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Tsleil-Waututh Councilor Charlene Aleck

Reporting by Bellamy Pailthorp
An oil tanker near the Kinder Morgan Oil Terminal north of Vancouver. | Craig McColloch

One of the biggest concerns about the future of the Salish Sea is the likely expansion of Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain pipeline. It carries tar sands oil from Canada’s eastern provinces to a terminal in Burnaby, British Columbia, just north of Vancouver.

The expansion, approved by Canada’s federal government last year, would twin the pipeline, triple the amount of oil coming through and increase by as much as sevenfold the number of oil tankers traversing the Salish Sea.

Charlene Aleck
Charlene Aleck, elected councillor of the Tsleil-Waututh Nation, at Cates Park on Burrard Inlet. | Craig McCulloch

The terminal is on Burrard Inlet, across from Cates Park, where visitors will find references to the First Nations community called the Tsleil-Waututh. The park includes sacred lands.

“Where we’re sitting was a summer village of ours, called Whey-ah-Wichen and our name Tsleil-Waututh means ‘people of the inlet,’” says Charlene Aleck, who is an elected Councilor for her community and a spokeswoman for the nation’s Sacred Trust Initiative, which is fighting the Kinder Morgan expansion.

“We have a creation story where our very first grandmother was born out of these waters,” she said. “We also had a saying, ‘When the tide goes out, the table is set,’ meaning about 100 percent of our diet was out of the inlet.”

Aleck’s community has been working to restore the environment and ecosystems that supported that culture. Expansion of the pipeline and the tanker traffic calling on the terminal in Burrard Inlet would interrupt their efforts to rebuild.

“That’s why we’re opposing it. The amount of industry in the inlet is just too much, it’s just overburdening,” Aleck said “And the probability of a spill, it’s not if it happens, it’s when it happens.”

Aleck was recently re-elected to her post as Councilor. She says the work comes naturally, after many years representing First Nations as an actress on the long-running CBC drama, Beachcombers.

“Having the capability to get up and speak and be proud and do it in an inviting and encouraging way that invites people to be a part of the conversation, I think has been very helpful and very useful,” she said.

Aleck says fighting the pipeline expansion is an effort, like the Salish Sea itself, that crosses the international border.

“Being an indigenous person, we don’t really see the border as the end of our homeland. I have relatives just across the border and I have relatives even further down the coast,” she said.

“Our family across the border, when they realized our position to this project and our opposition, there was no hesitation because that border also would not stop a spill. It wouldn’t magically stop any of the pollutants.”

The Tsleil-Waututh has a stewardship plan that guides their environmental efforts to rebuild the nation and its culture. Aleck says the pipeline expansion would go against pretty much everything in that plan. So they gave the government notice of their opposition.

“When we told the government and we told Kinder Morgan that we didn’t want this project in our territory, they pretty much were like, ‘You have to take part in the National Energy Board process,’” Aleck said.

She says that process is industry-regulated, calling it “flawed” and “one-sided.” So the Tsleil-Waututh decided to take it to court.

The suit against the energy board is one of many lawsuits she says her band hopes will “stop this project dead in its tracks.”

“We’ve been, for a while now, rehabilitating the land, the water, and creating those ties that tie us back to our ancestors and the things that they used to do -- the sport, the canoeing, the fishing -- and we’re just hanging onto that. We’re building it up and we’re working on that,” Aleck said.

“So any types of projects like this expansion would totally devastate the work that we’ve done and create more havoc.”

For its part, Kinder Morgan is forging ahead with the pipeline expansion, despite the legal action from numerous groups, which now includes the provincial government of British Columbia.

The company just named six major contractors and says its construction schedule remains on track to start expansion in September and come online at the end of 2019.

“We noticed that the seals were spending lots of time in their haul-out areas, and not getting into the water as long as the killer whales were around. So even that, just keeping them away from steelhead, made a difference,” Troutt said.

It’s an example of how the chain of life can start in a tributary and extend through its estuary into the depths of the Salish Sea, which then flows into the ocean.

Troutt’s biggest concern for this web, which the Nisqually Tribe has worked so hard to protect, is the pressures of population growth.