Reflections on the Waterloo Region Against Line 9 Campaign
The following article is a personal reflection on how a group of anarchists from KW experimented with running a professional looking activist campaign. Armed with a Declaration of Opposition that organizations could sign and a separate petition for individuals, we essentially lobbied local politicians for the Waterloo Region's municipal government to take a stand against Enbridge's plan to pump tar sands oil through the region. While we had some successes, we had trouble bringing people into our coalition, and were unable to get municipal politicians to take any real action beyond a statement of concern. The Waterloo Region Against Line 9 campaign was essentially a liberal activist campaign with a radical message that most people in our region could not identify with.
Part of the broader anti-Line 9 and anti-tar sands network in Ontario, our overall goal was to create a political environment where the general public knew of, and was opposed to Line 9 and the tar sands megaproject in general. Enbridge has proposed to reverse the flow of a 40 year old pipeline, and pump diluted bitumen from the tar sands in Alberta, through Ontrario and Quebec starting in Sarnia to Montreal – through cities, indigenous territory, farmland, rivers and drinking water. For more details on Enbridge's Line 9 reversal proposal and the dangers it will bring, see Waterloo Region Against Line 9 and Environmental Defence. Our goal was to put tar sands on the political map for other activist and community organizations, media, politicians and the general public, comparable to that of BC's movement against construction of the Northern Gateway project (which is ongoing with massive opposition to Enbridge's plans and BC Premier Christy Clark's promise to not approve the pipeline, while still openly negotiating with Alberta Premier Alison Redford. Another example of misplaced trust in politicians and their institutions that continue to prop up wealthy corporations and disregard people and ecological threats – for more details see here). The idea was that by outreaching to as wide an audience as possible, we could build relationships in the community with individuals and organizations in the Waterloo Region and beyond to mobilize to oppose Enbridge. Along with other Ontario organizations such as Rising Tide Toronto, Swamp Line 9, Environmental Defence, Aamjiwnaang and Sarnia Against Pipelines and Toronto East End Against Line 9, we aimed to build a mass movement that would force the National Energy Board as well as the Ontario government to block Enbridge's plan to pump tar sands through Line 9.
How can we assess ourselves? As far as building a movement with massive political opposition comparable to BC, we were unable to garner this type of involvement from most people. In the Waterloo Region campaign specifically, one of the key ways we attempted to do this was to reach out to organizations that we thought would be sympathetic to our cause. We asked them to endorse and distribute the Declaration of Opposition to Line 9 and send logistical support and organizers to help us build capacity in our small coalition. The Declaration laid out 5 premises as to why we opposed Enbridge's plan and contained within it a critique of capitalism, colonialism and environmental degradation.
The Declaration of Opposition to Line 9 reads, “Line 9 will put the shared environment and collective health of our region in jeopardy” based on Enbridges record of oil spills. It states that the reversal will not benefit the region, but is a threat to “farms, small businesses, public institutions, rural and urban communities alike, and to our economy overall.” Reading between the lines here, it is evident that Enbridge would be the main benefactor to this project. The declaration states that “the reversal of the pipeline violates current treaties with Indigenous communities, both within the Haldimand Tract and elsewhere along the route” and a bitumen spill is harder and more expensive to clean up as “it is not a question of if but when this will happen here.” The Declaration's final point is clear: “We envision a future where our lives and economies are not dependent on fossil fuels and do not contribute to the greenhouse gases and additional pollutants they produce. We recognize that supporting further extraction from the tar sands and other fossil fuel energy sources will continue to prevent the development of real sustainable alternatives.” You can read the Declaration in its entirety here.
The result of our efforts was mostly answered with silence or indifference. The vast majority of the 25 groups we got to sign on were organizations that the campaign organizers belonged to, or the groups of our friends and comrades. For the most part, these organizations had a radical critique of capitalism, colonialism and ecological justice that allowed the Declaration to fit within the analytic framework of the radicals of KW. Other organizations, such as Waterloo Regional Labour Council and other local unions, do not have a radical analysis of the state and economy. Our declaration did not resonate with them.
