Dispatch from Blockadia

Where enviros are uniting with social justice and tribal rights activists in the Northwest to stop new fossil fuel development.


In early September 2014, a small group of protesters staked out an encampment in the middle of the Burnaby Mountain Conservation Area west of Vancouver, British Columbia. Less than a year previously, the Texas-based oil company Kinder Morgan had announced plans to build a pipeline underneath Burnaby Mountain, a small patch of urban wild with fine views of the Burrard Inlet and the darkly forested North Shore Mountains.

The proposed pipeline would have expanded Kinder Morgan’s existing Trans Mountain pipeline, which carries oil from Alberta’s tar sands to Burnaby Harbor, tripling the amount of oil flowing beneath the streets of the city of Burnaby, from 350,000 barrels per day to nearly one million. The project had angered many people, not least because it had proceeded under the National Energy Board review process, and without the city’s permission.

All it took was someone noticing that Kinder Morgan had cut down trees on the mountain for seismic testing, for events to escalate. The city of Burnaby fined the company for downing trees in a public park. The company appealed, and as the case made its way through the courts, a group of 12 or so protesters, including academics and local climate activists, mobilized. They used Facebook to set up a schedule of rotating watches over the site, ready to stop Kinder Morgan from proceeding. 

As the weeks passed, more and more people joined the original protesters, and major media outlets arrived. Kinder Morgan won its case against the city, and announced it would re-start its work at the testing site on Oct. 29. By that point, several hundred people were assembling regularly at the main protest site at the top of the mountain or joining a smaller gathering lower down in the forest. A few camped out in tents and one man slept in a hammock, strung between the branches of a tree more than 20 feet off the ground. Across the clearing, someone spread a large tarpaulin painted with the words: “No pipelines on stolen native land.”

By the end of November, nearly a thousand people had occupied the mountain, effectively blocking any construction and ultimately forcing Kinder Morgan to abandon its plans.

The Burnaby Mountain protest was part of a larger, hard-to-define grassroots movement its supporters call “Blockadia,” in which local communities — from rural to urban — are uniting to halt oil and gas development. As support grows for curbing carbon emissions, Blockadia is becoming an increasingly powerful tool for activists — and a massive headache to industry.

A protester argues with police officers in the road on Burnaby Mountain where Kinder Morgan prepared for the Trans Mountain Pipeline expansion in Burnaby, British Columbia.
Stephen Collis

Blockadia is not so much a place as an idea, widely dispersed but local in spirit, “a roving transnational conflict zone wherever extractive projects are attempting to dig and drill,” as author Naomi Klein writes.

Such resistance famously helped push President Barack Obama to reject the Keystone XL pipeline in November. But similar opposition faces scores of other oil and gas development projects — projects that, if built, could unleash as much greenhouse gas as five Keystones, according to the Seattle-based Sightline Institute.  

Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain expansion was one of many major new fossil fuel projects announced for the Pacific Northwest in recent years. In British Columbia alone, there are currently , one other major pipeline proposal, and a new coal export facility. Meanwhile, Oregon and Washington face a quadrupling of their crude-by-rail terminal capacity, to over a million barrels a day, along with the proposed Millennium Bulk Terminals in Longview, Washington, and the Gateway Pacific Terminal in Bellingham, which together would be the first- and second-largest coal-export terminals in North America.

Increasingly, however, Blockadia is blocking such efforts. U.S. coal is declining, thanks to climate concerns — and considerable opposition from local groups and tribes — so coal-export terminals are faltering. In the last few years, those forces have helped kill more than half of the seven proposed coal terminals in the region.

For centuries, the majority of the major mining and energy projects in North America took place in out-of-the-way places — often without proper consultation by government or industry with indigenous people on whose traditional territory those projects took place. When resistance did occur, it often withered under economic pressure, particularly in the continent’s interior, where tribes had fewer resources. 

Now, as industrial development moves into urban areas, it’s confronting white liberal protesters, who are suddenly finding common ground with the remote indigenous communities at the frontlines of resource extraction. The mutual opposition is built on a shared concern for due process as well as climate and landscape, and it’s creating what Eric de Place, from the Sightline Institute, calls the Pacific Northwest’s “” – a major choke point in the push to develop North America’s energy reserves.

