Alberta’s handful of anti-pipeline protesters wage a lonely war

In a province consumed by the fate of one oil pipeline, it isn’t easy being green

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Climate Justice Edmonton protestors Anna Gerrard and Kate Jacobson sit zip-tied to the doors to Kinder Morgan in Calgary (Emma Jackson)

On a day of national protests against the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion, a few dozen Calgarians wanted to stand up and be counted, too. They gathered to present a container of clean, west-coast water to a downtown Liberal MP’s office. Their hey-ho chants that Kinder Morgan had to go, however, were quickly drowned out by a much larger group waving pro-pipeline signs. “Build it, build it!” they chanted. “It’s a little disheartening. I thought we had more support,” anti-pipeline demonstrator Jacob Dowling told a TV camera. His voice was hoarse after it became clear his side was losing the shouting contest.

A few blocks away, on the 27th floor of Calgary’s Stock Exchange Tower, five young Albertans zip-tied themselves to Kinder Morgan Canada’s office doors. Their chants about climate change and shutting down Trans Mountain went unanswered for the couple hours before police arrested them for trespassing. The Facebook video feed of that action got much love and praise in the comments, but most of it came from out-of-province. Albertans tended to pelt them with remarks degrading their intelligence and looks, or noting that their plastic zip-ties and smartphones were petroleum-based. “Us as oilfield workers should go beat these scum into the floor,” one Edmonton-area man commented.

When Prime Minister Justin Trudeau visited Calgary on May 15 to reannounce transit funding, a clutch of onlookers heckled him—in favour of Trans Mountain, naturally. The following day, about 100 Calgarians, mostly on a morning break from office jobs, waved pro-pipeline signs outside Kinder Morgan Canada’s annual shareholder gathering; this time, there was no opposition rally. “In bitumen we trust,” read a few demonstrators’ signs, made to look like Alberta licence plates.

If anti-pipeline protest is a defiant act, the few who do it in Alberta rage against many machines. They find zero support in the legislature, where the governing New Democrats are full-throated champions of Trans Mountain and the United Conservative opposition wails that the government isn’t doing enough. There’s little outcry among Indigenous leaders in the province who have come to prefer financial partnerships with oil developers over resistance.

RELATED: Trans Mountain and First Nations along the pipeline route: It’s not a dichotomy of ‘for’ or ‘against’

Environmental groups here tend to steer clear of the pipeline debate, and Greenpeace’s lone full-time climate campaigner in the province recently relocated to the group’s bustling Vancouver office. Arguing at the bitumen-loading end of Kinder Morgan’s pipeline is also a great way to irritate relatives and strain friendships, in a province where oil extraction provides jobs and prevailing rhetoric makes it sound like everyone’s survival hinges on the success of one $7.4-billion conduit to Burrard Inlet. The heretics!

The last couple polls have put Canada-wide support for Kinder Morgan’s project in the high 50s. In Alberta, it ranges from 84 (Ipsos) to 87 per cent (Angus Reid), while opponents represent as few as six per cent. Albertans are roughly three times as likely to confess to a pollster that they don’t admire their spouse’s financial habits than to express distaste for a contentious energy project.

Pro-Kinder Morgan demonstrators tend to outnumber anti-pipeline protesters in Alberta THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh

“It’s a very difficult sort of organizing climate,” said Mike Hudema, who in May left Edmonton after a decade as Greenpeace’s Alberta spokesman for an indefinite term fighting Trans Mountain in the B.C. Lower Mainland, where the group thought his talents were of more use. Energy corporations have convinced Albertans their sector forms part of their identity, says the Edmonton-raised Hudema: “That means when folks attack the oil industry, people also feel that that’s a personal attack.” After demonstrations or actions, he says, “I’d get the odd comment from some of my cousins, for sure.”

