A Movement Against Tar Sands Oil, Pipelines and Tankers is on the Rise in Canada

A popular movement against tar sands oil production and pipeline transport is on the rise and gathering steam in Canada. Its biggest expression to date was in Victoria, BC on October 22 when 4,000 to 5,000 people rallied in front of the British Columbia Legislature to send a forceful message to the tar sands industry and its political representatives. “No tar sands pipelines across BC! No oil tankers in coastal waters!” read the lead banners.

Rally in Victoria, BC on October 22nd. [Picture: Leadnow.]
Two days later, thousands of activists staged rallies at the offices across the province of more than 60 elected members of the Legislature. Both actions were organized by the recently formed Defend Our Coast coalition.

The rally in Victoria was overwhelmingly Indigenous in appearance, participation and message. Speeches and music lasted for hours.

Rally Was a Large Civil Disobedience

It featured a symbolic act of civil disobedience – the hammering of wooden stakes into the Legislature lawn, onto which a series of black cloths 235 meters long were attached, symbolizing the length of oil tankers that will export toxic oil and tar sands bitumen delivered to the BC coast from Alberta via pipelines if an out-of-control fossil fuel industry has its way. Hundreds of such tankers would ply BC’s biologically rich and difficult-to-navigate coastal waters per year.

In one of many stirring and militant speeches to the rally, Art Sterritt, executive director of the Coastal First Nations, asked, “What are you willing to do to stop them? Are you willing to lay down in front of the bulldozers?”

“Yes,” roared the crowd in reply.

“It’s time to ‘warrior-up,’” said hereditary Chief Pete Erickson in another speech. He was referring to the warrior societies that have traditionally sprung up among Indigenous people for self-defense.

Grand Chief Stewart Phillip of the Union of BC Indian Chiefs told the crowd that Indigenous peoples stand shoulder to shoulder against the pipelines. “We will fight this insanity through the joint review panel, in the courts of this country and, if necessary, at the barricades on the land itself,” he said. “We will not stand down, we will not step back. We will stop Enbridge and the Kinder Morgan proposals dead in their tracks.”

Victoria police did not move against the deliberate and “illegal” act of placing stakes into the lawn. Leah Norwood of Qualicum Beach told the Victoria Times-Colonist daily, “How can we call ourselves beautiful British Columbia if we’ve got this disgusting pipeline running through our forest and destroying our coast?… If I get arrested, then so be it. It’s for a good cause.”

“No Pipelines, No Tankers” public forums

The rally message was carried into six public forums that took place across British Columbia in the days following. They were organized by the Council of Canadians. Four hundred people jammed into the Vancouver forum on October 25 which featured talks by Rueben George, grandson of Oscar-winning actor Chief Dan George, Maude Barlow, Chairperson of the Council of Canadians, Bill McKibben, founder of the climate justice movement 350.org, and Caleb Behn, a lawyer, Indigenous resident of northeast British Columbia and subject of the documentary film Fractured Land.

The forum took place purposely in Burnaby, a Vancouver suburb which happens to host the export terminal on the city harbourfront of the Trans Mountain tar sands pipeline. Kinder Morgan company wants to triple the capacity of this pipeline and terminal, to some 850,000 barrels per day. The line originates in Edmonton and is 1,150 km long.

The other tar sands export project under fire is the proposed, 1,200 km-long Northern Gateway Pipeline that would ship some 525,000 barrels of tar sands bitumen per day to Kitimat, on the north coast of BC. (A parallel line would move some 200,000 barrels of condensate inland; it is needed to dilute bitumen to facilitate movement through pipelines.)

Barlow provided a summary of some of the startling facts of the Alberta tar sands:

  • The tar sands region of northern Alberta covers an area larger than Scotland.
  • The province has the highest per capita carbon footprint of anywhere in the world.
  • The production of toxic, tar sands bitumen is currently 2 million barrels per day. Fossil fuel producers want to boost that by four or five times.
  • The toxic ponds of waste water from tar sands production currently cover 170 square kilometers. Eleven million liters leak from them every day.
  • 14,000 kilometers of new, tar sands pipelines are planned.
  • In Alberta alone, there have been 1,500 pipeline spills in the last 20 years.

Barlow said the climate threat posed by tar sands production requires building an opposition movement “like never before.” She quoted noted scientist and climate justice spokesperson James Hansen: “If the tar sands in Alberta continue to grow, it’s game over for the world’s climate.”

The movement must recognize the leadership of First Nations’ communities, she said. Its immediate focus should be the pipelines. “Pipelines are the bloodlines of the tar sands. If we can stop the pipelines, we can stop the expansion of the tar sands” and eventually see them shut down. The crowd cheered as she concluded her talk with, “Our motto must be, ‘You shall not pass.”

Caleb Behn spoke on the vast expansion of natural gas production that has taken place in his homeland in the past two decades. Tens of thousands of “conventional” gas wells have been drilled in the past two decades. Now there is a huge expansion of the “fracking” method of drilling taking place.

Behn says that the people of northeast BC and their lifestyles are being seriously harmed by gas extraction. Equally important, he said, is that, “The CO2 (carbon dioxide pollutant) that comes from our land and spreads into the atmosphere is a world issue.”

