When Tsawout decided to engage with Kinder Morgan on the proposed Trans Mountain pipeline expansion they knew they needed to document their current and future traditional uses within the areas that would be affected by the project, in particular the marine shipping lanes.
The Kinder Morgan proposal calls for a significant increase in bitumen tanker traffic through the shipping lanes, which run between Tsawout’s main reserve and traditional winter village on the east shore of Vancouver Island and the site of their seasonal villages and fishing grounds on the southern mainland of BC. The waters between these two locations, and throughout the Gulf Islands immediately west of the shipping lanes, are within Tsawout’s traditional marine territory and hold many village sites, reserves, and highly important areas.
The community wanted to examine their rights and history in this territory, and to record and analyze their ongoing and contemporary uses throughout it in order to assess what potential impacts Tsawout harvesters and families might experience if the project goes ahead. So, Tsawout contracted Trailmark to conduct a Traditional Marine Use Study and corresponding Impact Assessment.
The study included map-based interviews with harvesters and Traditional Knowledge holders, a community harvest survey, and a literature review — as well as the establishment of a secure online archive and digital management software for all of Tsawout’s spatial, traditional use, and heritage data, plus training for multiple community members in interviewing and data collection/management.
In addition, Tsawout hired several experts in the social sciences and ecology to review Kinder Morgan’s proposal with a critical eye. Trailmark’s Dr. Peter Evans worked with Tsawout Elders and fishermen to develop an independent assessment of the proposal’s effects on Tsawout’s cultural system.
Many reports were submitted to the National Energy Board (NEB) as part of Tsawout’s response to the Trans Mountain project. When the NEB recommended the project proceed, and the governments of Canada and BC approved it, they did so despite the clear evidence Tsawout was able to present demonstrating that the project’s potential impacts pose a threat to their First Nation’s Douglas Treaty and Aboriginal rights, as well as to the ecology of the Salish Sea.
This is a disappointing outcome for Tsawout to be sure, and one that points to glaring flaws in the NEB process, which, it should be noted, is now under review. But because Tsawout did their due diligence and conducted the research required to substantiate their interests and concerns — in accordance with W’SANEC laws, and out of profound care and concern for their “relatives of the deep” — they are in a very different position today than if they had simply opposed the project without consideration.
While Tsawout has not made public any plans for legal action on the strength of its research and submissions to the NEB, the community is publicly stating its support for several other First Nations who are taking the Federal government to court to stop the project.
As the recent op-ed in the Times Colonist by Tsawout’s elected chief, Harvey Underwood, and councillor Mavis Underwood, suggests, conducting the right research and carefully analyzing the results has helped the community to develop and articulate an evidence-based response to the project, and solid ground on which to stake their position.