||| by Kristen Phoeniks
On Monday night, despite the cold and rain, over a hundred people showed up to the Davenport-Perth Neighbourhood Community Centre in Toronto’s West End. The event was advertised as an opportunity to learn about the Line 9 tar sands pipeline, as well as Nishnaabeg (“Ojibway”) land defender Ron Plain’s legal battle with CN Rail in connection with Idle No More actions.
Judging by the large turnout of West End residents despite the dreary weather, both issues are of great concern to this community. The event began with a 13-minute video by Rachel Deutsch, titled “Line 9: The Tar Sands Come to Ontario”. This video (available at http://vimeo.com/56842880) looks at this pipeline that has garnered a great deal of attention over the last year across Ontario and Quebec. The panel of speakers for the evening included Keith Stewart, Greenpeace’s Climate and Energy Campaign Coordinator, and a father living in Toronto’s West End. Following him was Ron Plain, a tireless activist and land defender from Aamjiwnaang First Nation, located near Sarnia in the heart of Ontario’s ‘Chemical Valley.’
The Line 9 pipeline—which runs from Sarnia, Ontario to Montreal, Quebec, passing through 115 communities along the way—is owned by Enbridge Inc., a company well-known for its controversial Northern Gateway pipeline proposal in northern British Columbia. Line 9 was built in 1975 and has been carrying imported conventional oil from Montreal to refineries in Sarnia. Now, Enbridge is proposing to reverse the flow to carry oil eastward, and increase the capacity from 240,000 barrels per day to 300,000. In addition, Enbridge would like to use the pipeline to carry heavy crude oil, including diluted bitumen (“dilbit”) from Alberta’s Tar Sands.
This proposal has provoked a groundswell of concern among many of the 9.1 million people who live within 50 kilometers of the pipeline. Opponents argue that moving tar sands oil—which is much more corrosive than conventional crude, and much harder to clean when spilled—through a 40-year-old pipeline poses a risk to human and environmental health that cannot be permitted. As well, Indigenous communities have not been meaningfully consulted by Enbridge or the Canadian government, despite the fact that the pipeline passes through 18 First Nations, and Canada’s own laws require consultation for activities which affect Indigenous peoples and their lands. Indigenous people, including those from Aamjiwnaang First Nation, Six Nations, and the Oneida Nation of the Thames, have indicated grave concerns with the potential impacts of a Tar Sands pipeline passing through their lands, and are calling on allies to stand with them in opposition to Line 9.
Plain began his talk by telling the audience about dream-catchers. The myth that is told to sell dream-catchers, said Plain, is that they are meant to catch bad dreams. The reality is that traditionally the dream-catcher—which is made to look like a spider’s web—would be hung above a baby’s head to keep the bugs away, with beads and feathers to entertain the child. “The story that’s told is never the story that is,” Plain said. Plain then referenced Attawapiskat, a northern Indigenous community that made headlines last year because of a long-term housing crisis that had community members living in unheated tents and shacks through the winter. The media and government representatives quickly blamed the crisis on First Nations’ wasteful use of taxpayer money, despite the fact that money for First Nations services comes from the communities’ own money, held in trust by the government. “The story that’s told, is never the story that is.”
In continuance of the Canadian government’s racist treatment of Indigenous communities, recent legislation—including the Omnibus Bills C-38 and C-45—has been geared towards dismantling environmental protection, changes in funding arrangements for First Nations, even as they shut out Indigenous people from participation in decision-making over activities taking place on their lands.
Aamjiwnaang, Plain’s home community, has already been hard-hit by industrial ‘development’ in and around their community. “I live in the most polluted place on Earth, according to National Geographic,” Ron Plain stated. The land, air and water has been polluted by petrochemical refineries to such a great extent that Aamjiwnaang suffers from soaring levels of cancer, respiratory illnesses, miscarriages, and a sex ratio of two girls born for every boy in his community.
Plain, who has been working to address this blatant environmental racism for decades, told the audience about the charges that have been laid against him in relation to a December blockade of CN rail lines. Plain was a spokesperson for the Idle No More blockade at the request of Aamjiwnaang youth. The Aamjiwnaang community was fed up with the federal government’s dismissal of Indigenous concerns over the impacts of the petrochemical industry on the health of their community, and took peaceful direct action to block CN trains from passing through their community. (more information on the blockade, and the details of Plain’s charges, can be found here: http://rabble.ca/blogs/bloggers/ethan-cox/2013/03/scapegoat-movement-ron-plain-struggles-fight-charges-idle-no-more-a)
Though the blockade eventually came down, and though many people were involved in the struggle to bring attention to the fact that the CN rail line illegally crosses through Aamjiwnaang’s territory, Ron Plain is the only person facing charges in relation to the blockade. He has been charged with contempt of court, and is facing two hundred thousand dollars in legal fees. Shockingly, Plain explained that because he has been charged with civil contempt (as opposed to criminal contempt), he also faces potentially indefinite jail time if he is convicted.
Plain’s personal case is linked to an ongoing attempt by the Canadian government to silence activists—especially Indigenous activists—fighting to protect their lands from resource extraction and ‘development.’ He warns listeners that these threats are an attempt to set an example to other activists about the risks of resistance to the colonial government and billion-dollar corporations. “If they can do this to Ron,” he says, “they can do it to you.”
