some of which continue to the present day. On the other hand, we rightly celebrate cultural iconoclasts of the past who publicly defied unjust laws, at great personal risk. Lest we forget the hostility such individuals evoked at first from the powers that be.
The charge I now face — criminal contempt of court — caught me and many of my comrades by surprise. On the day of my arrest, I had signed police documents agreeing to appear on a slightly less onerous charge of civil contempt. Several of my fellow defendants, including Stewart, have already pleaded guilty to criminal contempt. I’m not yet in a position to discuss my own legal strategy.
In Canada’s legacy media, the conflict surrounding the Kinder Morgan pipeline expansion is often framed as a jurisdictional dust-up, with the provincial government of British Columbia on one side, and the governments of Alberta and Canada on the other. But the reality is quite different, and much more interesting.
Leading up to last year’s provincial election, B.C.’s New Democrats and Greens campaigned on opposition to the planned pipeline expansion. That promise resonated with a plurality of British Columbians, particularly in and around Metro Vancouver — both the province’s major population centre and a region imperiled by the risk of either a diluted bitumen spill or mishap at Kinder Morgan’s petroleum tank farm.
The electoral contest became a focus of organizing efforts against the project. Friends and allies of mine dedicated countless hours to canvassing and making phone calls, trying to mobilize any undecided voters they could to adopt an ABC electoral strategy — that is, Anyone But (Christy) Clark, whose incumbent Liberal government had already approved Kinder Morgan. Given how close the election was, this campaign within a campaign likely played a role in the eventual outcome.
Recent pronouncements by B.C. Environment Minister George Heyman suggest that his government may be trying to wriggle out of the NDP’s campaign commitment. Nonetheless, three elected Greens hold the balance of power in the provincial legislature. NDP Premier John Horgan‘s hold on power depends on the support of a party that has been outspoken and consistent on this issue.
To characterize the B.C. government’s behaviour as the institutionalization of “environmental extremism” or disregard for the “rule of law” is a grave misrepresentation. By calling for things like more scientific study of the effects of diluted bitumen spilled in a marine environment, and requesting a court opinion on the extent of its authority to regulate the flow of this product through a pipeline, Horgan’s administration is proceeding in line with the law and Canada’s constitution. Its stance thus far is mainstream, moderate, and roughly consistent with the will of B.C.’s electorate as expressed in the most recent election.
But you wouldn’t know that if your sole source of information were the strident, incautious outbursts of its pro-pipeline detractors.
Journalist and social critic Chris Hedges observed in 2015 that we are all Greeks now. Confronted with an extraordinary, concerted campaign of economic sabotage, the leftist governing coalition Syriza caved in to the demands of international financiers, and Greeks who had voted resoundingly to reject austerity were subjected to it anyway.
I have the impression that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Alberta Premier Rachel Notley, and corporate news organizations hand-wringing over the B.C. government’s “obstructionism” would be more than content to see B.C. voters endure a similar repudiation of our democratic sovereignty. They appear dedicated to the idea that the interests of the investor class deserve precedence in the deliberations of all levels of government, democracies and tyrannies alike.
Their attitude calls to mind an irreverent observation by the anarchist Emma Goldman: “If voting changed anything, they’d make it illegal.”
We hear frequent mention in press and political circles about Canada’s “national interest”, with which our prime minister and his cabinet assure us the Kinder Morgan pipeline aligns. Yet this formulation seems a questionable basis for policy — not only dubious, but insular, nationalistic, narrow, and intensely short-sighted as well. Kinder Morgan is a transnational corporation representing the transnational ambitions of a transnational, moneyed elite. The ill effects of the intended pipeline — including spill risk to Americans in western Washington State, and intensified climate change — would cross borders too.
In the words of renowned climatologist Dr. James Hansen, continued expansion of Canada’s tar sands enterprise would mean “game over” for the climate. Kinder Morgan’s pipeline would facilitate additional tar sands extraction and related CO2-emissions equivalent to 3 million gas-powered cars a year. This comes at a moment when we are already dangerously near a point where the rise in global average temperature could become irreversible.
All of this begs the question of whether it’s possible for an enterprise to serve Canada’s “national interest” while undermining the best interests of all humanity. If so, what does that say about Canada as a country?
Within the ranks of our critics are those determined to muddy the moral waters, labeling us hypocrites, extremists, or, more absurdly, “eco-terrorists”, and attributing our discontent to financing from foreign sources.
