As Canadians Protest Tar Sands, Texas Tree Blockaders Get the Run-Around from TransCanada

Rebecca Burns

A Defend Our Coast action in British Columbia this week.

As activists in East Texas continue to blockade the construction path of the Keystone XL pipeline’s southern leg, another crucial climate fight is heating up in Canada. Thousands joined demonstrations across British Columbia this week against the proposed Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline, which would carry fuel from the Alberta tar sands to the B.C. coast. The actions, dubbed, Defend Our Coast,” were billed by organizers as the largest act of civil disobedience in the province’s history.

Though activists spent last weekend training for mass arrests, organizers say that the crowd that turned up to a rally Monday was double what they had expected — and as a result, police never intervened during the actions and no arrests were made. But more than 3,000 converged at the provincial legislature in Victoria, unfurling a banner the length of an oil tanker, throwing oil-covered rubber ducks into into the building’s fountain and briefly blocking traffic. The demonstration was followed by more than 60 actions at the offices of members of the province’s legislative assembly. Though the Liberal provincial government has so far said that it will not approve the project without further information about how it will mitigate environmental risks, demonstrators are calling for the pipeline’s outright rejection — and a shift in the province’s energy policy.

We can’t just be talking about one pipeline, because they all threaten our communities,” says Maryam Adrangi, Climate and Energy Campaigners with the Council of Canadians, one of the organizers of this week’s actions. Adrangi is now on a six-city No Pipelines, No Tankers” tour, during which she hopes to harness the broad opposition to the Enbridge pipeline to talk about the expansion of other oil and natural gas pipelines that cross through the region.

The demonstrations build on a longer history of mobilization against tar sands mining by First Nations groups, including a Constitutional challenge against Shell’s proposed expansion of an Alberta strip mine presented this week by the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation (ACFN). Keeping with the tradition of seasonal protest monikers, Montreal-based journalist Ethan Cox suggested that, after a Maple Spring in Quebec, this week’s broad-based actions could represent the beginning of a West Coast Fall.”

Back in Texas, things aren’t looking quite as rosy for the blockaders now in their fifth week of a tree-top occupation to protect a forest that stands in the way of the pipeline’s construction. As Candice Bernd reported at Truthout this week:

The nonviolent blockaders have been met with pain compliance tactics, felony charges, a SLAPP suit which uses the language of eco-terrorism” and what amounts to a police state surrounding their tree village in Winnsboro, Texas.

According to Tar Sands blockade spokesperson Ron Seifert, there are now four blockaders (the rest of the original eight have either escaped or been arrested) occupying a timber wall built in the path of the pipeline, as well as the web of tree houses and other structures behind it. That number includes two activists who, according to Tar Sands Blockade, snuck past the security perimeter maintained by off-duty local police and private security officers to join blockaders this week. One of them, 20 year-old Cat Ripley, was involved in the watchdog group Bark’s campaign against the proposed TransCanada Palomar Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) pipeline in Oregon last year and says, I’ve stopped pipelines before.”

TransCanada, however, has responded to the blockade by re-routing construction outside the company’s original easement. According to Ron Seifert, a spokesperson for the Tar Sands Blockade, TransCanada has already cleared a new path through the forest circumventing the blockade, and is now laying out pipeline materials in preparation to begin construction. This represents what Seifert characterizes as a telling about-face in the company’s policies. For years now, TransCanada has been telling landowners who didn’t want the pipeline crossing through their garden or their front yard that this type of manuever is impossible — that the route is set in stone,” Seifert tells In These Times. Now we see that when it’s convenient for them, they can in fact change the route.”

David Dodson, a spokesperson for TransCanada, confirms that the company has decided to re-route the pipeline slightly but says they have always been willing to work with landowners to make minor alterations to easement contracts, which the company uses to gain access to private property for construction. A number of landowners in East Texas, however, have said recently they they were intimidated into signing the contracts.

Though the pipeline’s new path could force blockaders to set up shop elsewhere, Seifert says of the demonstrations in Canada that it is heartening to see the movement against tar sands picking up at its source, and that direct action against extraction is becoming normalized.”

A key difference between the struggles against the Keystone XL pipeline and the Northern Gateway pipeline has been the united opposition of labor to the latter. Though the Amalgamated Transit Union and the Transport Workers Union, among others, have come out against the Keystone XL, many construction unions have backed it, and the AFL-CIO has declined to take a position.

Even those unions representing workers who would potentially gain short-term employment from the pipeline’s construction have publicly opposed the project, citing concerns that it will set Canada on the path to becoming an exporter of raw goods and pollute the air where its members live and work.

Don’t let anyone tell you there is a divide between the labour movement and the environmental movement,” said Dave Coles, president of the Communications, Energy and Paperworks Unions of Canada in a speech during Monday’s rally. If they do they’re lying to you. We are united!”

Rebecca Burns is an In These Times contributing editor and award-winning investigative reporter. Her work has appeared in Bloomberg, the Chicago Reader, ProPublica, The Intercept, and USA Today. Follow her on Twitter @rejburns.

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