On the morning of Thursday September 8, a crowd of roughly thirty people gathered outside the American consulate in Montreal to protest the controversial Dakota Access Pipeline project. Chanting “Water is life!” and “Leave it in the ground!”, they expressed solidarity with the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and their allies, who have been engaged in a non-violent struggle against the project since July.
The Dakota Access Pipeline, which would transport over half a million barrels of oil nearly 2000 kilometers across the U.S. Midwest every day, was approved for construction earlier this summer without consulting the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. The pipeline threatens the Missouri River, an essential source of fresh water for the tribe, and cuts through land that holds deep spiritual significance for them. In recent days, the Standing Rock reservation has become a focal point of peaceful Indigenous resistance to what many see as a form of neo-colonialism, with activists from across the continent travelling to the community to stand alongside the local protesters and offer support.
Many others have expressed solidarity from afar, like Isanielle Enright, who brought her ceremonial drum to Thursday’s demonstration.
“A lot of us cannot go to Standing Rock, so we want to let them know that there are people in the northern parts of America — of Turtle Island — that have their cause at heart. […] Even if we can’t be there in person, we are definitely there with them in spirit.”
“The drum represents the heartbeat of Mother Earth,” Enright told The Daily, “and it’s kind of an honour to be a drum bearer. It’s also a kind of social responsibility to be there at important gatherings, so that’s why I brought mine today: to sing some traditional songs, and also to give courage […] to the people here who are gathered in support of Standing Rock.”
“A lot of us cannot go to Standing Rock,” she continued, “so we want to let them know that there are people in the northern parts of America — of Turtle Island — that have their cause at heart. […] Even if we can’t be there in person, we are definitely there with them in spirit.”
Enright explained to The Daily that she has roots in the local Kanien’kehá:ka community on her mother’s side, and that this entails a particular responsibility, “For a lot of Indigenous peoples, we are considered as the protectors of water and the protectors of Mother Earth, so it is our responsibility to step up when something like this is happening — when decisions that are motivated by profit threaten the ecosystem.”
“A lot of people refer to the [Dakota Access] pipeline as the Iron Snake or as the Black Snake because of the oil it carries,” she added, “but it pertains to a much older prophecy that refers to […] a time of great disturbance that would be caused by an iron snake.”
“For us here today, it’s about that – finding the great peace in our mind, spirit, heart, and body.”
Another demonstrator present outside the U.S. consulate, who identified himself as Jules, emphasized the idea of peaceful resistance in confronting these threats to the natural world.
“In Kanien’kéha, the language of the Mohawk people, […] there is a saying: when you meet someone, usually you will say ‘she:kon skennenko:wa ken?’ The ‘ken’ is making it a question, asking ‘is the great peace in your mind?’ […] For us here today, it’s about that – finding the great peace in our mind, spirit, heart, and body.”
Opposition to the Energy East Pipeline
Enright also expressed opposition to the proposed Energy East Pipeline, which would carry over 1.1 million barrels of crude oil per day from the tar sands of Alberta to refineries in Eastern Canada.
“[The Energy East pipeline] is going to cross the St. Lawrence,” said Enright. “You can’t put the head of future generations on the execution block and try to reassure the population by saying there’s a pretty good chance that the axe isn’t going to fall. It’s too much of a risk, and we don’t want it here.”
This pipeline, which already faces substantial opposition from environmental groups, became embroiled in further controversy recently when it emerged that two of the National Energy Board (NEB) members tasked with reviewing the project prior to construction had met privately with Jean Charest, a former Quebec premier currently employed by TransCanada, the corporation behind the Energy East Pipeline. When this conflict of interest was revealed, the NEB suspended its public hearings on the Energy East Pipeline amid protests in Montreal and called for the Board to overhaul its review process.
“You can’t put the head of future generations on the execution block and try to reassure the population by saying there’s a pretty good chance that the axe isn’t going to fall. It’s too much of a risk, and we don’t want it here.”
Several of those demonstrating outside the U.S. consulate attended the protests against the Energy East project during the public hearings in Montreal two weeks ago, and some criticized the federal government for failing to reform the review process adequately. This was one of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s campaign promises when he ran for election last year.
“Everything they’ve signed, everything they’ve said, it’s just ‘bla-bla’,” said demonstrator Sandra Cordero, speaking to The Daily in French. “It’s really not serious, and we really have to get upset, and stand with the people who are oppressed. […] [Trudeau] is going backwards with regard to what he promised to do, […] so people are standing here and reminding him that […] he hasn’t delivered on his promise.”
Another protester, who chose to identify herself only as Sandy, echoed Cordero’s criticism: “Justin Trudeau puts on a very nice presentation, and he has his pretty-boy smile, but […] I believe […] the Liberal government is serving the interests of big business, and at the end of the day, that’s who he’s going to be siding with.”
After roughly an hour and a half, Thursday’s demonstration dispersed peacefully. Although at least one police vehicle was stationed down the block from the protesters for the duration of the event, no attempt was made to interfere with them.
For their part, passers-by seemed to have reacted positively to the protest.
“The Liberal government is serving the interests of big business, and at the end of the day, that’s who he’s going to be siding with.”
“Most people look [at us], some of them don’t show any visible reaction,” said a demonstrator named Marilyne, speaking to The Daily in French, “but we’ve also gotten encouragement and smiles – even just a smile warms the heart. […] We haven’t received any expressions of anger.”
The Daily also spoke with members of the Montreal student community about pipelines, and about the ways in which those without personal ties to the areas directly affected can engage with what is, in some respects, a very local struggle.
Keah Hansen, a U3 English student at McGill, is from Nova Scotia. In an email to The Daily, she explained that while Indigenous issues and climate justice are very important to her, she feels somewhat disconnected from the anti-pipeline resistance taking place in Montreal.
“I actually feel very removed from the Energy East issue,” Hansen wrote, “and I think that this is definitely a privileged perspective, as I’m not from Quebec, and, moreover, the potential dangers of a pipeline don’t affect my community of downtown Montreal. […] However, as an academic institution located on the traditional territory of Indigenous communities, and seeing how so many Indigenous groups have already been affected by pipelines and are opposing this proposed pipeline, [the McGill community] ought to […] reject its installation.”
“These recent events are only one manifestation of an Indigenous struggle that is centuries old.”
According to Anya Sivajothy, a former editor at The Daily and the current Sustainability Commissioner of the Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU), recognizing our relationship to the Indigenous land we occupy is an important part of becoming a useful ally to the pipeline resistance movement. But, she says, there’s more to be done.
“These recent events are only one manifestation of an Indigenous struggle that is centuries old,” wrote Sivajothy in an email to The Daily. “Interested students can be allies first by acknowledging the kind of relationship that they have with the land that they are occupying and then communicating with Indigenous communities to see how they can show their solidarity.”
“Oil spills are also constantly happening, which lead to environmental destruction despite the promises that the pipelines are safe and monitored. […] We are not removed from these problems.”
Sivajothy also explained that pollution to the St. Lawrence River could have serious repercussions for McGill, Montreal and the wider region.
“More and more concerns are being revealed with regards to the pipelines, especially with ones that are close to us such as the Energy East Pipeline. Just recently there was a report talking about how the pipelines may affect the safety of drinking water near Winnipeg. Oil spills are also constantly happening, which lead to environmental destruction despite the promises that the pipelines are safe and monitored. […] We are not removed from these problems.”