The story of Chanukah is a narrative of the victory of a small group of righteous fighters against a powerful empire. It is a redemptive story of standing for one’s beliefs (and existence) and triumphing in the end.
The end of 2016 is a time when redemptive stories are even more welcome and the decision by the U.S. government last weekend to accede to the defiance of protesters in North Dakota is just such a story. Plans to run an oil pipeline through a cemetery and under a water reservoir near the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation were kiboshed. This doesn’t mean an alternative route won’t see the project completed, but it does alleviate the immediate fears the people had of the potential destruction of their water supply and further desecration of sacred sites, some of which have already been bulldozed.
The example of the Standing Rock Sioux and their allies from all over the country who stood up to the oil company is already being held up as a model for British Columbians, many of whom spent the weekend fuming over an announcement by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. The prime minister declared that cabinet had approved the Kinder Morgan Trans-Mountain pipeline – which would see the number of tankers transporting bitumen from Burnaby, through Burrard Inlet, to Asia, increase to 34 per month from five – as well as another pipeline to the United States, while rejecting the Northern Gateway pipeline, which would have sent diluted bitumen to Asia via northern British Columbia. The incongruity of the decision – that the government recognizes the pristine fragility of the northern coast, but not that of the southern coast – is among the causes of outrage. Other concerns involve larger global issues of fossil fuels and the range of options that could, if we are going to use this non-renewable resource, at least reduce the negative environmental impacts.
Ahavat ha’beriot, love for (God’s) creation, is at the heart of Jewish identity. There is also the commandment to not stand by the blood of your neighbor; that is, do not behave passively in the face of violence toward others. While there was violence at Standing Rock, the greater threat was to the livelihood of the community there, based on the necessity of potable water. Likewise, the potential for ecological disaster as a result of the increased tanker traffic along Vancouver’s coast could destroy much creation, while the commitment to non-renewable fuels exemplified by the pipeline infrastructure will have global consequences.
Protecting creation is at the heart of First Nations identity as well, as was so articulately expressed at Standing Rock and which has also been demonstrated by reaction to Western Canadian pipelines, much of the opposition to which is led by indigenous people. Among the most heartening aspects of the Standing Rock story was the solidarity between indigenous and non-indigenous peoples.
Even if we disagree on this issue – we who drive cars or otherwise exploit non-renewable resources should demonstrate commitment to reducing emissions with our actions as well as our words – the lesson of Standing Rock goes beyond this single topic.
The United States and much of the world is experiencing a political upheaval. Particular challenges will emerge from the stunning U.S. election result, which handed the White House and both chambers of Congress to a party that rejects much of what has been termed “progressive” – environmental regulations, equality for women and minorities, protections for workers and a long list of other advances that cannot now (if they ever could) be taken for granted.
In the face of a Washington that is uniformly Republican, there may be a renewed need for public demonstrations that advance alternative viewpoints. People stood up at the coincidentally but aptly named Standing Rock. People may have to do the same in many places, including Burrard Inlet, during the coming years.
We need not be modern Maccabees to take such a stand. It is highly unlikely that any of us will see our lives threatened for opposing a pipeline, or acting within the law to advance or oppose some other viewpoint. Conversely, if action is not taken, if voices do not coalesce to demand alternatives to our world’s rapacious appetite for fossil fuels, all of creation may well be threatened.
On Dec. 16, 2013, Kinder Morgan Energy Partners filed an application with Canada’s National Energy Board for permission to proceed with its proposed expansion of the Trans Mountain pipeline system between Edmonton and Burnaby. “If approvals are received, the expansion is expected to be operational in late 2017,” says the company’s website. It also notes, “The proposed $5.4 billion project will increase capacity on Trans Mountain from approximately 300,000 bpd [barrels per day] to 890,000 bpd.”
One of the leaders of the fight against this project is Sundance Chief Rueben George of Tsleil-Waututh Nation (TWN), who will be addressing this year’s Outlook fundraising dinner later this month. “I guess how I got involved, in a way, is embedded in me, with my cultural and spiritual teachings,” he told the Independent in a phone interview.
These teachings, he explained, include the protection of “the things that are sacred to us, and that’s our children, our families and also our land and our waters. You look at any religious or spiritual belief and you can see that water is used in most ceremonies and, in a sense, fire, too, because you have candles or incense, and we use sage or sweetgrass. We use the elements of … fire, earth, water and sky. We learn through the ceremonies that there is a sacredness to it, just like there is a sacredness to our children, so it was a natural transition for me to go from director of community development for Tsleil-Waututh Nation, overseeing all the social programs, employment and training, and education programs” to being, among other responsibilities, program manager of TWN’s Sacred Trust. The trust “is mandated to oppose and stop the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain pipeline project,” explains its website.
“When we started,” said George of the fight against the pipeline expansion, “there was Rex Wheeler and Ben West and a [handful] of others. Rex Wheeler is one of the fathers of Greenpeace, and Ben West is one of the managers at ForestEthics. They couldn’t believe it when they saw a tanker going through our [TWN] territory, the Burrard Inlet, almost four years ago … and so they found us…. But we’ve been fighting the battle against things like this for years, and being traditional stewards of our lands. We did elk re-introduction programs, we’re doing salmon enhancement programs and, when we do things like that, those things benefit everybody. So, we’ve been doing this work and, with our treaty lands and resource payments, the Tsleil-Waututh Nation [has been doing it] for years as well, and my grandfather Chief Dan George did similar work.”
In addition to the pipeline, said George, “We’re also keeping a close eye on the whole that’s being distributed from Vancouver. There’s uranium going out of Vancouver, there’s a whole bunch of toxic and very dangerous things that are going through our waters and we’re watching those very carefully, as well.”
