In alder in maple fern salal and salmonberry near train &
bird sound & plane sound on mountain on watch
Among stumps red rounds starling flocks bespeaking a theory
of the swarm plane drone train echo mountain on watch
Beside dead cut boughs their drying leaf curl by fallen
trunks & bear presence on unceded territory occupied on watch
Over the inlet down slope attached to social media over
proposed pipeline route under capital on mountain on watch
Since we learned, a few weeks ago, that Texas-based oil behemoth Kinder Morgan had entered the conservation area on Burnaby Mountain (in the middle of which sits the public university where I have taught for 15 years), a group of us have been keeping watch for the company’s re-appearance. I think of us as “citizen rangers.” We have chased them off more than once already. And if they return, we will make their attempts to work on the mountain…difficult, to say the least.
We hike downslope in the park, from a field where much of Vancouver and its harbour can be seen. Or we ascend from the base of the mountain. The trail is narrow, steep, muddy. We settle ourselves in the forest clearing Kinder Morgan made—illegally—there with our bodies to prevent their helicopters from landing equipment in the forest conservation area. This is their plan: drill and conduct seismic testing. Then re-submit their proposal to the National Energy Board of Canada.
Our bodies sitting in the forest tell a different story. This is grassroots resistance at its grassy and rootiest. The thing about massive energy projects—the devastation they can wreak on local ecosystems, and the global atmosphere as well—is that they have to pass through very small and localizable spaces. We are small. But a pipeline is narrow. The forest clearing just large enough to set down equipment. Or just small enough for a handful of volunteers to occupy.
Meanwhile, the struggle continues on other levels too. Community groups like BROKE (Burnaby Residents against Kinder Morgan Expansion) are organized, vocal, active. The City of Burnaby continues to pursue legal means of preventing Kinder Morgan from expropriating city parkland. Burnaby NDP MP Kennedy Stewart continues to pursue parliamentary means of opposition. And the Tsleil-Waututh First Nation, stewards of these unceded lands, are also making their own constitutional challenge.
Kinder Morgan, with all its wealth and power, of course has the federal government in its back pocket. The National Energy Board, far from an objective arbiter, has provided Kinder Morgan with over $130 million of Canadian tax payer’s money to pursue its application.
And so—sitting on unceded land, in the middle of an urban park and conservation area (where we have on several occasions seen two black bears, amongst many other creatures), and under threat of a massively wealthy private (foreign owned) corporation flush with public Canadian funds—questions about the nature of publicness and the commons almost always come to my mind.
Fossil fuel production threatens the global commons—that shared material fact (I don’t like to say “resource”) of what all living beings depend upon: breathable air, drinkable water, a life-sustaining climate, a sustainable food supply. These things cannot be “owned,” and yet the activities of private corporations directly dispossess us of them, prevent access to them, and destroy them—for us and future generations. Thus what is coming to a head on public land on Burnaby Mountain is the very destruction of the common and public on a planetary scale.
But—and I keep coming back to this issue too—can we consider “common” what is also unceded (that is, never deeded or surrendered) indigenous territory? How does a concern for the global biospheric commons intersect with indigenous claims to traditional and long-occupied land?
My own answer is—delicately, and not unproblematically. The idea of the commons comes from the European (especially British) tradition of common lands as a system for sustaining local communities: much land was technically private (owned by various aristocrats), but people had local access and use rights to unoccupied (non-agricultural) land, which they depended upon for their survival. These rights were taken away, and common lands “enclosed,” between the 16th and 19th centuries—alongside the development of capitalism.
An indigenous sense of land use is not always easy to reconstruct, after 500 years of colonial occupation. Like the idea of the commons, the survival of indigenous communities depended upon access to and use of land—however, no system of property-based ownership seems to have existed. One did not own land: land owned you and your people. As such, you were responsible for the careful stewardship, and even defence, of the land to which you belonged.
Here is the overlap I want to note for now: both the European common and indigenous territorial systems were carefully managed with their extension into the future in mind. They didn’t only have to sustain the community now—they had to do so for generations to come. This is made clear in the recent and landmark Tsilhqot’in Supreme Court definition of aboriginal title:
“It is collective title held not only for the present generation but for all succeeding generations. It cannot be … encumbered in ways that would prevent future generations of the group from using and enjoying it. Nor can the land be developed or misused in a way that would substantially deprive future generations of the benefit of the land.”
Unlike capitalism, commons-based and indigenous senses of land use are premised upon the importance of future access and use. Companies like Kinder Morgan operate according to a logic of limitless accumulation of profits: the only sense they have of the future is future profit. Often, fossil fuel companies only need a short-term access to and use of land. After they are done, the land is often destroyed, irreparably. They move on—seeking something else to destroy in their pursuit of tomorrow’s gains on the stock market, the next-quarter’s returns.
So we sit in the forest—we small group of citizen rangers—trying to ward off tree-fallers, drill operators, and helicopters with our bodies occupying trails and clear-cuts. We are, I like to think, commoners too, one and all—keepers of future possibilities, future access and use of this green lung-space we all need to breathe—these waters we all need for provision. And when I say “we” I think of the black bears too, and the Pacific Sideband Snail, and the raven whose call echoes off the mountain slopes.