Yet there is only one atmosphere and climate system on earth, which means the entire global population has a material stake in Canada’s fossil fuel industry. Unsurprisingly, and by necessity, large organizations agitating for climate action tend to have an internationalist outlook, a global presence, and supporters and benefactors around the world. There is nothing unethical or illegitimate about that.
That said, make no mistake: the climate justice movement in B.C. and throughout Canada depends on the commitment of countless volunteers. I’m part of Climate Convergence Metro Vancouver, a grassroots coalition that includes many unpaid activists, including myself. Promoters of the “foreign funding” narrative strike me as desperate to poison the well, and impeach the integrity of people they know are motivated by moral conviction.
Of course, no opponents of this pipeline are fiercer in their determination and dedication than the First Nations peoples who are defying it in the courts, at the polls, and on the land.
Much of the second Kinder Morgan line would be built on land that First Nations have never ceded to the Crown. Plans for the original Trans Mountain line were approved in an era when the Indian Act afforded most First Nations people no right to vote and no right to retain counsel to defend their territorial rights. At a moment of great fanfare over reconciliation, Kinder Morgan’s beleaguered project embodies the legacy and continuity of Canadian settler colonialism.
Mike De Souza of the National Observer has uncovered evidence that the pipeline’s approval process was “rigged.” Among other things, this may amount to a violation of the federal government’s duty to consult meaningfully with Indigenous peoples on initiatives affecting their interests.
In fact, the conflict over Kinder Morgan could not be morally clearer. There is arguably no country in the world better positioned than Canada to effect a transition from fossil fuel dependency to emissions-free, renewable energy infrastructure. That means Canada has a moral responsibility. It’s long past time for our country to stop being complicit in climate change, as it drives droughts, floods, famines, super-storms, wildfires, armed conflicts, and refugee crises from which countless innocent people suffer and die.
There is also no credible business case for the Trans Mountain expansion. The economic rationale of an unjust discount from our inability to ship oil to Asia relies on unsound evidence. Mexican Maya crude, a comparable grade to western Canada’s diluted bitumen, has actually sold for an even lower price in Asia than in the U.S. Gulf Coast region.
The chief cause of the apparent discount is that diluted bitumen is costlier to refine and thus a less desirable product than lighter, purer grades of crude. Western Canadian producers can already ship product across the Pacific via the existing Kinder Morgan pipeline, yet they rarely do — presumably because demand for Canadian diluted bitumen in Asia is underwhelming.
What this pipeline is likelier to deliver is expansion of the tar sands, an increase in the total volume of Canadian diluted bitumen on world markets, and, at best, ephemeral benefits for a few at the expense of the many. But to end the fossil fuel industry’s vicious cycle, we’ll need to leave possibly lucrative deposits in the ground. Canada needs to accept this reality sooner rather than later.
The conflict over Kinder Morgan is so much more than a petty row among the governments in Ottawa, Edmonton, and Victoria. It’s a clash between corrosive greed and the voices of reason, between cynicism and idealism, between might and right. It’s also a litmus test of whether ordinary Canadians can successfully and non-violently defy the dictates of corporate power.
Trudeau and Notley have offered firm assurances that the pipeline will proceed, backed by billions of taxpayer dollars. And by endorsing Kinder Morgan’s narrative that the B.C. government is to blame for supposed delays in Trans Mountain’s construction, Trudeau has foolishly exposed Canada to potential liability under a NAFTA Chapter 11 tribunal.
The federal government has hinted at deploying the armed forces to shunt aside non-violent defenders of the land and force this pipeline through, on behalf of Kinder Morgan, with or without the consent of communities in its path. I’d suggest these fulminations ill befit a prime minister who not only proclaims himself a climate leader, but a feminist too.
Though I recognize the formidability of the forces arrayed against us, the faith that reason, justice, and humanitarianism will prevail sustains me. I also believe history will be no kinder to those who would condemn us as scofflaws or worse, than to the apartheid sympathizers who denounced Nelson Mandela and his allies as “terrorists”.
On World Water Day, I sat shivering on the rain-soaked pavement in front of a Kinder Morgan facility and waited over an hour for the Burnaby RCMP to arrest me. The ensuing legal process has been an emotional roller coaster and I still don’t know what the future holds – for my case or the pipeline.
The one thing I do know is I made the right choice.
Kyle Farquharson is a writer, social critic, and activist based in Vancouver, Canada. He studied Humanities at the University of Victoria and completed a graduate degree in Journalism at the University of British Columbia. He is involved in the climate justice, feminist, and anti-war movements, and is a volunteer organizer with Climate Convergence Metro Vancouver.