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“If this is the law, I want to be an outlaw."

31/10/17
Author: 
Emilee Gilpin

Oct 30, 2017

[Environmentalist Karen Mahon shows her arrest papers, calling her to court February 28 for an act of mischief. Oct. 29, 2017. Photo by Emilee Gilpin - see photo with original]

When federal police were called to arrest people protesting the Kinder Morgan pipeline expansion project in Burnaby on Saturday, two conflicting and equally powerful emotions came over veteran environmentalist Karen Mahon.

The first was fear.

Mahon, the 55-year-old co-founder of environmental nonprofit Stand, had been in handcuffs before for her activism.

She'd been detained in a jail cell after opposing the Kinder Morgan pipeline on Burnaby Mountain three years ago, in a month-long clash that saw over 100 civilians arrested by police.

And now, as she and fellow activists blocked Kinder Morgan's Trans Mountain pipeline expansion forfive and a half hours, Mahon and four environmentalists were being arrested by the RCMP for mischief.

But amidst her fear and panic, Mahon also felt a great sense of clarity. She remembered the 100 people, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, who showed up that morning with canoes, kayaks, paddle boards, and even a sailboat, to resist a pipeline they believed would be devastating to the environment.

She thought about when Kinder Morgan workers warned that protesters would be prosecuted for obstructing private property and respected Tsleil-Waututh elder Ta'ah George had stood up and yelled back with pain and anger in her voice: "This has been our land for the last 30,000 years!"

She thought about how the day had started with songs and prayers offered by First Nations elders and she thought of the two bald eagles that circled the crowd all day. Mahon knew in that moment, that if this was the law that the Canadian government was enforcing, she wanted to be an outlaw instead.

Five activists were arrested after tying themselves to a Kinder Morgan barge in Burnaby, B.C. on Oct. 28, 2017. Photo by Zack Embree.

The $7.4-billion Kinder Morgan expansion project has been met with significant opposition in B.C., in part because of an estimated 700 per cent increase in tanker traffic to Burrard Inlet. Although proponents say the expansion will generate jobs and bring millions to B.C. in tax revenue, critics say the benefits are outweighed by risks of a major oil spill, which they say is inevitable if the project is built.

Mahon spoke with National Observer, joined by one of the main organizers of Saturday's events, 20-year-old Hayley Zacks.

Zacks had been been working with Stand for the last few years and took a leave of absence from university to focus her attention to resisting the Kinder Morgan expansion project intended to triple the capacity of the existing pipeline.

Zacks said one of the most important aspects of Saturday's protests was the way in which environmental groups — 350.org, B.C. Sea Wolves, Stand and Greenpeace — had consulted the Tsleil-Waututh Nation, on whose unceded territory the protest took place. Zacks said it was vital to respect Tsleil-Waututh protocol and to gather at Whey-ah-Wichen (Cates Park), the site of an old Tsleil-Waututh village, which charged their presence with new meaning.

Representatives from many Nations showed up Saturday, including Chief Lee Spahan from the Coldwater First Nation. The Nation had recently won their case against the existing Kinder Morgan pipeline in September.

Zacks said Kinder Morgan planned to start construction on October 24, which is why the organizers planned the day of action a few days after.

No representative of Kinder Morgan was available for immediate comment.

The protests were held near the Westridge Marine Terminal. The women said Kinder Morgan had planned to lift giant metal buoys with cranes and put them in the water, to be a filling station for the tankers, Mahon explained. The 'kayaktivists' got in the way of the crane and interupted work for five-and-a-half hours.

Karen Mahon shows organizer Hayley Zachs her 'Promise to Appear' papers from Oct. 28, 2017. Photo by Emilee Gilpin

Premier Horgan, where's your toolbox?

Mahon said one of the most frustrating aspects of the proposed Kinder Morgan pipeline expansion project is the disconnect between what both federal and provincial politicians proposed during election campaigns, and the positions they hold today.

"When Justin Trudeau ran for Prime Minister, he said that governments grant permits, but communities grant permission," Mahon said. "And Premier John Horgan promised to use every tool in his toolbox to stop Kinder Morgan. But what are they doing today?"

When the Squamish Nation filed a court case against the National Energy Board's permit, then-Premier Christy Clark's provincial government in power at the time disagreed and decided to fight the Nation in court. When the BC NDP came into power, legal experts say they had multiple options for handling the court case that now fell in their lap: they could stand down, or side with the Squamish Nation, or pursue the existing strategy implemented by the Liberal government.

The NDP chose the third option, much to the disbelief of Mahon, who voted for them in the last provincial election. "I'm furious that my government is speaking on behalf of me, to the Squamish Nation," she said.

In a separate court case, six First Nations, two environmental groups and the cities of Burnaby and Vancouver are challenging the federal government's approval of the pipeline expansion.

Mahon and the four other protestors arrested on Saturday are set to appear in court on February 27, unless the province decides not to pursue the cases. But both Mahon and Zachs promised that, despite the arrests, resistance to the pipeline is far from over. Organizers are currently planning a day of training, to teach environmentalists how to deal with police forces in times of conflict.

"I remember when I was younger and I started to understand a bit about how power works and why injustices happen," Mahon said, reflecting on the journey that brought her to the place she is today. "Once you see injustice, you can't unsee it. You are compelled and forced in this direction."

But in the eyes of the Canadian government, environmentalists and First Nations who stand to protect their land and rights are considered criminals, Mahon said.

"What lessons did history teach us? I think one day, we won't be considered the criminals," she said. "They will."