Sometimes, it is the early mornings that stimulate creative and courageous actions grounded in love. It was 7:30 am on Monday December 21 that three activists, including Anishnaabe kwe Vanessa Gray, went out in the rain near Sarnia, Ontario, entered a fenced-in area containing a manual valve and literally shut down Line 9. Enbridge’s Line 9 has been a controversial tar sands project since the corporation announced plans to reverse the flow of the pipeline in 2012. The continued experience of non-consultation in terms of resource extraction and transportation, is that Indigenous voices are ignored, often silenced through legalities and botched treaty processes. Last week’s action is a result of hundreds of years of displacement, continued ecocide and a responsibility to protect the water and the land.
Vanessa Gray is from Aamjiwnaang First Nation, a small community enveloped by petro-chemical refineries, known as Chemical Valley, near Sarnia, Ontario. It is there that Line 9 physically originates. Environmental genocide has deep roots in the placement of industry in relation to First Nations communities. Aamjiwnaang faces skewed sex rates, as well as increased rates of respiratory illnesses. Indigenous people are continually on the frontlines of resource extraction purely by virtue of existence. Gray says in a statement: “The tarsands projects represent an ongoing cultural and environmental genocide. I defend the land and water because it is sacred. I have the right to defend anything that threatens my traditions and cultures.”
In many Indigenous ways of living, it is the women who are responsible for the water because of the connection made through pregnancy and childbirth, because of the sacred feminine ability to give life. Our ceremonies are often rooted in gratitude and love for the water. If our water is poisoned, how will we maintain our traditions and cultures? How will we survive? It is we who need the water. Now, the women are reminding us of our responsibilities to protect the water and to assert our sovereignty and jurisdiction over the land because there are those who would seek to destroy it.
This action follows a similar incident which happened earlier this month near Montreal, Quebec, illuminating continued resistance to Enbridge’s Line 9. The heightened level of direct action since the line was turned on December 3, comes after years of failed attempts for Indigenous sovereignty to be respected, much less discussed. The National Energy Board approved the reversal in 2014, despite deputations from various First Nation communities along Line 9’s pathway, including Chippewa of the Thames and Kanesatake. Line 9 crosses through 18 different First Nations and non-consultation remains a consistent side effect of this process. Chippewa of the Thames have appealed the National Energy Board’s decision but it was subsequently denied. The Union of Ontario Indians have agreed to help take the case to the Supreme Court of Canada but Enbridge quickly turned the line on instead.
Legalities have failed, but years of actions that symbolized resistance to tar sands projects, nationwide protests and acts of civil disobedience are elevating the voices of the dispossessed. And, people are listening. “The crown is failing in their obligation to consult with First Nations about pipelines.” said Sarah Scanlon, one of the individuals involved in last week’s shutdown. “As settlers it’s our responsibility to respect Indigenous land rights and support those protecting the land and water on the frontlines.” Organizations like 350.org and the Council of Canadians have issued statements of support. One person created a sign on for support that includes over 400 signatories so far, showing how widespread support is for the women’s actions.
However, defying industry comes at a cost. All three activists, including Stone Stewart, were arrested and in jail until their bail hearing on Tuesday December 22. Charges include mischief over $5000 and mischief endangering life. The latter can carry serious implications, with the maximum punishment being life in prison. All three women were released on their own recognizance. Despite the repercussions, the women were welcomed after being freed by droves of people who hugged them and thanked them for what they had done. Smiling together, while taking photos with Aamjiwnaang’s community flag, just went to show that it will take a lot more than colonial processes, like court rooms, to stop them. Their love for the land and water and their courageous willpower have inspired thousands of people. Others are reawakening to the important reality that we need to keep our water sources safe, not only for us but for the coming faces. Perhaps it is the love of the water and land that carries the people through repression because our spirits remain rooted in connection to the land and water, whether we remember that or not. These women remember that connection and honour it. Their next court date is in January in Sarnia, Ontario.
Photo credit: The Indignants – Mike Roy