All Along the Gateway

The proposed Northern Gateway pipeline has brought issues of politics, economics, the environment and social development to the forefront of the nation’s consciousness. Between them, reporters Andrew Findlay and Tim Querengesser and photographer Joey Podlubny travelled the length of the proposed route and spoke with some of the people most directly affected

Bruderheim, Alberta, 56 km northeast of Edmonton
Population 1,348

Photograph Joey Podlubny

When it comes to Northern Gateway and Bruderheim, you first need to know that one of Mayor Karl Hauch’s main goals is getting a piece of rock back.

On March 4, 1960, a 300-kilogram meteorite crashed into a field in Bruderheim at 1 in the morning. It was the Cold War, and the locals, unsurprisingly, thought the Russians were attacking. The town made international news, while the meteorite itself broke into dozens of boulders on impact. These were eventually picked up and taken away by scientists and are now displayed in the Smithsonian and the University of Alberta.

To Hauch, 53, the meteorite represents a time when Bruderheim mattered and he wants a piece returned. Back then, the CN and CP railways that still run through Bruderheim were fed by the Mallon windmill, which produced large quantities of grain and timber, and the Cheese Factory, created in 1923 by a co-operative of local farmers. Both have long since closed. Bruderheim once had more people than nearby Fort Saskatchewan. But today the town has just 1,348 residents to Fort Saskatchewan’s nearly 22,000. Indeed, in 2005 Bruderheim almost lost its primary school (the junior high was shuttered long ago) due to low student enrolment numbers.

Hauch, dressed in his black Bruderheim Bruins jacket, sees a lot about his town in relation to its better past, including Gateway. “Back in the day, things looked a lot different around here,” he says. Economic and population growth opportunities are limited today, he explains, despite the town’s proximity to booming Fort Saskatchewan. That’s pressuring basic services. “There are big needs in our community.” The town’s curling rink closed several years ago, and the ice-surfacing machine at the arena, where the town’s namesake Bruins play, is now on its last legs. Bruderheim raised partial funding to fix it through the Kraft Hockeyville contest, which residents desperately bombarded with entries and won.

The saviour, lately, has not been government but instead the energy industry, whose pipelines surround the town. Calgary’s Inter Pipeline gave Bruderheim $50,000 this year so it could buy a new school bus. The old one quit last year, stranding kids and seniors who depended on it, Hauch says. Shell donated $80,000 to buy a diesel generator to ensure the fire hall has uninterrupted electricity. “Those kinds of things are key building blocks of our community,” Hauch says.

It’s not surprising, then, that Hauch says there are few detractors to Enbridge’s Gateway project in Bruderheim. “Anything that you come up with, there’s always going to be someone opposed to it. I can’t say there wouldn’t be anyone, but I haven’t talked to any folks here that are opposed,” he says. Instead, there seems to be an accepting indifference. “People hear a bit about it in the news but, to be honest, it’s not really an issue for most folks,” Hauch says. “The more business we can get in town, that’s positive. In our area, knock on wood, we haven’t seen pipelines leak.”

What gets Hauch most excited about Gateway, in fact, is that everyone reports that it will start in Bruderheim. “It’s not true – it’ll start six kilometres out of town in Strathcona County,” he says, noting that locals have grown tired of reporters coming into their community and asking questions, and also noting that the location means the town won’t get direct tax revenues from the project.

Mayerthorpe, Alberta, 163 km northwest of Bruderheim
Population 1,398

Photograph Joey Podlubny

Morning traffic outside of Bentley’s stops as a cat crosses the main street. Inside the popular greasy spoon, the television news reports that local Shawn Hennessey – who was convicted of manslaughter for his role in the killing of four RCMP officers here in 2005 – is being granted day parole.

Mitch Neaves, his partner Sally Mathieu and their former apprentice, Dave Webb, are debating as they wait on their orders of eggs, bacon and hash browns. When Gateway comes up, Webb, 40, raises his voice. “I don’t like spills and we can’t be CNing this oil across the country,” he says, referring to shipping oil by rail. “We’re going to have more Lac-Mégantics. It’s just not good.”

Webb has lived in Mayerthorpe his entire life. He was just 18 when he started working at the local UFA co-operative, which Neaves and Mathieu ran at the time. When Neaves and Mathieu decided to retire, moving to Lac Isle, Webb took it over.