Civil disobedience has, of course, a long history as a tactic against extractive industry. But Blockadia is not just about fighting the next pipeline project or coal terminal, nor is it driven solely by West Coasters’ climate change concerns. Instead, Blockadia is rising on a swelling tide of calls for indigenous rights, and it’s bringing a renewed emphasis on social justice to the environmental movement.

Prior to joining the Burnaby Mountain blockade, Brandon Gabriel, a 37-year-old artist who lives on the Kwantlen Reservation in Langley, British Columbia, participated in protests that began in 2012 over alleged legislative abuses of treaty rights by then-Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Started by three First Nations women and one non-Native woman, the movement encompassed many of the issues central to Blockadia, especially environmental protection and indigenous sovereignty.

That was partly why, when representatives from Kinder Morgan offered Gabriel’s people $650,000 in exchange for their support as part of the community gifting program, the band council voted no, Gabriel says. A lengthy discussion preceded the decision, but ultimately the council decided that accepting any money from the company was tantamount to handing over control of tribal land — land that was never ceded to the government of Canada under any treaty. “This is where the fight is for us,” says Gabriel, who recently participated in a 745-mile tribal canoe journey along the British Columbia coast. “It doesn’t matter what they present to us, or matter how they dress it up, or mitigate the impacts some way in their assessments. We’re not going to budge.”

That defiance has spread among the First Nations along the coast, where increasingly, people are taking a stand against new energy development by asserting their rights and sovereignty. Across northern British Columbia, Native groups have established on their traditional land, directly in the way of new pipelines and natural gas facilities. Intended as indigenous “re-occupation” of territory never ceded to the government through treaties, First Nations have built log cabins, traditional pit houses and permaculture gardens squarely in the middle of proposed pipeline routes. The camps, says Gabriel, are part of a resurgent indigenous rights movement that’s gaining ground along the Pacific Northwest Coast. 

In British Columbia, where the majority of First Nations never signed treaties with the government, there are hundreds of unresolved land claims. Now, in the fight against climate change. Of the 200 First Nations in British Columbia, over 130 have signed a 2010 document, the , banning pipelines and any similar projects from crossing the signatories' territories. In a similar move south of the border, the 57 nations that make up the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians decided in 2013 to  all proposals for the transport and export of fossil fuels export in the region. 

Upon arriving at Bella Bella Island off the northern coast of Vancouver Island in 2014, Gabriel and his fellow paddlers were greeted by thousands of tribal people from up and down the coast. “It was amazing,” says Gabriel, recalling the thunderous calls for people to stand united and oppose any and all pipeline development.

On Burnaby Mountain, defiant tribes made an unexpected alliance with local urbanites, who also didn’t want to see the pipeline built. It was a weird convergence, says Gabriel, who helped people from the Kwantlen Reservation attend the protest, “seeing all these affluent homeowners — you know, middle-of-the-road people — joining these activist types.”

One night, members of the Tsleil-Waututh Nation, a tribe on whose traditional territory Burnaby sits, lit a sacred fire. Under no circumstances, they warned the police, would the fire be extinguished. People gathered around to keep warm. Gabriel sat next to a young man who lived just down the street. As they sat by the fire, the neighbor recalled  through the road just below the mountain, shooting thousands of gallons of oil a hundred feet into the air, like a geyser. The oil covered nearby homes, and some 18,000 gallons eventually spread into Burrard Inlet. “I’m here to protect it,” the man told Gabriel. “I’m a settler, and I’m on Native land, but I will put myself in front of those people and protect them, too.”

Victor Thompson, from the Haida First Nation, bangs a traditional drum at the Burnaby Mountain blockade on the day the police began enforcing the injunction against protesters.
Stasia Garroway

On Nov. 14 2014, a judge granted Kinder Morgan an injunction, allowing the company to continue its work and ordering protesters to vacate the area. They did not. In fact, in the days after the injunction was granted, the number of protesters on Burnaby Mountain continued to swell, despite days of pouring rain. When the police arrived to arrest people on Nov. 17, they faced the impossible task of rounding up nearly 1,000 protesters. Three days later they returned, this time at 5 a.m., when they knew fewer people would be around. Police quickly set up a no-go zone around Kinder Morgan’s test drilling site, marked with yellow tape,  and began arresting anyone who crossed the line. But many people ignored the line and entered anyways, including two 11-year-old girls and an 84-year-old grandmother.

