Wet'suwet'en protests from a physician's perspective

Larry Barzelai and Warren Bell

OPINION: In much of northeastern B.C., Indigenous populations can no longer hunt and fish as their ancestors did, because their land and water are too polluted and disturbed by infrastructure.

As physicians, we are deeply distressed to see force being used to disrupt a legitimate protest by the Wet’suwet’en people. They are simply trying to protect the present and future health of their people. We need to be cognizant of the devastating effect that the Coastal GasLink pipeline will have on their way of life.

This Indigenous nation claims that it has the right to be able to drink clean water from its streams, eat healthy fish from its rivers, and protect animals that thrive in its lands. Is this too much to ask?

In many other Indigenous lands, the water is undrinkable. Consider the many First Nations that have had boil-water advisories for decades.

In much of northeastern B.C., Indigenous populations can no longer hunt and fish as their ancestors did, because their land and water are too polluted and disturbed by infrastructure. It’s clear that oil and gas industries are the source of many of these changes.

The fracking industry there has adversely affected the health of people who live close to fracking wells. Health research shows that pregnant women in B.C.’s northeast have a high prevalence of benzene in their urine. Other medical studies tell us that benzene in the bodies of pregnant women is a strong risk factor for Acute Lymphocytic Leukemia in their offspring. Also, numerous American studies show increases in congenital heart disease, chronic lung problems, and small birthweight babies in populations living close to fracking operations.

Construction of the Coastal GasLink pipeline feeds the massive LNG liquification plant in Kitimat, which will irrevocably disrupt the lives of people in northeastern and northwestern B.C. At a time when we need to be transitioning off fossil fuels and actively promoting renewable industries and energy conservation, B.C. is moving aggressively in the wrong direction. If we export more natural gas to the Far East, we give countries there less incentive to develop renewable energy projects and increased energy efficiency.

The Pembina Institute has calculated that this project will increase B.C.’s carbon output by almost 10 megatons per year. B.C.’s present carbon output is about 63 megatons per year and it needs to decrease that to 46 megatons by 2030. How is vigorously promoting the fracking industry going to help achieve this necessary reduction?

It was the Wet’suwet’en, together with the Gitxsan, who fought and won the Delgamuukw case. This landmark court case gave legal standing to traditional Indigenous land-based practices. Through their present actions, the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs continue in their ongoing quest to protect their natural environment and ensure a healthy future for the next generation.

In essence, the struggle of the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs is a struggle for all of us, because we all need clean water, unpolluted air, and a healthy environment. By supporting them, we are increasing the chances that all children and grandchildren will have a healthy future.

We must ensure that the B.C. government is on the right side of history. Our political leaders should be promoting a positive environmental future for its citizens, rather than supporting an industry that is mired in the past.

Global warming is real and it’s happening quickly. Every credible climate scientist tells us that we must reduce our dependence on fossil fuels.

Let’s do the right thing.

Dr. Larry Barzelai and Dr. Warren Bell are members of CAPE (Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment).