Eco-partners: Fighting together for the health of an inlet

By Allison Griner and Jimmy Thomson
Curling ribbons of smoke rose from the burning sage, filling the crowded room with perfume. More than a dozen guests had either piled onto the couch or improvised seats on the floor, leaning on the television stand or the refrigerator for support. Rueben George, a spiritual leader in the Tsleil-Waututh First Nation community, lit the long, wooden ceremonial pipe, held it to his lips, and then asked that it be passed to his friend, Ben West.

All kinds of people converge at George’s weekly spiritual ceremonies, hosted at his house on the Tsleil-Waututh reserve in North Vancouver. But West is much more than a friend. A director at ForestEthics Advocacy, West is one of several environmental activists who campaigns alongside George. Their goal: to protect the Burrard Inlet.

The inlet shimmers only a couple hundred metres below George’s hillside home. For the Tsleil-Waututh, the inlet represents more than a simple body of water. It is the birthplace of the first Tsleil-Waututh woman in their traditional beliefs.

However, in recent years, industry has claimed the waterway. From his doorstep, George can see the reflection of the Chevron oil refinery on the shore opposite the reserve. He can see tankers anchored in the flat waters.

And now, George worries that the proposed expansion of the nearby Trans Mountain pipeline will further threaten the health of the inlet.

In 2007, the pipeline ruptured, leaking crude oil directly into the water. For George, more pipeline capacity means a greater risk to the inlet. It means three times more oil tankers will ply its waters.

“It’s devastating. It’s hard not to want to do something about it,” he says.

To do something about it, though, requires popular support and resources. The Tsleil-Waututh Nation therefore found itself partnering with environmental groups against corporations and government initiatives that it believes would harm the sacred waterway.

But with partnerships come questions of control. Who leads? Who follows? Whose identity dominates the shared battle?

“Front men” for environmentalists?

George delivers a speech outside of the Northern Gateway pipeline hearings. West films the event.

For conservative pundit Ezra Levant, there’s no question about whose agenda takes priority.

In a segment aired on the Sun News Network, Levant asserts that First Nations are simply “front men” for “environmental attacks,” directed by large, liberal American philanthropies.

As proof, Levant points to the money that the New York-based Rockefeller Brothers Fund gave to the Attawapiskat First Nation in northern Ontario.

Both the fund and Attawapiskat chief Theresa Spence have opposed the exploitation of the Alberta oil sands on environmental grounds.

Levant suspects their shared opposition is more than a convergence of beliefs. Instead, following the lead of controversial Vancouver blogger Vivian Krause, he believes it to be as a coordinated effort to manipulate First Nations for underhanded goals.

By 2011, Krause had begun to accuse American foundations of funding anti-pipeline groups and First Nations in order to maintain an exclusive American market for Canadian oil.

“Are our Indians being colonized again—this time by unscrupulous white men?” asks Levant.

Back in Vancouver, West pauses from his work with ForestEthics. He wonders if Levant and other critics don’t have a point in questioning environmentalists’ relationships with First Nations groups.

“I think they’re right, to a certain extent,” says West. While he abhors Levant’s suggestion that First Nations are being “colonized again,” West does worry about environmentalists using First Nations and their ties to the land as a “tactic.”

It’s a rare occasion when the two men agree.

Burrard Inlet is a popular port for industry. Tankers frequent its waters.

In contrast to the aggressively pro-oil Levant, West has spent over five years organizing opposition to oil pipelines and tankers. In 2010, West confronted Levant on the public stage at a debate over oil sands in East Vancouver.

Despite the ideological gulf between them, they both recognize that the relationships between First Nations and environmental groups can be fraught.

“It’s actually something I’ve made a big issue with my colleagues about,” says West. “We need to respect land and title rights all the time, not just when we agree with the First Nation.”

Steering the canoe

About 15 years ago, Tsleil-Waututh member Leah George-Wilson unfolded her newspaper and started to read the opinion pages. She vividly recalls a piece that accused First Nations of being too reliant on the charity of non-Aboriginal groups.

“Some guy said, ‘Indians are riding the bus, and they have to pay their own way,’” says George-Wilson. She took issue with the comparison at the time.

“We’re not passive bus riders.”

George-Wilson would become the first female chief of the Tsleil-Waututh Nation in 2001. Inspired by the newspaper article, she was determined to make Tsleil-Waututh the dominant voice in whatever partnerships it formed. She even co-opted the author’s metaphor.