As Webb talks about Lac-Mégantic, Neaves and Mathieu nod in agreement. The three go on to list numerous oil-by-rail spills in the area in the past few months – spills so small that they aren’t reported on the news, but nonetheless worry them. “There’s [a spill on the railway] all the time,” Mathieu says. “When a train goes off a track, until somebody tells the news, no one hears about it; they just come out and clean it up.” Neaves and Webb rack their brains to list all of the spills. There was a spill in Gainford, Wabamun (where the lake was contaminated), Fox Creek, Mitsue, they say. “If you’re for safety and the environment, you’d want a pipeline,” Mathieu says. “Yes, we’re in the oil and gas industry, but because we are we see the safety aspect.”

The worry is shared at the nearby Mayerthorpe Town Office. Inside, Mayor Kate Patrick, 70, is clear about her personal stakes in Gateway. She owns and farms seven quarters of land bisected by pipelines and can’t understand the Gateway kerfuffle. In her part of the world, five other pipelines are planned for the same right of way as Gateway – a new Alliance natural gas pipe, Pembina’s 24-inch Nipisi and 20-inch Mitsue pipes, and one natural gas pipe from Keyera Energy.

The big concern for Patrick is the oil currently coming through Mayerthorpe by rail. The tracks run right through the town, and trains cross two small trestle bridges. Patrick and the town council asked CN to come to Mayerthorpe earlier this spring and answer questions, which they did. “They assured us they’d reduce their speed to 10 miles per hour through the municipality,” Patrick says.

In February, before Gateway received federal approval, Patrick and the rest of Mayerthorpe’s town council issued a statement supporting the project. The document is highly personal, noting Patrick’s long positive relationship with Alliance Pipelines, 50 per cent owned by Enbridge. “I’ve seen pipelining up close, and I’ve come to view it as part of the solution to strengthening local economies, contributing to the job market, and helping pay for local services,” it reads.

Still, Patrick says the pipe is planned to route 3.5 kilometres outside the town’s corporate limits, meaning there will be no direct tax revenues. Instead, she says, Gateway would mean temporary and permanent jobs, and the diversification of the economy.

Just like in Bruderheim, the energy industry has played Zamboni politics in Mayerthorpe – donating to schools and hockey rinks. Does this make it hard to oppose their proposed projects? “No,” Patrick says. “They don’t give us the capital infrastructure money so much; they give us corporate donations. I think we’re just happy to work with these pipelines and they fit well within our communities.”

Prince George, B.C., 668 km northwest of Mayerthorpe
Population 88,000

Photograph Joey Podlubny

The Prince George Chamber of Commerce is staffed exclusively by women. It’s proof that Christy Ray, the chamber’s CEO, is on to something when she says northern B.C. offers opportunities that aren’t readily available elsewhere.

Ray, 38, is originally from Smithers, though has lived all over the country. Despite the movement, she says her stakes in the Gateway project are personal. “I’m raising my family here and intend to have a very long history in Prince George,” Ray says. “What I would like to see is new industry and economic development [come] into the region, balanced with environmental safety and respect for aboriginal issues. I think it’s a really common attitude.”

Prince George sits over the Rocky Mountains from Mayerthorpe. It’s the largest community on the B.C. side that’s close to the proposed Gateway route. Still, unlike Bruderheim or Mayerthorpe, the pipe will be relatively far from Prince George, meaning any potential spill won’t directly affect the town.

Prince George is a key battleground for Enbridge. It’s a resource town filled with people who’ve moved here from elsewhere, who are supportive of the project. But it’s also home to a strong contingent of aboriginal groups and environmentalists dead set against the pipeline.

Most of B.C. is untreatied territory. As a result, Enbridge has invested more resources in winning support here – the Aboriginal Benefits Package offers First Nations 10 per cent ownership in the project, working out to about a quarter million dollars per year per community over 30 years. As a result of dozens of open houses, Enbridge redesigned the pipe itself, increasing its wall thickness to respond to concerns. And recently, the company opened a community engagement office right downtown.

The efforts are meaningless to Vincent Prince. Prince, 51, is from the Nak’azdli First Nation, north of Prince George. He bucks any potential anti-business aboriginal stereotype. In the late 1990s, after stints as a construction worker and teacher, he founded the Aboriginal Business and Community Development Centre. As director, Prince works with small aboriginal companies to cash in on the resource development in the region, helping them register on contractor databases and incorporate their businesses to become more attractive to industry.

“I understand the economic component of [Gateway] – I’m right in the middle of it,” Prince says. “I help aboriginal people start businesses, run businesses, expand businesses. I do it day in, day out.” But, he continues, “I really don’t understand the large support, and even the marginal support of the Gateway pipeline. The short-term benefits are just not worth the risk. They [First Nations] get the same benefits by supporting the LNG pipelines coming through.”

