At 7:30 a.m. on December 21, 2015, Vanessa Gray and two supporters, Stone Stewart and Sarah Scanlon, shut down the flow of oil through Enbridge’s Line 9 pipeline near Sarnia on Anishinaabe Territory. After calling Enbridge Inc. to demand that the pipeline be turned off, they turned the handwheel themselves to shut off the pipeline, and bike-locked their necks to the valve.
Roughly 50 people gathered in McGill’s Frank Dawson Adams auditorium on Tuesday, September 27 to hear Gray speak at an event called “Defending Land Defenders.” The event consisted of three parts, including a presentation by Gray and her sister Lindsay, a discussion by panelists about direct action, and an open conversation with the audience on how students, researchers, and scholars can help support Indigenous land defenders. The event was organized by CKUT radio, Climate Justice Montreal, Economics for the Anthropocene, and Divest McGill, as part of Divest McGill’s Fossil Free Week.
Other panelists included Darin Barney, an associate professor of Art History & Communication Studies at McGill; Geoffrey Garver, who recently received a PhD from McGill’s Geography department; Bradley Por, a doctoral candidate who studies Indigenous blockades as a source of law; Nicolas Kosoy, an associate professor at McGill’s Natural Resource Sciences department, specializing in environmental economics; and Normand Beaudet, co-founder of the Centre de ressources sur la non-violence.
Life in Chemical Valley
Vanessa and Lindsay Gray are women from the Aamjiwnaang First Nation, just outside Sarnia, Ontario. They live in what is called “Canada’s Chemical Valley”: an area which houses over 60 oil refineries and chemical plants that produce plastics and gasoline. Recently, plans to build a new polyethelyne plant were announced.
“There’s a lot of cancer in my community. I’ve noticed there’s a lot of breast cancer in the women,” said Vanessa at a press conference prior to the event, in response to The Daily’s question. 39 per cent of women surveyed in the community of 800 have experienced a miscarriage or stillbirth. Many community members experience severe or chronic headaches, asthma, rashes, and thyroid and kidney problems.
“As a child, I was worried for my own sake, when I would constantly have asthma attacks,” explained Vanessa during the panel. “This is ongoing violence on the land, and violence on our bodies. It’s a chemical war zone that we’re dealing with.”
Then, in December 2015, a tar sands pipeline owned by Enbridge, called Line 9, began shipping diluted bitumen – a liquid form of petroleum – between Sarnia and Montreal. According to many Indigenous activists, Line 9 violates Indigenous sovereignty and treaty rights.
“This is ongoing violence on the land, and violence on our bodies. It’s a chemical war zone that we’re dealing with.”
“Line 9, Enbridge’s pipeline, is an unsafe pipeline,” said Vanessa, noting that changes to the pipeline were made without consultation with the Indigenous people living in communities along the pipeline. “And so now a lot of communities – not only Indigenous communities – are faced with their drinking water at risk, with little to no emergency plan for a tar sands spill, anywhere between here and Sarnia,” she continued.
Vanessa Gray, Stewart, and Scanlon have been charged with counts of Mischief Over $5,000 and Mischief Endangering Life – the latter charge carrying a maximum sentence of life in prison. Stewart was also charged with resisting arrest. Vanessa’s preliminary hearing will take place on February 24 in Sarnia, she explained at the panel.
During the panel, Garver noted that governments don’t have the resources to prosecute every instance of civil disobedience. “Every act of enforcement is an exercise of discretion – so it’s really a political choice,” he explained.
“And so now a lot of communities – not only Indigenous communities – are faced with their drinking water at risk, with little to no emergency plan for a tar sands spill, anywhere between here and Sarnia.”
According to the Line 9 Shutdown website, there are no other known instances of activists who have been charged for Mischief Endangering Life, “which leads us to believe it is a scare tactic to discourage land defense and resistance against the fossil fuel industry,” the site states.
“When we look at my case, you see the extreme charges that I have,” Vanessa told The Daily. “I think we should be thinking of my actions as less radical, and looking at our own government and our own justice system as more extreme. Because there’s nothing radical about Indigenous people protecting their own lands, and their own Indigenous territory.”
Why direct action?
Beaudet explained to the audience that, in a representative democracy like Canada, individual citizens rely on elected representatives to act in their best interests. “But you start feeling that if your representative can’t do anything, then you need to go to actions that are direct,” he said.
But according to Beaudet, direct action is not acknowledged by the Canadian government as a legitimate part of the democratic process, which leads those who attempt civil disobedience to be arrested for various charges.
“Every act of enforcement is an exercise of discretion – so it’s really a political choice.”
“You have charges of mischief, assault, obstructing police officers,” said Beaudet. “All of these rules are very vague, and permit officers to arrest anyone in almost any situation.”
Vanessa added, however, that Indigenous land defence is distinct from other acts of civil disobedience. “When it comes to Indigenous people there is a history of law enforcement escalating quickly,” she explained. She cited the 1995 Ipperwash Crisis, where the Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) shot and killed an Ojibwe protester, Dudley George, as he walked towards officers with a stick in his hand during an Indigenous land dispute.
Barney believes that acts of civil disobedience by Indigenous people to protect their land are both morally and politically justifiable.
“The conditions which typically produce this kind of direct action are some kind of historical criminal injury; current conditions of ongoing material, psychological, bodily, social harm; an imperative to act to protect the future against some known and present threat or danger; and the demonstrable incapacity of existing institutions to address those first three conditions,” he said. “I would say that it’s clear that each of those conditions is present in the case of Vanessa’s action.”
“I think we should be thinking of my actions as less radical, and looking at our own government and our own justice system as more extreme. Because there’s nothing radical about Indigenous people protecting their own lands, and their own Indigenous territory.”
“For Indigenous people, it’s our lives that are at stake when it comes to defending the land and the water,” Vanessa continued. “Indigenous people had to resist in order to survive up until this moment – and that’s who we are as a people now. We are nothing but survival.”
In defense of disobedience
Those who would seek to delegitimize direct action argue that’s it’s ‘undemocratic,’ Barney explained. “But […] that democratic ideal, under certain conditions, is thwarted by organized power and by agents who seek to undermine it – which are the conditions that pertain around resource extraction and petrochemical development.”
“When those conditions of thwarting of the democratic process and ideal are present, actions which seek to expose that, and to enforce the possibility of autonomous collective decision-making by the people who are most affected by the kinds of conditions that we’ve been discussing, those actions don’t undermine democracy – they serve it,” Barney concluded.
“Indigenous people had to resist in order to survive up until this moment – and that’s who we are as a people now. We are nothing but survival.”
Por argued that recognition of Indigenous legal systems would legitimize the actions of Indigenous activists in the eyes of the Canadian government. “We need to recognize that […] there’s a different legal system that actually requires people, out of a duty to the land, to protect the land,” he explained.
Vanessa encouraged audience members to consider taking direct action as a form of activism, but also stressed the importance of being an ally to Indigenous people in their defense of their own territory.
Speaking to The Daily, Andrew Stein, a U3 Environment student and member of Divest McGill, said that it’s essential for activists to recognise that climate change impacts Indigenous people more than others, in what Vanessa called “environmental racism.”
“It’s important to support people on the front lines of extraction, support people in Indigenous communities who are being underrepresented elsewhere, and recognise that they are the traditional custodians of the lands and waters,” said Stein. “They’ve been fighting this fight for a long time, and it’s time that we recognise that and support them however we can.”