First Nations cross border to protect Salish Sea from oil shipments

A gathering in Seattle marks the expansion of efforts to halt the proposed expansion of a pipeline carrying Alberta's oil to the British Columbia coast for export.
Crosscut archive image.

Tanker routes from the Trans Mountain terminus.

A gathering in Seattle marks the expansion of efforts to halt the proposed expansion of a pipeline carrying Alberta's oil to the British Columbia coast for export.

Proposals to triple the volume of tar sands production in Canada have sparked a new alliance of First Nations and Northwest tribes to stop it. Tribes and first nations from all over the Northwest, environmentalists, faith groups and youth have come together in a historic effort to protect the Salish Sea from a proposed expansion of tar sands oil exports throught the Kinder Morgan's Trans Mountain Pipeline.

A British Columbia Coast Salish first nation, the Tsleil-Waututh, or keepers of the land and water in the Salish tongue, recently initiated a ceremony at Seattle's Daybreak Star Indian Cultural Center to mark the creation of an alliance to protect the Sea, the coastal waters shared by Washington and B.C., from fossil fuel expansion. Kinder Morgan's Trans Mountain Pipeline carries tar sands oil from Alberta to ports and refineries in B.C. and Washington, with much of the additional oil likely to be shipped to markets in Asia or elsewhere.

At the Seattle gathering, Tsleil-Waututh Sundance Chief Rueben George tells the crowd the tribe sued Canada's National Energy Board for not providing prior and informed consent, as required by law. “Our laws establish a sacred trust, a responsibility to care for our lands, air and waters,” he explains. “The federal government forced us to go to court to defend ourselves and our territory.” The crowd claps with approval. “We sued them not only for Canadians but for Americans too, because when people find out the true facts of the destruction this causes they'll want to make a better choice for the future generations.”

If the National Energy Board approves the expansion, Kinder Morgan would go from transporting 300,000 barrels of bitumen oil a day to an estimated 890,000 barrels a day, says George. Earth the size of Texas would be moved in Alberta: Two tons of earth are needed to produce one barrel of oil. The land and water should be protected and restored instead, he says. The Tsleil-Waututh nation are called the "people of the inlet": “Our lineage of where we come from is the water. For real. That's our story of creation. I love my kids and they're here. There's nothing I wouldn't do for them.

"And we want to make a difference. We want to make a change and make things better to protect what we love.”

Like the generations that came before him, George's teenage son, Cedar, is also engaged in the work to protect the Salish Sea, the coastal waters that surround both B.C. and Washington. Cedar attends school north of Everett in Marysville and is a member of the Tulalip Tribes. He tells the crowd his high school has said “no” to Kinder Morgan and that he hopes to get the entire school district on board. “Thank you for being here — here on the West Coast where we're civilized and fight for these things.” The crowd laughs and gives him a round of applause. “It's a fight we're winning,” he says, referring to the legal challenge launched by his father's tribe in British Columbia.

Three generations are working together against fossil fuels interests, Cedar George tells the crowd. “My grandma isn't here because she's in the oil tar sands protest putting up her life.” He refers to his grandmother, Amy "TaHa" George, whose words, “Warrior Up,” ignited fossil fuel protests in the region, while also acknowledging native leaders of the past who fought for their people and their environment. She recently took part in a totem pole journey that began at Cherry Point in Bellingham, where a coal terminal is proposed, and ended in the tar sands region of Alberta.

Jon Ramer with Compassion Games, a non-profit designed to make communities safer and more just places, was one of the emcees at the ceremonial launch. Ramer says leadership of indigenous peoples distinguishes the work, but that everyone who wants to protect the land and water must take what he calls “unified and unprecedented action.” “That's the only way we're going to stop these threats. We're all at risk. So this coming together is a healing. Healing is learning and that's at the heart of this alliance. It will be a learning circle.”

But the learning curve needs to happen quickly, he suggests. People in the Northwest and other parts of the United States don't understand the impact of tar sands or the drive behind Kinder Morgan's Trans Mountain Pipeline project. Richard Kinder, he notes was once employed by Enron, the Texas oil giant that spiraled out of control a dozen years ago. Kinder left the company several years before Enron's collapse (by one account, the board thought he was too old-fashioned in his business practices) and with partner William Morgan purchased the liquid pipeline assets of Enron. “They want to triple the volume of that oil. They've got a lot of contractors to be fulfilled. Money to be made. So they're going to do anything to make that happen.” Their plan, says Ramer, is to jump from four oil-tanker sailings out of British Columbia a month to 35 a month, with tankers three times the size of Exxon-Valdez transiting coastal waters.

Kinder Morgan has said it is proud of its relations with First Nations along the pipeline route and is working with them on the details of its expansion plans. The company hopes to have the expanded pipeline in operation in 2017. The Canadian government has supported the proposed expansion. 

The name of the new alliance formed to stop Kinder Morgan's plans is "Nawt-sa-Maat," whose translation from Salish roughly means “One House. One Heart. One Prayer. United in Power to Protect the Sacred.”

At Daybreak center, Lummi, Duwamish, Tulalip and other tribes mingle with activists from Rising Tide,, Faith Action Network, Puget Sound Keeper Alliance, Idle No More and others. They add their voices and opinions to the launch. Abby Brockway, who was recently arrested for blocking oil train tracks at the Everett Delta train yard, says, “There's no way we can fight money because they have more money than we do and power. So I'm very interested in the people coming together.” Brockway says she represents many organizations. But her church, Woodland Park Presbyterian, and Earth Ministry, “have signed a promise and an apology to the tribal people. It's not just a piece of paper that stands on a shelf it's going out there and taking action.”

The launch of the Alliance, in part, lays the groundwork for an International Climate Rally at the Peace Arch on the Canadian border on Saturday. That will lead up to another historic step, the Sept. 22 signing of the tribes' International Treaty to Protect the Sacredness of the Salish Sea at the Tsleil-Waututh Nation on Vancouver's Burrard Inlet. 


Please support independent local news for all.

We rely on donations from readers like you to sustain Crosscut's in-depth reporting on issues critical to the PNW.


About the Authors & Contributors

Martha Baskin

Martha Baskin

Martha Baskin is an environmental reporter, whose work on the subject began with a project for the King Conservation District. Green Acre Radio was born shortly afterward. Her work is currently supported by the Human Links Foundation. She was one of the founding reporters for Pacifica's Free Speech Radio News and has been a contributor to the National Radio Project's Making Contact.