Prince says those supporting Gateway in his town are economic migrants – people from elsewhere who have moved to Prince George hoping to find their fortune. For Prince, who bought a house recently for his daughter and her young child, the stakes are longer term.

This sentiment has united the aboriginal stance in B.C. on Gateway, Prince says. While the myriad communities and languages affected by the project are often lumped ignorantly into the word “aboriginal,” on this one project the lumping is correct, he says. “From what I know, and people I’ve talked to, it’s pretty solid against. I tell my grandkids with certainty that it’s not going to happen. Not in my lifetime and probably not in theirs.”

Prince then gets a wry grin on his face. “Maybe that’s one of the mistakes the government has made in providing us education.”

Burns Lake, B.C., 230 km west of Prince George
Population 3,600

Photograph Joey Podlubny

The Boer Mountain trails are Dave Sandsmark’s pride and joy. “The original pipeline route would have gone right through the middle of our trails,” he says, before dropping into a machine-built trail that winds down from the top of Boer Mountain known as Razorback.

Sandsmark, a resident of Burns Lake for 15 years, is a sought after cabinetmaker and mountain biking fanatic who also owns the local bike store Burnt Bikes. In 2003, he helped launch the Burns Lake Mountain Biking Association back, and since then the group has tapped various government economic development funds to the tune of more than $1 million to build an extensive network of trails that is a growing tourist draw and an integral part of the local recreation infrastructure of Burns Lake. Gateway would pass through a pumping station five kilometres from this resource-based town. Sandsmark’s views on Gateway are no secret – a small blue sign outside Burnt Bikes, which he operates spring to fall before trading bike wrenches for carpentry tools, reads United Against Enbridge.

Sandsmark admits his attitude toward the bitumen pipeline is a mix of NIMBYism and a feeling that it carries a dirty product that offers up environmental risk without much reward for northwest B.C. “I’m not against industry. I support mining if it’s the right project, and I support logging. I just don’t see a lot of local benefit from a crude oil pipeline, just risk,” Sandsmark says.

But you don’t have to go far to find people with another view. Burns Lake is an industry town. The Huckleberry copper mine and the Endako molybdenum mine provide the foundation for the local economy. So too does logging. In January 2012 the town was hit hard by an accidental explosion at the Babine Forest Products mill that killed two people, injured 19 and threw 250 people out of work. With the mountain pine beetle-ravaged local timber supply shrinking, the expectation was that Hampton Affiliates, the Portland, Oregon-based firm that owns the mill, wouldn’t reopen. However, the B.C. government needed a good news economic story in B.C.’s forest-dependent north, so came to the company with an offer of guaranteed timber that helped to propel the decision to rebuild. A new Babine Forest Products, with a capacity of 250 million board feet of lumber per year, opened early in 2014 and Burns Lake breathed a collective sigh of relief. Now, despite an obvious glut of vacant buildings on the town’s main drag where the highway cuts through its centre, Burns Lake is humming with a brand new recreation centre and hospital. Business is also humming at Industrial Transformers, a year-old heavy-duty mechanic operation in the Burns Lake Industrial Park. The company is unequivocally pro-Gateway. All the company trucks bear the same bumper sticker: a checkmark next to the word pipeline. “I don’t care if a single job is created in Burns Lake from the pipeline. It’s bigger than that. All those programs on the government tit – health care, EI [employment insurance] – depend on what’s happening in Alberta right now,” says Doug Waters, a former logger who co-owns Industrial Transformers with three other partners.

Over at the popular local watering hole Mulvaney’s Pub and Grill, one of the servers echoes this sentiment. “I think it would be good for the economy,” she says, asking to remain anonymous.

But she also says chatter over mugs of beer at Mulvaney’s about Gateway has died down. While many residents support Gateway, the approval of local First Nations is far from a slam dunk for Enbridge. As has often been the case, outreach with the aboriginal community has proven to be more of an embarrassment than a strategic victory. Its relations with the Burns Lake Indian Band revealed both dysfunction and division in band leadership as well as visceral opposition to the idea of the pipeline cutting across traditional territories.