When the struggle against Kinder Morgan’s proposed expansion began, said George, the concern was mainly about Enbridge Inc. (Enbridge’s at-least $6.5 billion Northern Gateway project to build a new twin pipeline system running from near Edmonton to Kitimat was approved by the NEB last December, with 200-plus conditions.) Public awareness of Kinder Morgan was limited when TWN became involved, said George, but that has since changed.
Last fall, TWN received the gift of a totem pole from Lummi Nation in Washington state. “They wanted to work together with my nation because they see what we are doing against Kinder Morgan, and [it’s similar to] what they’re doing against the coal in Cherry Point,” explained George. “But they did a journey from Montana to Vancouver with that totem pole and in every nation they stopped at, there were prayers and there was a gathering, and through that process, they had 7.5 million people witness part of that journey … through internet or TV or newspapers. And then, when we went to Rio de Janeiro, the United Nations Earth Summit, there were a couple of pictures that were taken … [with] indigenous people around the Amazon, and there is 1.2 million views on that. So, from nobody having awareness to this, to bringing it to the international stage and showing the world that not only are the tankers not a good idea, the pipelines are not a good idea, [and] the Alberta Tar Sands are an atrocious idea, just like the rest of it.”
For economic prosperity, said George, “we don’t need this destruction that’s happening to our earth and our atmosphere and our waters. We need the world to know that we have green-energy alternatives. Tsleil-Waututh Nation, we own and we manufacture and we sell wind turbines.” He called it “ridiculous” that the Canadian government has given some $1.4 billion in subsidies to fossil fuel companies who are “not working for change.”
He held up TWN as one of the First Nations from which people could learn “what a government should be like.” He said that, when its wind turbines and other investments have success, “it’s not going to be an individual that’s taking off and becoming a billionaire” looking out for their own best interests.
“Instead of taking millions of dollars and negotiating with Kinder Morgan, we said no…. Like the 160 nations that signed the Fraser declaration [to ‘not allow the proposed Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipelines, or similar Tar Sands projects, to cross our lands, territories and watersheds, or the ocean migration routes of Fraser River salmon’], they said no, too….”
“We have a collective of a nation that did a referendum,” he said. “Instead of taking millions of dollars and negotiating with Kinder Morgan, we said no…. Like the 160 nations that signed the Fraser declaration [to ‘not allow the proposed Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipelines, or similar Tar Sands projects, to cross our lands, territories and watersheds, or the ocean migration routes of Fraser River salmon’], they said no, too…. When we do have success with our economic development – we’re not a perfect system but we’re working towards it – but when we do have success, that money supplement[s] … every program of the Tsleil-Waututh Nation.”
He gave the examples of environmental programs, such as those dealing with elk and salmon, as well as “social development, we help people to get off social assistance; and we help with the healing of our communities from the genocide that has happened [as a result of] the residential school experience; we have education; we have employment and training. All these programs are supplemented by our drive towards self-sufficiency. So, that, to me, is a government.
“And, when we make decisions for the better of our future generations, we sacrifice,” he admitted. “It would be easy for a lot of people to negotiate and say, yeah, I’ll take 10, 20 million dollars and let this pipeline go through, and maybe we’ll take some of the things that they’re offering and help our people out of poverty … but this is the sacrifice that we make. This is the sacrifice we have to do to create change. This is the sacrifice we have to do to have positive success that will go along the lines of what our culture and our spirituality teach us, and that’s not to cause destruction to what we [consider] sacred.”
George stressed the need to work with business partners who have the same values. He said that “this Canadian government, this Harper government, they don’t have the values that they’ll put forth to protect the sacred, their own children. Because they can’t make those decisions for themselves, we will – we will make those choices for them.”
George isn’t afraid of the David-versus-Goliath element of the struggle. He explained that indigenous people, who once “populated the Burrard Inlet with 15,000 people – we went down to 13 people, we were almost extinct. But those 13 people fought and they strived, and they maintained, and they stood up for the land, they stood up for the people, they stood up for those cultural indigenous rights. And I’m talking about those teachings of humanity, of love and respect, and honor and dignity and pride. If we treat well those things that we care for, like the land and the water and individuals, we’ll be making the right decisions.”
“My grandfather once said, if you’re going to be a pipe carrier or a longhouse West Coast ceremonial person, or you’re going to be Catholic or Jewish or Muslim … it doesn’t matter what you are, as long as you’re good at it. When you’re good at it – he meant, by following those teachings, what they represent and how you’re to live your life – there’s no boundaries between us and we can have a good relationship with one another.”
And his interfaith work has shown him that, when people recognize and live by “those fundamentals of humanity … there’s no differences between us. When we’re born, we’re born with no prejudice, no anger, no hate, no judgment…. It’s this society that we live in that warps us in the way we’re thinking…. My grandfather once said, if you’re going to be a pipe carrier or a longhouse West Coast ceremonial person, or you’re going to be Catholic or Jewish or Muslim … it doesn’t matter what you are, as long as you’re good at it. When you’re good at it – he meant, by following those teachings, what they represent and how you’re to live your life – there’s no boundaries between us and we can have a good relationship with one another.”
Emphasizing that pipelines and other such projects are not a First Nations or environmentalist problem, but rather everybody’s problem, George encouraged people to get involved. About his upcoming talk in the Jewish community, he said he hopes that “our collective religions and spiritual beliefs when we come together like this, where I come to be with your beautiful people, that we can spread the messages out, the teachings of humanity, and we can connect to those ones who don’t understand and bring some understanding of the true facts of what’s happening, and we can join together and make a movement that can create a better future for all of our future generations.”
The Annual Vancouver Outlook Fundraising Supper ($40/person) featuring Chief Rueben George will take place at the Peretz Centre on March 23, 6 p.m. An RSVP is requested to 604-324-5101.