‘Our way of life in its last hour,’ Tsawout First Nation tells pipeline hearings

A way of life is at risk if the expansion of the Trans Mountain pipeline goes ahead.

That sentiment was made clear through what was an emotionally charged testimony provided to the National Energy Board by Indigenous leaders from the Saanich Peninsula Wednesday, Nov. 28.

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“This is our last hour to say no to tanker traffic … our way of life is in its last hour,” an impassioned Chief Harvey Underwood of the Tsawout First Nation told the board.

The board has been hearing oral traditional evidence from Indigenous groups in Victoria this week. As part of its new review of the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion, the board has been on the road for the past 10 days hearing oral traditional evidence.

The hearings, which will shift to Nanaimo next week, are the result of the Federal Court of Appeal striking down approval of the pipeline expansion project, citing inadequate Indigenous consultation and the energy board’s failure to review the project's impacts on the marine environment.

Ottawa announced in May it would spend $4.5 billion to buy the Trans Mountain pipeline from Kinder Morgan. Expansion would triple the capacity of the line from northern Alberta to Burnaby.

Underwood told the board the increase in tanker traffic is of grave concern as the waterways used to ship oil provide his people’s entire livelihood, and one spill could completely wipe it out.

“That’s the food that sustains us through life,” he said. “I want to make it loud and clear that that way of life will be disrupted.”

In an interview, Underwood later said he can only hope the board heard him.

“If this [expansion] goes through, it is extinguishment of our rights to fish in the ocean,” he said, noting from what he has seen in simulated spill responses all of the water the Tsawout know will be tainted and their lives will be forever changed. “Our way of life is gone with one spill.”

Chief Don Tom of the neighbouring Tsartlip First Nation said all he has left is hope the board will stop the project.

“I have hope, but I have very little confidence,” he said in an interview. “The NEB are an oil and gas regulator. Their interests are oil and gas. They [prefer to] look at mitigation factors and I don’t think those are adequate right now.

“I really do hope they heard us, but we are preparing for the worst,” he said.

That means taking the fight back to the courts.

“The last time [there were hearings into Trans Mountain] we were an afterthought. They didn’t reach out until late in the game.

“I hope they seriously look at the cumulative impacts this would have to the Salish Sea and B.C. coast and not just limited to the orcas, but to the salmon, the sea urchin, the ducks ... because they are all intertwined, and we’ve seen them all decline.”

That decline would be exacerbated by increased tanker traffic or an oil spill, the board heard from several witnesses.

Jeremiah Sylvester, a Tsawout member and fisherman, said it’s difficult to explain to non-Indigenous people the link between the coastal First Nations and the ocean.

“We are a salt-water people. What you do to the ocean you do to us,” he said, noting an oil spill would completely destroy his way of life.

“No amount of money is worth [the risk]. All it takes is one incident and no one on this Earth can guarantee that won't happen.”

Sylvester, like many of the witnesses testifying Wednesday, evoked the plight of the southern resident killer whales, which he said would be under siege from increased traffic, increased sound and the possibility of a spill.

And he wondered what then happens to the identity of the First Nations on the coast who identify closely to the whales.

During his testimony, Nick Claxton, a Tsawout member and researcher at the University of Victoria, said the increased risk from more tanker traffic translates into the increased possibility of disaster.

“This project runs counter to our efforts to revitalize our ways of being.”

He said tanker traffic puts Indigenous reef-net fishermen at risk.

“It’s a dangerous practice in strong tidal waters. My concern is projects like this will have not only immediate destructive impacts but also cumulative impacts on the lands and the water which are foundational for us as people and our identity as people.”

Tsawout member Robert Clifford said the First Nations have an obligation to protect the land, ocean, plants, and animals.

He noted the orca that carried its dead calf for 17 days in the region this summer was an indicator that things are not OK and that there are responsibilities this country is not meeting.

“It’s time we started doing things differently and I hope we can start that here,” he said.

The hearings also heard from four U.S. Coast Salish nations — Swinomish Indian Tribal Community, Tulalip Tribes, Lummi Nation and Suquamish Tribe — that oppose the proposed expansion.

That group are concerned an oil-tanker disaster could unleash toxic pollution into a sensitive marine environment.

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