Canada's National Energy Board was instructed by the courts to hear out First Nation concerns, as well as effects the pipeline expansion would have on orcas and marine environment.
Orca mother Tahlequah carried her dead calf for 17 days in July, but her loss is living on among First Nations and Washington tribes that have presented her as a living witness.
The whale and the loss of her calf were at the center of prayers, songs and testimony before Canada’s National Energy Board in Victoria, B.C., on Wednesday, as it continued hearings underway for three weeks as part of its reconsideration of a massive expansion of the Trans Mountain pipeline.
Suquamish, Swinomish, Lummi and Tulalip Nations traveled to Victoria to offer testimony to the board against the pipeline, and share cultural teachings about the importance of the orca, salmon and the tribes’ treaty-reserved fishing rights.
The small, but influential board approved the project in 2016. Construction was launched, only to be stopped in August when Canada’s Court of Appeals found the board had not adequately consulted with First Nations, or considered the effect of the project’s sevenfold increase in tanker traffic on orcas and the marine environment.
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The board in September was given 155 days by the Canadian government to reconsider its recommendations. The hearings underway now are gathering oral traditional evidence from First Nations and continue through Nov. 29, and resume in Nanaimo, B.C., on Dec. 3. Transcripts and audio of the hearings can be found online.
The expansion runs for more than 700 miles, alongside a line that has been in service since 1954. The project would nearly triple capacity to move 890,000 barrels a day from Alberta tar-sands deposits to the coast.
The expansion is intended to be used to supply more crude oil and refined products markets in British Columbia and Washington state and to offshore markets in the Asian Pacific, where Canada hopes for better prices than it gets from the oil it exports to the U.S.
The decision vacating the approval was a major victory for Canadian First Nations, environmental groups and U.S. tribes that opposed the pipeline expansion.
The project — now owned by the Canadian government, which bought it from Kinder Morgan in May — if approved again is likely to result in more litigation, including possibly by Washington tribes to protect their treaty-reserved fishing rights, Leonard Forsman, chairman of the Suquamish Nation said at a news conference in which Washington tribes opposed the pipeline.
The Suquamish, Tulalip, Lummi and Swinomish tribes were designated as official intervenors before the energy board since the process for considering the pipeline project began. Intervenors are the highest level of participants in matters before the board, empowered to offer testimony as well as file legal briefs.
They began their testimony with traditional ceremony, entering the hearing room with drums and a paddle song, then wrapping all three board members with blankets. The ceremony was intended to protect the board members and show that the tribes came in peace.
Throughout the day, Tahlequah was invoked by tribal members as a messenger the board should heed. Tom Sampson, 83, an elder at Tsartlip First Nation, sang a grieving song passed on to him from his great-grandmother, offered for Tahlequah and her baby.
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He concluded by showing a photo of a mother whale clinging to a dead calf, projected on a screen to the board, saying the whale is not just a whale. “This is our child, this is our relative,” Sampson said. “Even though in English they say she is a killer whale, she is not. She is a mother … And she cried for her child because she needed to show the world that something is wrong with what we are doing as a people.
“It is not about politics. It is about who we are and our relationship with the ocean and the land that we live in.”
Noel Purser, of the Suquamish Tribe, told the board of the orca’s high standing in indigenous culture, as the humans’ strongest ally among the animals.
Back in the earliest times it was the orca that offered its song to the tribes so they could win at a game with the other animals, allowing humans to continue to persist on the Earth, Purser said, sharing a traditional teaching.
“So I would like to lend my song to our animal relatives, so they can survive.”