Bill McKibben told the audience that July 2012 was the hottest month on record in the United States. The resulting drought and crop losses have caused a 40 per cent rise in corn and soy prices on world markets.

Over the past 40 years, he said, the world’s oceans have become 30 per cent more acidic as they absorb increased atmospheric CO2. In September of this year, at the end of the Arctic summer, the Arctic Ocean had only 25 per cent of the amount of ice cover compared to forty years ago.

Human activity has damaged the very biosphere, he said, and the worse is yet to come. “This is the biggest thing happening in the world and we’ve got to get organized to stop it.”

“The fossil fuel industry is a rogue industry that’s out of control. We have to keep oil and gas in the ground where it belongs,” he concluded.

(See reports on the “No tankers, no pipelines” forums in Nanaimo BC on Oct 27 and Kamloops BC on Oct 30.)

Political Challenges Facing the Movement

The movement against the tar sands is growing all across Canada. Enbridge Corp. has applied to begin shipping tar sands crude across southern Ontario and Quebec. In July 2010, one of its aging pipelines burst in nearby Michigan, filling a long stretch of the Kalamazoo River with toxic bitumen.

But the movement confronts an enormous challenge. How can it win the tens of thousands of skilled, semi-skilled and service workers in the fossil fuel industry in Alberta, British Columbia and elsewhere in Canada to a plan to transition to an economy based on less harmful energy sources? These workers are drawn from regions in Canada of high unemployment and many earn exceptionally high salaries. Increasingly, and controversially, some workers are being recruited from low wage countries.

This challenge is not unique to the tar sands; it also applies to the coal industry, which is also booming in western Canada[1], and to a lesser extent (where the numbers of workers are smaller) to the natural gas industry.

Discussion of this challenge is only beginning. The political party of the trade unions, the New Democratic Party, which is also the official opposition in Ottawa and quite possibly the party that will be elected to government in 2014, remains beholden to the fossil fuel industry. It favours continued tar sands production.

The BC provincial NDP is wavering on the Northern Gateway pipeline proposal. Party leader Adrian Dix says the party opposes the pipeline, but he also wants to conduct a ‘made in BC’ environmental review of it (by a new agency to be created by balkanizing Canada’s present environmental review process into ten provincial components). If the pipeline product will contribute to destroying the Earth’s climate, and if it is bad for the peoples and communities whose land it will cross, what is there to be reviewed?

Dix and the NDP have not taken a stand on the Trans Mountain Pipeline. They have come out in support of natural gas fracking and related pipelines in the northeast as well as proposals to build at least three gas liquefaction plants in Kitimat. All this will massively increase the province’s greenhouse gas emissions and destabilize its electrical production facilities.[2]

Trade unions affiliated to the NDP are participating in protest actions against pipelines. But the two most important unions in the fossil fuel industry – the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers union (CEP, soon to merge with the Canadian Auto Workers union to create the largest industrial union in Canada) and the Alberta Federation of Labour are also pressing for the industry to build refineries in Alberta to process tar sands crude in the name of creating “jobs for Canadians.”

In a press release announcing the CEP’s participation at the October 22 protest in Victoria, National President Dave Coles said, “We cannot continue to build new pipelines just to export raw bitumen overseas while leaving our own communities with no jobs or means to prosper. We believe that Canada needs to focus on jobs that treat crude oil here in this country instead of rushing to grow our unrefined oil export capacity.”

The unions do not specify through which pipeline they then propose to ship the refined product out of Alberta. Their position is far removed from the radical measures that the global climate emergency requires, as highlighted by speakers at the October 25 forum.[3] What the world needs is nothing less that the rapid ending of dependence on fossil fuels and transitioning of workers to alternative energy production and other forms of socially useful economic activity.[4]


Most of Canada’s fossil fuel reserves are not in tar sands but in coal. The country presently produces one per cent of the world’s coal (compared to 6, 14 and 50 per cent, respectively, for Australia, the United States and China). Coal production and export is undergoing significant expansion in western Canada.

See Oct. 20, 2012 op-ed commentary by Marc Lee of the Canadian Center for Policy Alternatives, Natural gas strategy nothing more than a fairy tale, and a dossier of articles examining plans for natural gas fracking and liquefaction in British Columbia.

The Vancouver Sun of Oct. 29, 2012 publishes a commentary arguing in favour of expanding mineral and fossil fuel production in Canada. It is signed by officials of the carpenters and building trades unions of BC, the BC Chamber of Commerce and the association of mining companies in BC. Meanwhile, one of the world’s leading climate scientists, James Hansen, recently spoke to a conference of trade union leaders at Cornell University in New York state. The 17-minute talk was titled, “Energy Emergency, Energy Transition.” In it, Hansen described what is happening to the earth’s climate, ice sheets, oceans and weather patterns.

Listen to an interview with Canada’s pre-eminent writer on the fossil fuel industry, Andrew Nikiforuk, talking on his latest book, The Energy of Slaves, and how the oil industry has enslaved the world.

Roger Annis is a socialist and union activist who writes regularly on topics of social justice and peace. He blogs at rogerannis.com.