Concordia Conference Urges Transition Away From Oil and Gas

British Columbia Community Faces Standing Rock-Style Struggle

Freda Huson spoke at Concordia on Nov. 5. Photo Joshua De Costa

As police and protesters continue to clash over the Dakota Access Pipeline in the United States, Unist’ot’en Clan Spokesperson Freda Huson visited Concordia University Saturday morning with a message of her own.

“If we don’t change now, our next generations are going to have no clean water. They are going to struggle to even put food on their table,” Huson said. “What is going to happen when they can’t produce any food because there’s no water to water the food that they grow?”

In 2010, Huson’s community, the Unist’ot’en Clan of the Wet’suwet’en First Nation in northern B.C., constructed a permanent camp to block extraction companies from building oil and gas pipelines through their land.

Huson said the pipelines threaten to poison their earth and contaminate their water, and even though extraction companies have proposed environment analyses, “those environmental studies aren’t real environmental studies.”

“Our people have always lived on the land. We didn’t have to learn how to be environmentalists,” explained Huson. “It’s our way of life.”

Huson’s keynote presentation on Saturday headlined Sustainable Concordia’s Transitions Conference, an array of presentations advocating society’s transition away from industrial energy.

—Video by Joshua De Costa

The conference’s motif of Indigenous and frontline resistance in the face of resource extraction projects comes at a time when tensions are building over the Dakota Access Pipeline in North Dakota.

The $3.7 billion DAPL project has proposed to transport crude oil from North Dakota’s Bakken oil field to a refinery plant in Chicago–through the Standing Rock Reservation in the United States.

“There’s a lot of eyes on North Dakota right now–Unist’ot’en is the same thing–this is their lives,” said Isabella Harned, the conference’s organizer and Sustainable Concordia’s campaigns coordinator. “They’re literally on the frontlines–they’re building structures to say no.”

Six years ago, the Unist’ot’en Clan built structures to stand in the way of resource extraction companies, but the permanent camp has also served to reconnect the people with their community, said Huson.

“It’s also to bring our people back to the land; to teach them how to sustain themselves through hunting, trapping and fishing—all these things that have been taken away by residential schools.”

For the past five years, Huson has spent almost $30,000 of her own savings living out on the territory, and resistance hasn’t come cheap—or easily.

“I have had to become physically fit,” she said. “I have to chop wood for heat and you have to work for everything you have out there because nothing comes easy and nobody else is going to do it for you.”

But even though it’s costly, Huson believes that living out there and travelling across Canada to speak is worth it.

“I come to Montreal and other communities to show people the struggles we’re facing right now,” said Huson. “So that when people hear via media what’s going on in Unist’ot’en Camp, they can put a face to it.”

Impending pipelines aren’t the only struggles facing the Unist’ot’en Clan, added Huson, and over time, her community has noticed the number of salmon plummet.

“We would catch 200 salmon at a time, but year by year that has dropped,” she said. “Today, if we’re lucky, we catch 30 to 60 fish.”

The impacts of climate change are starting to manifest, said Damon Matthews, an environmental scientist and associate professor at Concordia.

“It’s even more noticeable in the Canadian north than in other parts of the world,” he said. “In general it’s the poorer, more vulnerable communities that are going to be hit hardest by this.”

Matthews spoke after Huson on Saturday, warning that the global economy must move away from carbon within the next 50 years to have any chance of meeting the aspirations of the Paris Agreement.

More than 50 countries, including Canada, have signed the Paris Agreement, pledging to curb greenhouse gas emissions and keep global temperature from rising more than 2 C.

To meet that promise, the government must make it easier for people to make the right environmental choices, said Matthews.

“Right now, the incentives for individuals are opposite to where we need to be going,” he said. “The environmental choice—the choice that helps decrease emissions—is always the more expensive choice. That needs to change.”