The Burrard Inlet figures largely in Tsleil-Waututh traditional beliefs, as its sacred origin site.

“If we looked at our traditional territory as a bus or a canoe, the Tsleil-Waututh are the ones steering the canoe or driving the bus,” she says. “We’re in charge. We’re not going to let environmental groups come in and hijack the agenda.”

While George-Wilson says she experienced no friction with environmental groups during her two terms as chief, she sees the potential for conflict.

The Constitution endows Aboriginal people with certain rights to the land—and to harvesting its resources, like timber and fish. George-Wilson believes that exercising those rights could create “difficulty” with environmental groups.

Part of the problem lies with stereotypes, according to George-Wilson. First Nations are not expected to exploit the environment in the same way non-Aboriginal people do.

“Indians– not First Nations–are supposed to be communing with nature. We’re supposed to be respecting the ‘Mother Earth,’” says George-Wilson. “We should pretty much be living as we used to be living without any thought given to any kind of economy that can be created with whatever limited resources we have access to today.”

But First Nations’ ancestral relationship with the land may hold the key to promoting environmental interests.

Supreme Court cases like Haida Nation v. British Columbia have established that, before any development can take place, First Nations must first be consulted about the fate of their traditional territory.

Listen: Chief Dan George’s “Lament for Confederation”

In 1967, Tsleil-Waututh Chief Dan George gave a speech for 35,000 people in Vancouver. He mourned the loss of his people’s lands, culture, identity and authority, and prescribed means of regaining them. Listen as three of his grandchildren–Rueben George, Leah George-Wilson and Chief Justin George–recite the famous speech, which laid out for them the paths that they are all following today.

Winning support
Today, Rueben George devotes his life to advocating for the Aboriginal right to consultation in environmental matters.

However, George wasn’t always so deeply involved in the environmental movement. He was once a family counsellor on the Tsleil-Waututh reserve.

But almost two years ago, West invited George to a meeting with other environmentalists.

The discussion that day would be about the potential for increased tanker traffic on the inlet and more pipelines nearby.

George spends hours each day networking and researching for environmental events.

It was a turning point for George. He had to act. Since then, he has immersed himself in facts and figures, learning as much as he can to protect the inlet. West and his associates guided George’s environmental education. They even compiled a report for George to study, with answers to many of the questions he might get asked as the new face of the environmental movement.

Gaining George’s trust provided an opening for West and other environmentalists to negotiate with the entire Tsleil-Waututh Nation. George “really just started pushing for the band to pay attention to this issue,” says West.

Several months later, the Tsleil-Waututh Nation founded the Sacred Trust Initiative, a group dedicated to stopping the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion.

Opposing the pipeline development meant squaring off against its owner, the energy giant Kinder Morgan, as well as politicians in support of the expansion.

“When you’re such a small nation—Tsleil-Waututh is like 400 people—they’re already super overburdened with what they’ve already taken on. Fighting a multi-million dollar company and the federal government is a pretty big thing to commit to,” says West.

Friends with benefits

A great commitment is also required of the environmental groups. They must first show their engagement to Tsleil-Waututh culture before a partnership is established.

The name Tsleil-Waututh—which translates to “people of the inlet”—references the nation’s ties to the waterway. Because of these ties, the nation’s official declaration dictates that it has both an “obligation and birthright to be the caretakers and protectors of our Inlet.”

“We’re clear to our partners about who we are and what we’re about,” says Justin George, who was Tsleil-Waututh’s chief for the last four years. “At the end of the day, being stewards is important, and we don’t take it lightly.”

For Rueben George, it’s not enough for an environmental group to say it shares Tsleil-Waututh’s cultural values. He needs proof.

“Environmentalists—the ones that we’re really wanting to work with us—we pray with them for two months, before our first meeting,” says George.

That’s not a small undertaking for full-time environmentalists. Nevertheless, many still agree to spend each Monday night praying late into the evening at George’s sweat lodge.

Two months came and went, but West remained a regular. Gradually, the professional facade evaporated between George and West, and they became friends.

In honor of West’s continued commitment, George promoted him to the role of “fire man” in the sweat lodge ceremony—a revered position that made West responsible for the sacred fire.

“I had no idea what a big impact it was going to end up having on my life,” says West. “It’s kind of funny how things play themselves out.”

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  1. Jennavieve Chalifoux says:

    Super interesting. Would love to hear more!

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