By Shari Narine, originally published in the news section Oct. 26, 2023
It Stops Here: Standing Up for Our Lands, Our Waters, and Our People is a powerful work by Rueben George that chronicles his journey in leading Tsleil-Waututh Nation’s fight against the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion in British Columbia.
And while the expansion is set to start operating in the first quarter of 2024, boosting the pipeline’s capacity to 890,000 barrels per day from 300,000 and carrying oil from Alberta to Burnaby, BC, George still believes the fight has been a victory.
“We said ‘No.’ We said, ‘No’ like our ancestors have. We were stewards of our lands and our waters till the bitter end. And that in itself is something. We didn't settle. We didn't negotiate, and that's something. We said ‘No’ like our ancestors did,” said George.
To understand fully the victory is to understand the concept of naut'sa mawt, which George defines in his book as “everything is interconnected and related.”
As he writes, “This fight against the pipeline is also a much bigger story about who we are and why we fight to protect what we have. The story that I want to tell is the story of our people and our reciprocal relationship with our lands and waters dating back to our First Mother.”
It is that connectedness that sees George start his story with the impact of colonization, Indian residential schools and the brutality of intergenerational trauma.
“What I talk about in the book (is) that generational pain is passed on. But also the good things are passed on. And what's helped us is our culture and our spirituality,” he said.
George recounts the “horrible things” that happened to him, his own hardships, his addictions and alcoholism, his reputation as a brawler, his broken marriage.
But then there was the healing through ceremony.
“So at the other side of that healing of myself, I connected to our lands and our waters and our people and everything on it.” he said. He recalled his grandfather, Academy Award-winning actor Chief Dan George, who at the height of his fame said ‘All I want is for the grass to hear me.’
It was something Rueben understood intimately.
“We heal in ceremony with the elements: Fire, earth, water and sky. Then we gain connection to fire, earth, water and sky. And we have a responsibility when we feel good because of that ceremony.
“Let's give back to the things that help us to feel better. That's the human beings and fire, earth, water and sky. We protect what we learn to love to help us to heal,” Rueben said.
It was only natural then for that love to translate into a battle against the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion.
In It Stops Here, George writes about the many protests, which included his mother Ta’ah Amy George standing at his side; teaming up with environmental groups; presentations to the National Energy Board; undertaking legal challenges at the Federal Court of Appeal; meeting with Justin Trudeau’s Liberal Cabinet; and speaking at a board meeting hosted by Kinder Morgan, the original owner of the Transmountain Pipeline.
He has no doubt that the protest efforts of the Tsleil-Waututh Nation caused Kinder Morgan to back out of the project, forcing Canada to purchase the pipeline for $4.5 billion in 2018.
In a recent Globe and Mail article, Dawn Farrell, CEO for the Trans Mountain Crown corporation, lists the numerous obstacles the expansion faced. She does not include First Nations opposition.
That doesn’t surprise George.
“The first thing that comes to mind is (Farrell) not recognizing the Indigenous rights that we fought on to delay (the pipeline) as long as we did, because we went to court and we sent them back to the drawing board,” said George.
Farrell also spoke about the need to include Indigenous co-ownership in the pipeline when Canada sells it.
While George acknowledges that many First Nations supported the pipeline expansion, along with the economic opportunities it presented, he contends that owning the pipeline is not a deal. In fact, he calls it a “stranded asset.”
“We did multiple economic analysis of this pipeline, working with world renowned economists, and we explained that it doesn't make sense. And then the Federal Court of Appeal judges agreed with us. They said, ‘Your economic analysis is right, and Canada is wrong, but we're still going to side with the best interest of Canada.’ So even when we won, we still lost,” George said.
He adds that almost 13 years ago the projected price tag of the pipeline was pegged at $7 billion, with the estimated debt to be paid off in 20 years. Now that pipeline has a $31 billion debt attached to it.
“So the chances of making money are minimal,” said George.
“What I'm afraid of is First Nations’ involvement in this stranded asset, which could be economic smallpox… I hope they do their due diligence and look at it and work with experts that will find what we found, that it's not profitable and it's not good for our economy. It's not good for First Nations. I really, really hope they look at that because that's why no one else has bought it,” he said.
As for the pipeline creating jobs, George urges First Nations to consider green energy, which does not have the fallout of atmospheric rivers, floods, fires, melting ice and endangering species.
George came around to writing this part-memoir, part-activist account after meeting award-winning author Michael Simpson. Simpson had intended to write a book about the opposition to the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion. Then he met George.
As Simpson writes in It Stops Here “…it quickly became clear that this was a story about so much more than the pipeline. Rueben’s story is the story of the Tsleil-Waututh people and their ancestral connection to the lands and waters in which their legal and spiritual systems are grounded.”
George admits that “everybody sort of thinks about” writing a book and Simpson, who became a close friend, gave him the opportunity to more than think about it.
George recalled talking it over with his son Cedar George Parker and telling him that he didn’t know what to write about. His son replied: “It’s easy, Daddy…It’s like Star Wars…It’s the Georges and the rebels against the evil empire.”
It Stops Here: Standing Up for Our Lands, Our Waters, and our People is published by Penguin Random House Canada and is available at https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/688127/it-stops-here-by-rueben-george-with-michael-simpson/
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