Emma Jackson moved west for grad school two years ago after getting a degree at New Brunswick’s Mount Allison University, where she led efforts to persuade the school to divest from fossil fuel companies. She mulled launching a similar initiative upon arriving at University of Alberta, but quickly realized what an uphill battle that would be. Then, this spring, her university seemed on the verge of divestment push of a different sort—business donors and alumni threatened to pull funds if the school followed through on plans to bestow an honorary degree upon broadcaster and pipeline critic David Suzuki, triggering apologies and denouncements—of Suzuki—by the deans of business and engineering. Aside from its status as employer and economic driver, oil dollars fuel Alberta’s halls of academe, sponsors culture and recreation centres. A recent nationwide billboard campaign by Rachel Notley’s government posits that a pipeline “means more money for roads, schools and hospitals.”

The likes of Hudema and Jackson used to count Notley and the NDP in their small company. In the party’s opposition days, its two or four MLAs were fixtures at anti-pipeline rallies who pushed in the legislature for more oversight, better cleanup and higher resource royalties for provincial coffers. Activists fought to elect more NDP members—54 won office in 2015, and now there’s not a pipeline critic among them. The New Democrats’ shift since winning power has left scarce oxygen for the skeptical side in the province, activists say. “There isn’t an alternative that stands and speaks for us and what we believe in,” Jackson says. “That is something that is so isolating and difficult to navigate.” A clutch of NDP activists tried at a 2016 convention to break up the party’s newfound love affair with pipelines, but that went nowhere. Hudema says some critics stay quiet for fear that needling the Notley government will drive more votes to Jason Kenney’s United Conservatives, who are favourites to win the 2019 election.

RELATED: The Alberta-B.C. pipeline fight: ‘It might be easier to hate oil companies if they didn’t hire so many people’

In a recent book called Oil’s Deep State, former Alberta Liberal leader Kevin Taft describes the one-industry stranglehold that goes beyond Alberta politics and into other institutions: regulators, universities, media, bureaucracy and more. That has its influence on public discourse, Taft says. “It’s an unhealthy time for democracy, and I think it endangers Alberta’s long-term prosperity because, like it or not, the world is going to be moving beyond fossil fuels.” Taft worries important debates aren’t happening, but is heartened that his book spent a few months on Edmonton’s bestseller list and that he drew a respectable crowd at a recent lecture in Calgary. But tacking to the left of Notley on the pipeline question has its downsides—even for an ex-politician. “Your list of friends gets pretty short when you stand up on these issues,” Taft says.

Jackson is part of the young of small organizing team of Climate Justice Edmonton. Many of their actions involve a handful of sign-clutching activists visiting local NDP MLAs’ offices to deliver anti-pipeline messages, and waving signs about clean water, “climate crimes” and Indigenous rights. (Sometimes, a few Council of Canadians members will push their turnout close to a dozen.) Gabriele Gelderman first got active as a student in Victoria, where she says people viewed attending rallies as a duty, or regular weekend activity. Back home in Edmonton, “sometimes I can get parents or friends of mine to come out.”

Gelderman and her sister joined Jackson and another Climate Justice Edmonton organizer to form the core of the zip-tie protest at Kinder Morgan offices in March. Kate Jacobson, one of the action’s two Calgary-based participants, says she found the local reaction hostile and misogynistic, but appreciated the support activists from B.C. and elsewhere. “One of the reasons we did it was for people to see that even in Calgary, there are people willing to take action.” Jacobson says. Edmonton activists had also visited the much larger Burnaby Mountain protest to unfurl an oversized “Albertans against Kinder Morgan” banner—not a phrase that attracts many Google hits. There, complete strangers gave them hugs of appreciation, Jackson says, particularly activists formerly from Alberta, who praised their courage. “It can feel unbelievably lonely, but at the same time the opposite can be true.”

