It was raining hard as my husband and I trudged up Burnaby Mountain. We had dressed in layers, fleece jackets and rain gear, hats and hoods and gum boots. To get to the Kinder Morgan drill site, we had to circle half way up a hillside where the mud was thick and slippery. Some of the protesters had laid down sticks in the muck to form a kind of pathway. We walked past a protester digging a trench to allow the rain water flowing down the hillside to run into a roadside drain.
It was the kind of rain where you’d be soaked in a couple of minutes without rain gear, a cold winter rain that made you shiver just to hear it falling. Michael and I had stepped back from environmental work in Maple Ridge and Pitt Meadows a number of years ago, so we didn’t know what to expect. We remembered, however, the stress of organizing protests and contacting the media and hoping against hope that enough people would show up to prove that we had community support.
It was a different experience for us without those kind of responsibilities, for we were there to simply bear witness. We knew that by doing this one small thing, showing up to support those who had been doing the hardest work of all, that of occupying the site, would make a difference. Numbers counted.
Some ‘protectors’ (it seemed to me to be a better term than ‘protesters’) had been at the mountain since September in an amazing show of commitment. I can only imagine how uncomfortable it must have been camping out in all weathers. Yet, I can also imagine the strong bonds these protectors were forging among one other and the excitement of knowing that they had found their tribe.
A woman commented to me a few days ago that she didn’t think that protests work. But first hand experience told me otherwise. In my own community of Maple Ridge-Pitt Meadows, protests, media attention, not to mention a court challenge, ensured that the Swaneset housing development would never be built. Similarly, Blaney Bog and Codd Wetlands would be industrial cranberry operations owned by Luigi Acquini, rather than two Greater Vancouver Regional parks.
Another person suggested that getting arrested was a waste of time; yet again history tells us otherwise. The civil rights movement, the anti-war movement, the women’s suffrage movement, the anti-nuclear movement, each one of these were proceeded by citizens brave enough to risk civil disobedience.
One of the most moving times for both Michael and I, was meeting with Sut-lut (pronounced Soat-loat) a Squamish First Nations woman. With the help of one of the protectors, Mel Clifton, she had lit a Sacred Fire beyond the police tape and since the day she arrived at the site, the fire has been cared for. I was surprised to hear that the RCMP helped keep it burning. Sut-lut has that effect on people. I could tell by the way the police treated her that she had their respect.
My husband and I felt honoured to join Sut-lut at the Sacred Fire. We sat with her under a tent and warmed our hands before the flames. And we talked. Sut-lut told us about the treatment she’d suffered as a child because her mother had been in residential school. Then she opened her coat so we could see her ti-shirt. On the front was a photograph of her daughter, one of the Missing Women. She told us that when you have lost a daughter you have little left to lose. She had decided to join the protest to protect Burnaby Mountain when she saw a young man called Jakob chain himself to a vehicle.
I have never met anyone whose spirit was more beautiful. I felt as if I was in the presence of a woman who was wise and compassionate. Sut-lut touched my heart in so many ways, not just by her strength but by her courage. She pointed out her brother, Mike Antone, in the tent next to hers. He was carving a protector totem pole from a fir log, one of three totems to be raised on the drill site. The day before, a Kinder Morgan worker told Sut-lut that they were going to move the totem pole to the other side of the road.
“No you’re not,” she told him. “Yes, we are,” said the worker. Sut-lut placed her body over the totem pole. She was arrested and spent a miserable night in jail. She was cold, but the security guard refused to give her a blanket. He told her she had to stop singing her Indian songs. When she told the RCMP the officer the next morning about her harsh treatment the officer gave her a blanket. When she appeared before the judge, she placed her two fingers above her head to ensure that the judge knew she was aboriginal. The judge charged her with civil disobedience and when she was released she returned to Burnaby Mountain. The totem pole remained where it was.
As we sat under the tent, sheltered from the rain and warmed by the fire, Sut-lut, she showed us a map of Squamish Traditional Territory. That territory included Burnaby Mountain. She was holding an eagle feather and told us its story. When one of the keepers of the Sacred Fire went for a walk in the forest to take a break, he spotted an eagle flying overhead. A feather fell from the bird and landed at his feet. Sut-lut held up the feather to us and said, “This is from a live eagle.”
Suddenly we were interrupted by the sound of a young woman chanting, “Stop Kinder Morgan. Stop Kinder Morgan.” Sut-lut stepped out of the tent to bear witness. A huge spotlight was turned on the woman kneeling on the ground. The TV cameras began rolling. She was arrested and taken to jail and we returned to the fire. After Sut-lut finished her story, she handed the eagle feather to me and asked me why to tell her why I had come to the mountain, then it was Michael’s turn. The experience affected me deeply.
I asked Sut-lut ‘s permission to write about what we experienced together and she encouraged me to do so. It was her hope that by inviting people, two at a time, in the warmth and intimacy of the Sacred Fire that the exchange of stories would be deeper and the connections made more meaningful. She was right. It was an experience neither my husband nor I will ever forget.
The next time we went to the mountain the barriers were down and we were able to actually drive up to the drill site. The application by KM to extend an injunction keeping protesters away from the two drilling sites was rejected by the BC Supreme Court. The injunction was to expire on December 1 and KM would not be able to finish their work. Yah!
But most surprising of all was that Kinder Morgan had made GPS errors and the actual work site was outside the area covered by the injunction. Except for several people who were charged under the criminal code, the majority of protesters had their civil disobedience charges thrown out by the court.
That Kinder Morgan workers could be so careless about their GPS measurements makes you wonder how careful this company would be in building a ‘safe’ pipeline, if there is any such thing.
It was a day to celebrate a first victory though everyone knew that the fight wasn’t over. We watched academics from S.F.U. and U.B.C., veteran campaigners from Clayquot Sound give speeches that made me proud to be Canadian, something that I have not felt for a long time. It was a day to give thanks.
So thank you, Sut-lut for your words and thank you, Arthur Brociner for your idea of a protector pole and for your fascinating explanation of the symbols on the pole. You can read about it on the Facebook site Stop Kinder Morgan on Burnaby Mtn or Arthur Brociner on Facebook.
Gratitude also for Mike Antone, the carver of the pole and for the Caretakers of Burnaby Mountain, the young people who had camped in the rain and cold to protect our beautiful mountain. I salute you.