When the Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline was cancelled I was just about to graduate high school. I was starting to find my own footing in the world and where my values aligned. I headed west from Alberta to start university without looking back. What I would learn over the next several years would ultimately shape my position today.
The film Groundswell, produced a few years earlier in 2012 by Raincoast, Woodshed Films, and Patagonia, was created at a tense time on the coast, as I would come to appreciate much later. The film, in its simplest ‘sport adventure’ form, follows a group of professional surfers (and Raincoast’s Chris Darimont and Brian Falconer) as they experience world-class waves on the central coast of BC for the first time. But what the film really portrays is the unspoiled beauty of a region under threat of an oil spill should the Northern Gateway Pipeline be built. Throughout the film, viewers get a glimpse of the wildlife, old-growth forests, and epic surf breaks located in Heiltsuk Territory. Poignantly, the audience hear directly from the Heiltsuk people who firmly opposed the pipeline and were doing everything in their power to fight it. Though the outcome was unknown at the time Groundswell was filmed, the Northern Gateway pipeline was ultimately cancelled.
So what happens after a groundswell? What can we as conservationists and the larger society learn about Indigenous self-determination, dedicated organizing, legal battles, and campaigning? With Jess Housty, one of two Heiltsuk voices in the film at our screenings, we discussed these important processes during our short tour of After the Groundswell.
We thank everyone who came out to join us during our tour of After the Groundswell. If you weren’t able to be there in person stay tuned for the now freely available film to appear online in May.
What happens after a groundswell?
In conservation and activism work, there is rarely time to celebrate the “wins,” so when it was proposed that we revisit this story a decade later, this presented a unique opportunity to reflect on the now cancelled pipeline. What exactly led to this outcome and how could we learn from it?
At the heart of it is the reminder of the power of a community united. In this fight in particular, the voices of coastal communities highlighted where impacts of an environmental catastrophe from Northern Gateway would’ve been most felt. In Heiltsuk territory, the risk of an oil spill was too great not to fight. The film shows scenes of Heiltsuk youth and community members in peaceful protest as government officials entered the territory for a public hearing. These voices ultimately became sentinels of change, empowered community leadership, yielded an outcome that would not likely otherwise have been possible without the strong opposition of the coastal nations.
After the Groundswell also serves as a reminder that there is more work to be done. When an audience member during the tour asked how to cope with burnout, Jess Housty earnestly replied that this work was often the result of unresolved anger, and without love, family, and community, there would be nothing to ground the struggle. That struck a chord with me. Shortly after the cancellation of the Northern Gateway, the Trans Mountain pipeline was approved. Less than a year later, the Nathan E. Stewart ran aground, leaking thousands of litres of diesel fuel and bunker oil into Heiltsuk waters, with impacts still being felt on the coast several years after clean up attempts. Over the last decade, communities have continuously seen profit prioritized over culture, safety, and title. But the tide is turning.
Fast forward to the present day. After a few weeks of sharing the film with folks across the coast we get to celebrate a different, humble “win.” The opportunity to connect with one another and to be surrounded in good company. Watching the film (a few times…) made me so grateful to be a visitor in Heiltsuk territory again this summer and to hug friends again.
I also feel fortunate to have the opportunity to reflect on lessons from the recent past, which guide future work and solutions to the many challenges that face this coast. In this way, we know what to look forward to after the groundswell.
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