The latest route change for the controversial Trans Mountain pipeline would threaten a sacred site—Pipsell, or Jacko Lake, near Kamloops, BC—and amount to a continuation of cultural genocide, a Secwepemc knowledge keeper says.
A Secwepemc law called X7ensq’t says that if you disrespect the land and don’t take care of it properly, the land and the sky will turn on you, The Canadian Press reports.
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“It’s a serious law,”’ knowledge keeper Mike McKenzie told CP. He said he wonders “how much farther” people want to go in violating it.
Pipeline construction at Pipsell [pdf] resumed last week after the Canada Energy Regulator approved a change to the Trans Mountain route.
“Without that place, we lose a big part of ourselves,” said McKenzie, who noted the Secwepemc creation story takes place in Pipsell, and their laws and customs are born from that land.
“This is our Vatican. This is our Notre Dame. This is a place that gives our people an identity and kept our people grounded since time immemorial.”
The CER approved Trans Mountain’s application to modify the pipeline’s route in late September, a decision that could spare the government-owned pipeline project another nine-month delay. The regulator made the ruling just one week after hearing oral arguments from Trans Mountain and Stk’emlupsemc te Secwepemc Nation, which opposed the route change.
The Nation said the corridor near Jacko Lake holds “profound spiritual and cultural significance,” and while it supported the project overall, it opposed the deviation application.
The Nation said it only consented to construction in the first place under the understanding that the company would minimize surface disturbances.
‘Irreparable Harm’ to ‘Cultural Keystone’
A written response that Stk’emlupsemc te Secwepemc Nation provided to the regulator said a change in construction methodology would cause “significant and irreparable harm” to its culture.
It added that it did not provide free, prior and informed consent for the route deviation, as prescribed under the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
It had told the federal regulator in 2018, when the Trans Mountain expansion project was still in the approval process, that Pipsell is a “cultural keystone place and sacred site.”
Trans Mountain said the route change was required because it ran into engineering difficulties in the area related to the construction of a tunnel. The regulator ultimately decided the pipeline’s route could deviate from what was originally planned for a 1.3-kilometre stretch of pipe, and the company could change its construction method for that section.
The company confirmed Wednesday that it has resumed work at the Pipsell site. It said in a statement that it recognizes the area is of “sacred importance” and it is “committed to remaining respectful of the spiritual and cultural significance of this land.”
“All care will be taken to ensure existing archeological and traditional land use sites are completely avoided and not touched by this construction,” the statement went on.
“We greatly value our partnership with the (Stk’emlupsemc te Secwepemc) and will continue to invite representatives to walk the site and share contingency and mitigation plans.”
The company said it is committed to “meaningful engagement and effective relationships” with Indigenous communities along the pipeline corridor, and noted 69 agreements are in place with communities along the right-of-way, including the Stk’emlupsemc te Secwepemc.
Still, McKenzie, often speaking through tears, said he was devastated to hear the news that construction had resumed.
This is the Face of Reconciliation?
McKenzie said the project flies in the face of reconciliation, and Canada’s reputation as a “model site” for what better relationships could look like.
“We showed the world that we can reconcile and we can do work together based on something good,” said McKenzie.
But he said the recent decision, and the fact the community did not provide consent, goes against that.
“The fact that they’re going to desecrate a sacred site, after all the work that we’ve done, tells me that they’re not serious about reconciliation at all.”
In an interview Friday, federal Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Gary Anandasangaree said he doesn’t “want to pass the buck,” but said the decision was not in his purview. He noted government departments and agencies are required to follow the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Trans Mountain has operated as a federal Crown corporation ever since the federal government bought taxpayers a pipeline in 2018.
“I certainly can say that as a federal government, we’re very much committed to ongoing consultation,” Anandasangaree said.’
It’s not the first time Pipsell has been proposed as a development site, CP writes. In 2017, Stk’emlupsemc te Secwepemc Nation stated it did not give its free, prior and informed consent for the Ajax Mine Project to be developed in the area.
“The oral histories associated with Pipsell are foundationally connected to our Secwepemc laws that deal with the reciprocal and mutually accountable relationships between humans and the environment,” reads a March 2017 document the Nation submitted as part of the approval process for the Ajax project.
“We assert the right to maintain and exercise our traditional and contemporary cultural practices, and carry on our customs and spiritual activities in the distinct locations marked by our Ancestors.”
The federal government ultimately decided not to approve the project.
McKenzie said the site continues to hold significant meaning for his community—and for him personally, since it was where he did his vision quest. But given that the hearing for the Trans Mountain route change decision was held in Calgary, he added, it was hard for individual community members to express just how important the site is, as they would have had to travel more than 700 kilometres to attend.
The federal government bought the Trans Mountain pipeline for $4.5 billion in 2018, after previous owner Kinder Morgan Canada Inc. threatened to scrap the planned expansion project in the face of Indigenous and environmental opposition and regulatory hurdles. It has already been plagued by construction-related challenges and delays, CP notes.
And the pipeline’s price tag has since spiralled (as big infrastructure projects are wont to do): first to $12.6 billion, then to $21.4 billion, and most recently to $30.9 billion, the capital cost estimate as of March, prompting critics to label the “out-of-control” infrastructure project a “catastrophic boondoggle”.
“If that isn’t the land and the sky turning on this company, I don’t know what is,” said McKenzie.
The main body of this story was first published by The Canadian Press on October 8, 2023.