History repeats: Today’s Northern Gateway debate sounds very familiar

The government and citizens involved in the debate over the Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline are living proof that history repeats itself

  • Jul. 16, 2014 7:00 p.m.
Protesters of the Kitimat Pipeline Company that proposed a pipeline in 1976 to transport Alaskan crude oil from Kitimat to Edmonton onwards to the U.S. This photo is the spitting image of the ones seen today at anti-Enbridge protests.

Protesters of the Kitimat Pipeline Company that proposed a pipeline in 1976 to transport Alaskan crude oil from Kitimat to Edmonton onwards to the U.S. This photo is the spitting image of the ones seen today at anti-Enbridge protests.

By Laura How

History is often cyclical and issues have a tendency to reappear in different forms. That’s why the study of history is important because examining the past can mean making better decisions and avoiding making the same mistakes.

“‘We will win this one, we have won all the others,’” said Joy Thorkelson, a representative of the United Fishermen and Allied Workers Union, at an anti-Enbridge rally in 2011. The government and citizens involved in the debate over the Northern Gateway pipeline may not be aware of it, but they are living proof that history repeats itself.

In 1976, a consortium of American oil companies formed the Kitimat Pipeline Company and proposed a pipeline that would deliver Alaskan crude oil from Kitimat to Edmonton and on to the United States. Two pipeline proposals later, the Canadian government set up the West Coast Oil Ports Inquiry to investigate the possibility of approving these plans. Citizens of northern British Columbia were, as today, divided.

Does this sound familiar?: “I wonder if the people of Terrace are aware of the vast industrial potential that will arise as a result of the new pipeline?” While the opening line of this Letter to the Editor sounds as though it could have been written last week, it was actually printed in a May 1966 edition of The Terrace Daily Herald. The proponent of the pipeline goes on to point out the economic benefits of secondary industries and the jobs that would be created.

An editorial in a 1979 edition of Kitimat’s newspaper, The Northern Sentinel, also argued that with “[u]nemployment being a chronic condition in the Skeena region anything that could change the situation for the better deserves thought.” However, Tommy Douglas, then leader of the federal NDP, refuted this notion in a letter to a concerned Terrace citizen, stating that while estimates of the number of jobs to be created were as high as 3,000, the number of permanent jobs available to northwest residents hovered around 120. We have heard similar arguments in the recent past, with advocates of the Northern Gateway pipeline touting it as the creator of thousands of employment opportunities; opponents have once again been quick to point out that only a couple hundred of permanent jobs will result.

In Kitimat, citizens were just as divided, if not more so. The Northern Sentinel consistently printed editorials and columns in favour of an oil port. H.T. Mitchell, the founder of the paper, often lauded the project and expressed his dismay whenever it appeared to be losing momentum. When it seemed as though the proposed port would be relocated to Port Angeles, Washington, he wrote: “A multi-billion dollar potential has found the province totally misled by environmentalists to the point where the opportunity is all but gone…” He also conveyed his disdain for then-Liberal MP Iona Campagnolo, an opponent of the pipeline and ally of the United Fishermen and Allied Workers’ Union. He said that her stand on the pipeline issue was “a potential embarrassment” for her, and her position in the debate may have been one of the reasons Campagnolo was not re-elected in 1979.

Pipeline opponents were no less outspoken. In May of 1977, members of Greenpeace, the United Fishermen and Allied Workers Union, and the Gitga’at, Haida, and Heiltsuk Nations formed a blockade of ships across the Douglas Channel in protest of the North Central Municipal Association’s decision to support the project. That protest has been echoed by the “Chain of Hope”, a 20,382 foot long crocheted barrier that was recently stretched across the Douglas Channel, decorated with mementos and messages from the women and children of the Gitga’at First Nation.

The arguments on both sides in this dispute have remained virtually the same over the decades, though some of the emphasis has changed. Interestingly, the opposition focus this time is as much concentrated on pipelines as it is on the potential impact on marine life of tanker traffic.

Despite fisheries and environmental authorities announcing in 1978 that Kitimat would be the least hazardous location on the B.C. coast for an oil port, many concerns were raised over the safety of tanker traffic in the Douglas Channel. Dieter Wagner, founding member of the Douglas Channel Watch, has expressed concern over a lack of anchorages along the route and the fact that, while the channel may appear wide open, a large part of it is too shallow and rocky for tankers to safely navigate. In later years, the idea of supertankers in our coastal waters became unpalatable to the broader community, mainly due to the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989, an environmental disaster that reminded everyone of the potential risks associated with this type of industry.

Today, the risks associated with a tanker spill are even greater because diluted bitumen, the cargo on the proposed tanker route, is far more difficult to clean up than crude oil. However, this is not the only distinction between the debates then and now.

So far there is one clearly visible difference between the past and present of pipelines in our area: Northern Gateway has gotten the go-ahead from the federal government, albeit with restrictions. This decision deviates from the results of the historical proposals; Kitimat Pipelines Ltd. was turned down by the government, which did not see an oil port as a necessity for B.C.’s coast. The others were also rejected and slowly faded into obscurity.

In a 1977 article in The Northern Sentinel, editor H.T. Mitchell asserted that “[t]he Kitimat pipeline idea [could not] be written off as dead,” and it would seem that he was right. The plans for a Kitimat oil port lay dormant for decades, but have clearly been reawakened. Now it remains to be seen whether history will truly repeat itself or if the face of the northwest will be forever changed by the arrival of the oil industry.

Laura How is spending the summer as Heritage Park Museum’s Community Programmer. She is currently studying French at UBC.