“A priest, a rabbi, a Hindu and a Unitarian walk onto a pipeline route…”
It may sound like the beginning of a joke, but this set-up describes a weekly blockade of the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain Expansion Project near Vancouver, British Columbia, Coast Salish Territory. Salal + Cedar, a watershed discipleship community in the Anglican Diocese of New Westminster (Anglican Church of Canada), helped lead a blockade of the Kinder Morgan access road each Thursday in December, organizing an opportunity for an interfaith group to come together around the common goal of stopping construction of the expanded pipeline, and acknowledging a shared connection to the water, land, and creatures of their watershed and world.
The Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain Expansion Project would “parallel the 1,150-km route of the existing Trans Mountain Pipeline, which was built in 1953 and is the only West Coast link for Western Canadian oil,” increasing the capacity from 300,000 barrels of oil per day to 890,000 (Kinder Morgan website). However, as Rev. Laurel Dykstra of Salal + Cedar puts it, “The proposed expansion project differs significantly in route [from the existing pipeline]. It crosses a whole ton of waterways and un-ceded Indigenous territory, where people have not been fully consulted, or have explicitly denied their consent.” The level of public outcry against this project has been significant, with letter-writing campaigns and well-attended protests and marches, but approval for the project has been pushed through anyway. As construction proceeds, it is time to move forward into a different kind of action. Of this moment, Dykstra says:
“To be at the outset of that different kind of action, to see where different voices will put their bodies, is an interesting and exciting time.”
Salal + Cedar had been thinking and praying about a way to consistently and meaningfully disrupt the construction of this new pipeline through nonviolent direct action, so when Rabbi David Mivasair called Rev. Dykstra and asked if her community would be able to help host a series of protests, Salal + Cedar was ready to act. The first week, “Essentially what we did was we closed down the front gate to Westridge Marine Terminal for two to three hours. That’s the destination for the pipeline product, which will be bitumen, before it goes onto tankers. What we’re doing is slowing down or stopping, for the amount of time that we can, all of the work that’s going on in that facility,” said Dykstra. The small group of protestors stood in the road, backing up all the traffic to the facility, including utility vehicles and transport buses. Dykstra noted that workers sitting in their vehicles and waiting for the protest to be cleared are not losing pay during this time.
When police officers arrived on the scene to clear the protestors after their first December action, the interfaith group asked for a few minutes to confer about what to do. Did they want to continue the blockade and get arrested, leave the site, or come up with a creative way to delay? They decided to ask for a bit more time to offer closing prayers. Rabbi David quipped, “Do you know how long the Jewish prayer book is?” and Bina Salimath said, “I am Hindu. We’re going to pray to a lot of gods so it’s going to take quite a long time before we’ll be able to leave the intersection!” Though the group did not pray through the entirety of their traditions’ prayer repositories on that day, they indicated the strength and longevity of their commitment through invoking their traditions’ blessings, laments, and petitions.
The slowdowns caused by these and other actions are having an impact on the profitability of the project, according to Dykstra:
“There’s a whole lot of talk from the head office at Kinder Morgan about the great cost that public protest is causing them. Essentially, what we’re doing is making it not profitable. The more it costs, the longer it takes, the less likely it is for the pipeline to go through.”
Salal + Cedar prepared for this series of actions through attending protest events led by other groups, hosting and then leading nonviolent direct action trainings in their region, and consistently connecting their Christian faith with their watershed through worship experiences. Salal + Cedar meets for worship outside, acknowledging that the “liturgy of the Word” includes both scripture and creation. Each Holy Week Salal + Cedar partners with Earthkeepers, another local Christian Environmental group, to experience the stations of the cross on Burnaby Mountain, attending to the suffering of creation in light of the crucifixion and resurrection story. They participate in protests such as kayaktivism to get in the way of oil tankers and to prevent the construction of new tanker berths, and they spend time learning to know and love the network of species that call the Lower Fraser Watershed home. They learn practical skills such as building rain barrels, they work together to support local food production and distribution, and they help others engage faith-based environmental care through visiting and sharing with local congregations, offering a children’s curriculum, hosting a youth camp focused on environmental justice, and offering workshops in anti-oppression and nonviolent direct action. (Workshops include hosting a training by 350.org, partnering with Fossil Free Faith of Vancouver, and running trainings based on Training for Change.)
For the Kinder Morgan actions, Salal + Cedar has committed to doing something one morning a week. This month, they hosted weekly prayer and action events, and in the future, they hope to be ready to mobilize infrastructure to help support long-term encampments, such as providing breakfast once a week.
This is part of a larger rolling wave of actions that is being coordinated in a semi-organized fashion by “big green” organizations like 350.org and Greenpeace in collaboration with local environmental groups and faith communities. In addition to Salal + Cedar’s weekly road blockades, the water side of the project has been slowed through kayaktivism by a group called the Sea Wolves. They paddle in and out of the safety area around construction occurring in the water. This forces workers to stop until kayaks move out of the safety zone, resuming momentarily, only to stop again as the kayaks move back into the safety area. The presence of the kayaks also slows down tankers and tugs navigating the waterway.
Dykstra sees Salal + Cedar’s actions to protest the Trans Mountain Expansion Project as part of their commitment to watershed discipleship. After their community has “have taken all of the civil and sanctioned responses that are possible,” moving into nonviolent direct action is a way of living out love to their watershed neighbors, both human and other species:
“Since Burnaby Mountain is where we do our annual stations of the cross, our sacramental life is also very tied to place. Our love of neighbor in our watershed and our capacity to be present with our bodies and to put ourselves in the way of harm is a very real opportunity here. We’ve been growing this capacity and looking to this possibility, because the threats here are quite personal. There are families that are part of Salal + Cedar who live in homes that are threatened by the fact that there really is no adequate fire and emergency response to a pipeline spill. The resident orca pods that live in the waters off of the land here are dwindling in number because of the depletion of wild salmon stock. And the audio harm that the pile driving will do to those communities is inestimable and immeasurable.”
In an effort “to know and love our neighbors in that place, and to raise up the names of the various species that are endangered by this project,” Salal + Cedar plans a species survey count, traversing the land around the Kinder Morgan facility. “All across these private property lines, salmon streams, eagles, ravens, bushtits, and all kinds of living creatures are moving back and forth across these artificial lines,” notes Dykstra. She also calls attention to the Coast Salish people, whose land is yet again being destroyed and diminished by this project, though their ancestry can be traced back thousands of years in that region, “one of the highest genetically provable long-term residences in one place in the world.”
The community of Salal + Cedar hopes that their example will inspire others to engage in similar action. They see their commitment to watershed health and equity as a way of reaffirming their baptismal vows, which include a promise to sustain and safeguard the integrity of creation, and they encourage others to faithfully enact watershed discipleship in the regions we call home. Laurel Dykstra welcomes inquiries from other faith communities and leaders who would like to learn more about how to begin moving in this direction.
Without this commitment to get in the way of the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain Expansion Project and similar projects in our own watersheds, Dykstra states eloquently:
“What we stand to lose is species, is ecosystems, is homes. To be present to that suffering of creation, to act as part of creation caring for itself, is part of our watershed vocation.”