The Northern Gateway Pipeline and Indigenous Knowledge: Kopecky’s The Oil Man and the Sea

OilMan1Reviewed in this essay: The Oil Man and the Sea: Navigating the Northern Gateway by Arno Kopecky. Published by Douglas & McIntyre (September 2013).

If approved, the Northern Gateway pipeline will pump bitumen from the Alberta oil sands to Kitimat, a small town in northwestern British Columbia. The bitumen will then be carried by supertankers through the web of rivers in the Great Bear Rainforest until reaching open sea. From there, most tankers will head toward China.

Last summer, Arno Kopecky, a Vancouver-based journalist, along with Ilja Herb, his friend and photographer, sailed the same waterways oil tankers will navigate if Enbridge gets its pipeline. In The Oil Man and the Sea: Navigating the Northern Gateway, Kopecky tells the story of that trip, which took him to communities, principally indigenous, situated along the oil tanker route.

Kopecky also weaves an informed critique of the Northern Gateway into his writing. Enbridge projects that the Northern Gateway will boost the national GDP by $270 billion over thirty years and generate 4,000 jobs during three years of construction. At the same time, Kopecky explains, Enbridge’s own data puts the probability of a 31,000-barrel oil spill within the project’s 50-year lifespan at 22 per cent. Moreover, he reminds readers that Bill C-38, last year’s budget implementation bill, empowers the federal government, which supports the project, to overrule environmental regulators. In other words, if the National Energy Board rejects Enbridge’s application next year when the decision is expected, “the prime minister could approve it himself” (although, such a choice would spark political outrage). As a policy analyst, Kopecky writes with authority.

As a reporter, however, his argumentative tone disappears. Kopecky quotes members of the Heiltsuk, the Gitga’at, and the Haisla nations in long, sometimes page-length sections without interruption. When he asks about the pipeline debate, their responses reflect a deep understanding of the risks of oil shipping. For example, the chief Heilstuk councillor, Marilyn Slett, tells him that even if Enbridge equips tankers with the best safety technology, most marine accidents in the region are caused by human error. Her position is not that development is intrinsically wrong, but that any environmental risk is unacceptable.

Kopecky may have set out, initially, to report on the Northern Gateway, but he does not allow the politics of oil to oversimplify what life is like in the indigenous communities he visits.

Consider his interview with Eric Peterson. Peterson and his wife run the Hakai Beach Institute, which conducts environmental research just south of the Great Bear Rainforest. Early in the book, Peterson talks to Kopecky about how the region shows signs of human civilization dating back 15,000 years and how the traditional knowledge of the Heilstuk and Owikeno nations regarding animal and plant life has been invaluable to scientists. Then, when Kopecky asks about the pipeline, he frowns. Peterson says: “I’d hate for people to think that the Northern Gateway is the only thing going on up here . . . There are too many other incredible stories to be told in this region.”