This is not to say that the Declaration of Opposition to Line 9 distributed by our tiny coalition was dubious or not well thought out. It is quite an amazing piece of writing that clearly laid out the history and problems of Enbridge without using much activist jargon. We should be proud that we were able to garner the support that we did, with over one thousand individual signatories. The problem with it was that, unlike the way we ran the campaign, it could not fit into the mainstream mindset – the neoliberal ideology of needing capitalism, compromising with environmental destruction for the sake of convenience ignorance of Canada's colonial history and outright racism towards indigenous peoples. For our campaign, our piece of writing, however well thought out it is, was not enough to inspire action.
Aside from contacting other local organizations for support, we entered our message in the usual places: social media, demonstrations, flyers, posters, discussions with people at markets, letters to the editor, and attempts to get coverage in the local mainstream media. The toughest obstacle from the start in our communications with the general public was explaining the Line 9 reversal process, which to Enbridge's advantage, is very confusing. Many people had not heard of the tar sands either, let alone the Haldimand Tract. We faced an uphill battle of information to get the public to learn about Line 9. We set up meetings with members of the regional council and later presented our case at a council meeting we packed full of demonstrators. Of course council would not sign the Declaration as some councillors spoke of how the tar sands is necessary for the Canadian economy, again more evidence of how our analysis of Line 9 was too radical for the mainstream. This is also more evidence of how politicians and political structures in Canada exist to sustain the growth of corporate wealth and maintain the class hierarchy. The regional council, after some more pressure tactics, issued a statement of concern which coalition members took to the National Energy Board presentation as evidence.
While the NEB's answer remains up in the air (my bet is they'll side with Enbridge regardless of the slew of evidence against the Line 9 reversal and defend the “national interest” for the sake of supporting the neoliberal agenda), it is important to take away some lessons of how we organized. The Waterloo Region Against Line 9 campaign put much stock in existing government structures as an overall strategy to block the reversal of Line 9. The pipeline was built in the 1970s, which is one of the main reasons we made use of persuasion and lobbying. Unlike the Northern Gateway, Keystone XL and fracking exploration in New Brunswick, Line 9's existing infrastructure limited our strategy to a more liberal one. We relied on the channels that we were supposed to by taking our case to the municipal council and the National Energy Board. It was a way to make our campaign, though radical in message, appear liberal enough to be accepted by the general public in an attempt to build mass support. It also demonstrates yet again the power relations that exist in modern capitalist states: the government and corporations hold all of the cards and we felt it necessary to operate within their system to appear legitimate in the public sphere.
The Waterloo Region Against Line 9 campaign also shows how limited our capacity as anarchists truly is – our political action focused on petitioning the government. Direct actions against Enbridge by groups in other communities have had some mixed results. Swamp Line 9's occupation of Enbridge's Westover site has resulted in a refocusing of some activists efforts on court support instead of against Line 9 itself. Rising Tide Toronto's recent occupation of a Line 9 construction site was well done, but purposefully short in order to avoid arrest. While it garnered some media attention, it is easy to see how careful organizers against Line 9 must be in their actions. Ultimately, these actions have not stopped the reversal of Line 9, but it demonstrates that the broader anti-Line 9 campaign continues and will keep pressuring different levels of government, the NEB and the general public to stop the reversal. Conversely, the recent victory at Elsipogtog of Mi'kmaq people against SWN Resources plan to survey unceased land for fracking purposes demonstrates that regardless of arrests and ridicule in the mainstream media, the old adage “direct action gets the goods” remains true.
What we need to remember is that we must not give up and lose hope, we have to be in this for the long uphill struggle. We have to continue to experiment and learn from what we do. As we move forward in the Waterloo Region and across Ontario in the campaign against Line 9, we need to ask ourselves some tough questions. How do we build a social base capable of carrying out direct action against the pipeline in a sustainable matter? How can we expand participation in struggle against ecological destruction beyond a core of activists? Where can we build coalitions and alliances without sacrificing our political principles? Answering these questions and turning it into action is work that goes well beyond the Line 9 campaign into the wider struggle against capitalism and colonialism. We need learn from our experiment in KW and build real bridges in our community that result in strong relationships based on principles of mutual aid, solidarity and common struggle.