Tamo Campos, a 25-year-old pro-snowboarder-turned-activist of Japanese and Chilean descent, was among those who crossed the line at one point. He and his friend Dan, a First Nations man, were placed in solitary confinement, though they communicated with each other through vents in the walls. That’s how they learned that Campos was given food and blankets, but others, including an elder from the Squamish First Nation, weren’t, he says. Campos was released later that night; the others were held until evening of the next day.

During his detention, he says, “I realized this was not just an environmental fight. Because it’s not these communities who have lived on the land for thousands of years that get to decide, and you can’t say race doesn’t play into it.”

Campos, who often wears a large chunky wool sweater and a black beanie, now spends his time traveling to the various First Nations-led re-occupation camps in northern B.C. in an old ambulance he’s converted to run on veggie oil. The camps, he says, are not just about stopping pipelines. “We’re fighting racism, and we’re fighting for indigenous rights as well.”

Eventually, protesters discovered the no-go zone had been placed around an area that . The arrests were thrown out, and Kinder Morgan packed up its equipment and left, but not before indigenous leaders of the three major First Nations in the Vancouver area, came to the protest as a group, . For Kinder Morgan, the spectacle of dozens of First Nations elders being hauled off by the police would have been a PR nightmare. “They knew they were going to lose,” says Stephen Collis, an English professor at nearby Simon Fraser University and one of the lead organizers at Burnaby.

The mutual confluence of environmental and social justice concerns demonstrated at Burnaby Mountain has encouraged activists to approach climate change as a fight not only for ecological survival but procedural justice.

Laura Benson, who works with , a Victoria-based environmental group says that past environmental fights were mostly top-down, campaign-driven efforts led by green groups. But Blockadia has helped change that approach, inspiring grassroots tactics reminiscent of the civil rights era.

“It was shocking to come to Canada,” says Benson, who was born in Oregon and worked as an organizer for a labor rights group in California before moving to Vancouver. When it came to big mining and energy projects north of the border, Benson saw how local communities and First Nations were sliced out of the decision-making process, not unlike what happens in other parts of the U.S., “where black and Latinos are disproportionately affected by bad stuff without having a say over the impacts that get dealt to them.”

A police officer removes a protester from a road on Burnaby Mountain where a borehole was being drilled in preparation for the Trans Mountain Pipeline expansion in Burnaby, British Columbia.
The Canadian Press/Darryl Dyck/AP

Next week, Gabriel will speak on behalf of his people at a Vancouver courthouse during the final round of public hearings, before the National Energy Board submits its recommendation to the federal government on whether to approve or reject the Trans Mountain pipeline. As part of his testimony, Gabriel will present a lengthy document providing evidence of the Kwantlen people’s need to fish for salmon on areas where Kinder Morgan plans to build the pipeline — part of a 1,000-year history that precedes the formation of Canada.

That deep history is part of the point, Collis tells me one fall day, as we hike on trails threading through a forest of tall mossy trees that cover the mountain. “You can’t start talking about how to fight climate change without first going to the people whose land is being targeted for projects that will exacerbate this crisis.” In 2013, Collis went to Fort McMurray to participate in a tar sands healing walk led by local First Nations groups. He saw the tailings ponds, which cover 30 square miles, and saw that what had once been a damp boreal forest was now a white-sand desert. On Burnaby Mountain, Collis felt a direct connection between the two. “The pipeline starts in that devastation,” he says, “and goes right here under our feet.”

Near the end of our walk, Collis pauses at the entrance of an overgrown path. He’s searching for the old footpath that leads to the clearing deep in the woods where upwards of 40 people were camped out during the blockade. A few minutes later, we emerge in an open area littered with stumps and moss-laden undergrowth — a largely nondescript patch of forest that could be anywhere. This too is part of the point, he says. “If you’re really concerned about climate change, where’s the front line? You have to imagine your way in.”

Sarah Tory is a correspondent for HCN. 

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