Back in 2013, then Burns Lake Indian Band chief Al Gerow, who’s married to BC NDP party MLA Carole James, agreed to allow Enbridge workers to conduct drilling and survey work. It followed up on a protocol agreement the band’s previous leadership signed with Enbridge that included provisions for revenue sharing and capacity-building funds. However, Gerow’s rivals on council accused him of not consulting with the band on pipeline support, and Gerow subsequently sued a fellow band member for defamation before resigning in December 2013. In a bizarre twist following this debacle, Pauline Goertzen, a white woman of Mennonite heritage, put her name on the ballot for chief in a symbolic move to draw attention to the leadership crisis and the band’s conflicted position on Gateway. She lost, and Enbridge is still in tough to try and earn social licence in Burns Lake.

“I’d say the ‘no’ side is in the minority here but it’s a vocal minority,” Sandsmark says, while unloading his bike back at the shop.

Smithers, B.C., 143 km northwest of Burns Lake
Population 5,400

Photograph Joey Podlubny

Dennis MacKay shakes his head when he thinks about Smithers’ municipal council and the resolution it passed in a 5-2 vote last February opposing Gateway. MacKay is a retired RCMP member, ex-coroner and private investigator, and in 2009 completed two terms as the provincial Liberal MLA representing the region. “That resolution is beyond the mandate of Smithers council,” he says over a bottomless cup of coffee at Louise’s Kitchen on Main Street, a place where the older, conservative social bedrock of Smithers meets. “I just think people have to stop saying ‘No’ to everything. We need jobs and nothing comes without some risk.”

MacKay admits he was the only person to speak in support of Gateway when the Joint Review Panel (JRP) of the National Energy Board came through town for regulatory hearings. Though downtown is 50 kilometres from the pipeline route, the community’s influence reaches far beyond its municipal borders. As a provincial government centre and regional hub for mining and forestry, Smithers, with its alpine theme, attracts a well-educated professional class drawn by the quality of life, skiing, hiking, biking and proximity to world class paddling and steelhead fishing rivers. However, its population includes a deeply conservative element. Right to Life signs are fixtures along Highway 16 leading into and out of town, and the candidate for the Christian Heritage Party always polls well in federal elections. As a politician, this conservative element was MacKay’s base, and now as a volunteer activist, it still forms his support. Being fully retired, he says he’s not afraid to stand up and support Enbridge and spend time erecting homemade Yes to Jobs signs on the properties of supportive businesses and homeowners. These days, in terms of political representation, Smithers is green all the way. On September 23, 2014, Nathan Cullen, MP for Skeena-Bulkley Valley and currently the NDP finance critic, introduced a private member’s bill aiming to ban supertanker traffic on B.C.’s north coast. NDP Doug Donaldson, MLA for Stikine, told the JRP that risks to his constituents outweigh the benefits of the pipeline, the same view held by Mayor Taylor Bachrach. Over at Bugwood Bean, a few blocks down Smithers’ picturesque Main Street from Louise’s Kitchen, the other, more vocal and environmentally oriented side of Smithers is sipping espressos on sidewalk tables. This is where Bachrach enjoys chatting with citizens and he makes no apologies for his council taking a stand against Gateway, even if it is symbolic at best.

“The pipeline would cross the Morice River, and the Morice flows into the Bulkley,” Bachrach says, referring to the river that meanders through Smithers and is a lure for paddlers as well as anglers from around the world willing to pay more than $3,000 for five days of guided steelhead fishing.

In a region where freshwater is everything, the pipe rupture in Michigan in July 2010 that poured 877,000 gallons of heavy crude into the Kalamazoo River watershed – the largest inland oil spill in U.S. history that has cost Enbridge close to US$1 billion in cleanup efforts – was a deal-breaker in the extreme – for both the native and non-native community in and around Smithers. Enbridge’s relationship is fractious at best with the Wet’suwet’en, a nation whose sprawling traditional territory encompasses Smithers and is divided among five clans into dozens of sub-territories.

A subset of one of these clans, known as the Unist’ot’en, has established a permanent camp smack in the path of Gateway near where it would cross Morice River, and has forbidden access to all commercial, industrial and non-aboriginal interests.

“We will take every avenue available, whether it’s provincial, federal or our own laws to prevent this pipeline,” says John Ridsdale, also known as Chief Na’Moks, hereditary leader of the Beaver Clan, from the Office of the Wet’suwet’en in Smithers. “The tar sands produces a bad product to begin with, and B.C. and Canada will not fold if Gateway doesn’t proceed.”

In 2012 the Gitxsan, a neighbouring nation, faced a leadership crisis over support for Gateway similar to the one experienced by the Burns Lake Indian Band. And these days there’s a joke going around Smithers that says if you need anything for your community group or organization, just ask Enbridge. However, even as the company attempts to cultivate a philanthropic relationship with its stakeholder communities, controversy dogs these efforts. For example, an offer of $20,000 to Northwest Community College for student bursaries was at first accepted then rejected as the college’s board wrung its hands over the optics of accepting funds from Enbridge. In the end, the college minders decided in favour, claiming that student bursaries were needed but that acceptance was in no way an endorsement or rejection of any particular project.