If CN Rail can convict Ron Plain for blocking their transport routes, who’s to say that Enbridge won’t try to do the same against activists opposing Line 9? The massive costs associated with this legal battle indicates that “they’re making justice unaffordable,” and Plain and his supporters have been fundraising intensively in an attempt to win this battle. “I’m Turtle Clan,” Plain said. “When turtles are flipped on their backs, they will die there before asking for help. But I’m here because I need your help. I have to have money raised.” His plea has gained several thousand dollars thus far, but the struggle is far from over. (To donate to Ron Plain’s legal defense fund, go here: http://www.indiegogo.com/projects/legal-defense-fund-to-support-ron-plain?c=home)
Regarding Line 9, the film and each of the speakers explained the many layers of the issue to the eager audience. For one, Line 9 is an aging pipeline, which was not built to carry Tar Sands oil, and this poses a serious threat to the ecosystems, rivers and human communities that it passes through. Keith Stewart reminded listeners of Enbridge’s terrible record on pipeline safety, including the company’s spill of nearly 3 million litres of Tar Sands dilbit into the Kalamazoo River in Michigan in 2010, which has cost over $800 million and is still not complete, three years later.
Additionally, pipelines are the arteries that will facilitate expansion of the Tar Sands gigaproject and its associated ecological devastation, which is poisoning downstream Indigenous communities, including Fort Chipewyan. Stewart pointed out that, even in an imaginary world in which Line 9 could be proven to be completely safe (though the hundreds of pipeline spills that Enbridge alone has been responsible for in the past 10 years make this a stretch of the imagination), the project would still be unacceptable because of the fact that the Tar Sands is destroying a landmass the size of the United Kingdom, pushing the planet closer and closer to catastrophic climate change, and violating the Treaty rights of First Nations in Alberta.
Ron Plain brought this point home by describing his visit to For McKay, a First Nation community in Northern Alberta that is downstream from the Tar Sands. He described entering the community hall and seeing dozens of framed portraits lining the walls. These portraits, he was told, were put up in memory of the people who had died in the tiny community—indicating a mortality rate much higher than one would expect anywhere else, thanks to the rampant rates of cancer that are linked to the air and water pollution caused by the Tar Sands. “I was so choked up I couldn’t speak,” said Plain. He asked the crowd to consider that even if there are no Tar Sands oil spills in southern Ontario, how many people will have been killed in Alberta to bring that oil out of the ground? The dangers to Ontario communities, including his own home of Aamjiwnaang First Nation, are real. But Plain insisted, “don’t be selfish”—this is much more than a ‘Not In My Backyard’ issue.
Stewart and Plain both explained the Line 9 pipeline as part of a larger move towards expansion of the Tar Sands, as well as part of a growing resistance to the Tar Sands and pipelines across North America. Stewart reminded the audience that mass resistance has been stopping both the Keystone XL pipeline to Texas, and the Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline through British Columbia. “It’s people power against big money. We’re holding them to a draw, and we will win.” As a result, the oil industry and the Canadian government are desperate to get Tar Sands oil to an ocean to export it, and that is why Line 9 has become such a hot issue.
Keith Stewart encouraged audience members to stand against Line 9 by joining the fight to change environmental and social policy of the Canadian government, to end the use of fossil fuels and switch to a green energy economy. “The only way corporations will do the right thing is if they are forced to do so,” said Stewart. In part, he argued, this requires building a movement which challenges mayors, MPs and MPPs that supporting Line 9 will cost them their jobs as ‘representatives,’ as well as working to change environmental policy in Canada so that corporations can no longer use the environment as a dumping ground.
To help build the mass awareness and mobilization required to stop the pipeline, Environmental Defense campaigner Sabrina Bowman encouraged everyone to open up the Line 9 conversation with friends, neighbours, and complete strangers. Her organization will be doing door-to-door canvassing in Toronto on April 20th in Toronto, and folks were encouraged to contact the organization if they’d like to get involved.
As well, members of the panel and audience spoke to the importance of joining in the hearing process of the National Energy Board. Sakura Saunders, a well-known activist and organizer, encouraged people to apply for intervener status in the hearings in order to open the conversation about the dangers of Line 9 to Ontario residents. More details on the NEB hearing process, and the application form to participate, can be found at https://noline9.wordpress.com/2013/04/07/line-9b-neb-interventions-process-now-open-national-energy-board/. Though Steward aptly described the process as “Kafka-esque”—referencing a novel about a show trial where nothing makes sense and a sinister atmosphere prevails—as it requires a 10-page application to even write a Letter of Comment, it is still an extremely important means by which public dissent to Line 9 can be demonstrated.
It’s time for people living near Line 9 to stand up and join in the struggle against Tar Sands and pipelines, and for non-Indigenous people to support Indigenous communities who are demanding the right to free, prior and informed consent over industries that negatively impact their lands. In BC, Indigenous peoples are leading the fight against the Northern Gateway pipeline’s threat to their land base and treaty rights, with non-Indigenous people standing in solidarity with them. In the face of this united front, even the Financial Post declared the Northern Gateway pipeline “dead.” It’s time for Ontario residents to do the same to Line 9.