In addition to a steady supply of chutzpah and willingness to tolerate abuse, Alberta’s pipeline critics need something else their B.C. counterparts seldom employ. To counter detractors who view pipeline protest as anti-economy, activists in Calgary and Edmonton swear they care deeply about energy workers, touting renewable-energy jobs they say will emerge during a “just transition” from oil. Those who tune out the first half of that message may ignore the second. But some activists say they get a better reception among young people, or the broader cohort of Albertans who worry about the impacts of climate change but not to the point of wanting to cut off the oil sands from overseas markets.

RELATED: Trans Mountain and First Nations along the pipeline route: It’s not a dichotomy of ‘for’ or ‘against’

Alberta’s few eco-warriors against Trans Mountain also purport to be acting on behalf of Indigenous people—but in Alberta they, too, skew far more pro-pipeline than elsewhere in Canada. Nearly half of Alberta First Nations along the pipeline route have signed benefit agreements or letters of support, compared to about one-third in B.C. According to Eriel Deranger of Indigenous Climate Action, few Alberta chiefs have come out opposed. Alberta band councils became reliant on resource sector partnerships and benefits packages after earlier decades of watching the industry throw up energy projects all around them with little say or upside, she says. “They’ve had decades to coerce Indigenous leadership in the province,” says Deranger, who lives in Edmonton. “The Kool-Aid has been drunk in Alberta moreso.”

This spring, she was upset to find her own band’s chief, Allan Adam of Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation (north of Fort McMurray, the oil sands capital) proposed buying a stake in Trans Mountain to help get it built—after years of being at the forefront of Indigenous oil sands resistance. “I am tired of fighting,” he said in April. Deranger says Adam is a sellout and that fellow band members remain irate over the deal. But she’s mostly frustrated by a system that makes First Nations like hers fight for years and end up with little. “It’s that lack of substantive changes and that lack of concrete response from government that continues to break down nations that push for our rights,” she says.

With chiefs on the sidelines—in Big Oil’s pocket, detractors will say—Indigenous pipeline resistance in Alberta is mostly among non-leaders. Autumn EagleSpeaker, of Kainai Nation in southern Alberta, bemoans the “harsh” situation band leaders are in, having developed close ties with the oil sector as a way to improve their lot, rather than join the fight. “Even in my own community, they’re doing fracking now,” she says.

RELATED: The B.C.-Alberta pipeline fight could undo our national climate plan

Earlier in May, she joined other Alberta Indigenous women and some from Minnesota, in town to protest against a different federally approved pipeline, the U.S.-bound Enbridge Line 3 replacement. That demonstration outside Enbridge’s annual meeting in Calgary numbered around 30. In hopes of drowning out what they called the “no-everything crowd,” pro-pipeline groups Rally 4 Resources and Canada Action encouraged a counter-rally. That drew close to 200, and plenty of hot tempers: one non-Indigenous man yelled at them, “This is my land!” Another man, pumping his fist in the air, chanted, “Canada! Canada!” “Jobs! Jobs!” and “Freedom! Freedom!” EagleSpeaker felt threatened. “They were so angry at us for being there. I’ve never felt like that before—in Calgary or any other protest.”

Cody Battershill of Canada Action, which says most of its funding comes from pro-oil sands T-shirt sales, said people come out because they’re fed up with the pipeline being delayed; they believe their foes misunderstand pipeline safety and don’t appreciate the economic benefits. “Maybe they don’t have the whole story in front of them,” says Battershill of protesters, going on to suggest some are employed by well-funded eco-groups. That’s an assertion Alberta activists say they hear routinely, and is untrue; not in this province, certainly.

Opposing pipelines in Alberta is a task paid in insults, out-of-province respect, and the satisfaction of feeling you’re advocating for a better future. Kate Jacobson, who got arrested for the Kinder Morgan office protest, declares herself a socialist Jewish woman living in Calgary, and says she wouldn’t define herself thus if the dominant opinion affected her beliefs. “It would feel more lonely,” she says, “if I wasn’t so convinced I was right.”