“I don’t know of any issue that has united this town more than Northern Gateway has,” says Bacharach, back at the Bugwood Bean. And when he says united, he means in opposition.

Kitimat, B.C., 260 km southwest of Smithers
Population 9,000

Photograph Joey Podlubny

Numerous awards, framed in glass, line the walls of Realtor Shannon Dos Santos’s office in downtown Kitimat where Gateway would reach its western terminus. The one she’s most proud of is the award honouring her two years running as the top performing Re/Max Realtor in B.C. She sold more than 180 houses in each of 2012 and 2013 – that’s a transaction every one and a half days.

“I was sometimes doing two or three deals a day, and working until 3 in the morning,” she says, nodding at the black gala dress that she wore to the awards in Vancouver and which now hangs on her office door.

As a resident of Kitimat for three decades, Dos Santos’s switch from banking into real estate just five years ago couldn’t have been better timed. Riding Kitimat’s unprecedented real estate boom that made national headlines, her commissions have likely amassed into a small fortune. However, things have slowed dramatically. In April there were less than 15 listings; today there are 95. A seller’s market has suddenly become a buyer’s market again.

Kitimat, situated on the traditional territory of the Haisla Nation at the head of Douglas Channel, was built on the fortunes of the Alcan aluminum smelter. Its carefully planned streets of boxy two-storey 1950s to 1970s era homes looped around the City Centre Mall commercial area, with its vast encompassing parking lots, and more than 40 kilometres of paved walkways, create the feel of the consummate company town.

Rio Tinto Alcan’s multi-year $4.8-billion modernization, which will increase capacity by 48 per cent to 420,000 tonnes per year, has swelled workers camps and rental accommodations with approximately 1500 skilled tradesmen, engineers and labourers. Three LNG plants, one crude oil refinery, and three natural gas pipelines each with terminals in Kitimat are on the drawing board, carrying a combined capital investment of more than $30 billion. Yet Alcan’s upgrade will be complete in 2015 and not a single LNG plant or pipeline is poised to break ground. That’s why Dos Santos cautiously holds out hope that Gateway will be able to meet the 209 conditions set out by the JRP, win over stakeholders and start work in the near future.

“We need a project approved. We need some development,” Dos Santos says, worried that Kitimat could be relegated back to an all too familiar boom-and-bust cycle.

However Kitimat, despite its industrial roots, is skeptical of the project and its benefits. Last April, then mayor Joanne Monaghan surprised outside observers when she announced the results of a non-binding plebiscite that asked whether or not citizens support the JRP’s recommendation to the federal government that Gateway be approved – which it subsequently was last June; 1,793 were opposed and 1,278 were in favor. However, many locals weren’t surprised by the vote. Kitimat’s residents feel strongly about the local environment; both freshwater angling in the rivers of the northwest and saltwater fishing out in misty Douglas Channel are a big part of life around here.

“I don’t see a lot of benefit to the community but we’re taking all the risks,” says 26-year-old Chris Peacock, born and raised Kitimat resident and now employed as a mechanical engineer at Rio Tinto Alcan while also heads up the volunteer marine search and rescue. “If there’s a rupture in the pipeline what’s the mitigation plan? It’s in the middle of nowhere.”

It’s a common refrain. Peacock seems confident Northern Gateway will never leave the drawing board and will be killed by public opposition, economics, Keystone Standard – if it gets approved – or a combination of all three. Over at the Kitimat Museum and Archives, Energy Questions was the name of a small exhibit that ran until mid-October and was designed by curator Louise Avery. She says it was aimed at getting locals to talk more about Kitimat’s potentially pivotal role in Canada’s energy future.

“We all want a balance between industry and environment but nobody wants oil running down their streets,” Avery says.

Posted in Features.

One Comment

  1. No one wants a pipline spill…including myself and I have performed welding inspection on large diameter pipeline over the past 4 years. I can say that the steels – welding consumables and processes used in the 21st century combine to make pipelines the safest and most economical method for transporting any liquid.

    The majority of these towns and villages are miles and miles from any portion of Gateway…but the rail lines ALL go through or right beside said towns.

    The oil will flow, of that there is no doubt as Canada’s economical future depends on it…but doing so with rail is in my mind insanity.

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