“What is your purpose for visiting Canada?” the border officer had queried on the far side of the arching bridge from Lubec, Maine to Campobello Island, New Brunswick. “We’re on this bicycle tour,” I responded, squirming within my signposted responsibility to answer fully and accurately to all required questions. “I wonder what we should have said,” Garrett pondered, as we pedaled away. “That we are here to dismantle the white supremacist capitalist patriarchy?” I laughed.
Crossing the Courtenay Bay Causeway in Saint John, New Brunswick the following day the largest oil refinery in Canada loomed to our left, while tanker ships, oil trains and a selection of million-gallon tanks were set along the sedated shoreline to our right. The blue lettering on each tank read Irving, our first glimpse of a family name that would haunt our coming days. The lettering on my bike jersey reminded me to keep pedalling for the planet. I took a wide right turn onto Bayside Drive and shivered to pass a sign denoting Irving Industrial Security. I felt watched.
“One in seven New Brunswickers work for Irving,” Lynaya filled us in as we drove back along the coast towards the city from her home on Red Head Road, opposite Transcanada’s chosen terminus for Energy East, the largest oil pipeline to ever be proposed in North America. “My brothers-in-law do. They have to sign contracts that they won’t speak or act against the interest of the corporation. I know other activists whose family won’t be seen with them for fear of losing their jobs.” The dense industrial infrastructure was speeding past us now. High locked gates. Blinking lights on assorted towers. Oversized machinery. An unlikely deer inside a chainlink fence, resilient behind an array of warning signs.
I couldn’t quite manage a smile as the camera flashed. I was holding a sign reading, simply, 47. The number of people killed in the Lac Megantic oil train explosion in Quebec. On the disaster’s two year anniversary Lynaya had gathered the small community willing to speak the necessary truth. We were still in our damp bike shorts, stood amongst retirees, Red Head homeowners, a businessman or two, and a documentary film crew, also recently arrived in Saint John to listen to frontline stories of fossil fuel resistance for their upcoming film Directly Affected. In the background were oil trains, hundreds of carriages long, each carrying nearly 30,000 gallons of crude or, worse, diluted bitumen from the tar sands.
“I had a woman from Transcanada sitting at my kitchen table. The first thing she said to me coldly was ‘we are not interested in buying any more property.’ So I figured I would just have to stay here then.” Lynaya explained, when I asked how it was she came to be involved with all of this. “It was then that I started reading all about climate change and realized how much bigger this was than Red Head. I now think it was fate that put me here to fight this.” She kept her eye on the road, navigating her beloved hybrid car through downtown traffic. “I want to be able to look my two nieces in the eye in twenty years and tell them that I did absolutely everything I could.”
The function room in the chain hotel was overly air conditioned, and the five filmmakers were sat facing the small audience. We watched a short version of their film: a story of the people impacted by Kinder Morgan’s proposed Trans Mountain Pipeline expansion. The Energy East story is to be added, hence their cameras greeting us as we pedaled into Lynaya’s driveway earlier that day. A man sitting in my row of plastic seats introduced himself. He lives off-grid, without a car, and had got a ride from a friend to attend the screening. He’s proposing a census boycott to deprive the provincial government of federal funding, hoping that resistance spoken in their language will finally be heard.
“I’m a bladder cancer patient,” spoke up one woman. “My doctor tells me almost all bladder cancers are rooted in cadmium exposure from smoking cigarettes. My fellow patients and I… not one of us are smokers.” It’s a common story, we were told. Cancer rates in Saint John are multiples of ten above national averages. Research is stifled, and awareness is nil. The Irving empire owns every single newspaper and no community health survey has ever been completed. In Burnaby, the epicenter of resistance to the Trans Mountain pipeline, they have an area they call “cancer alley”, the filmmakers shared. “Here we just call it Saint John,” another woman laughed. I shifted uncomfortably in my chair.
I got to talking to the man who lives at the tip of Anthony’s Cove Road, where Energy East would end. “I saw our house many years ago and swore then that I would move there if it ever came for sale. It’s that beautiful of a spot. For me that’s what this fight is about. My house, my land. If you’re looking for an environmentalist, Lynaya is the one to talk to.” I asked about the seven-hundred person strong March to the End of the Line that happened along his road just six weeks before. “It was powerful. So important that First Nations people came. That war canoe sure got people’s attention.” The Telegraph Journal that day had said they would publish Lynaya’s opinion piece about the courageous and diverse resistance to the pipeline. Instead the Irving-owned newspaper printed a full-page ad from Transcanada offering pro-Energy East yard signs. “At least I haven’t seen a single yard with one,” she consoles herself.
Soon the seven of us travelling storytellers, both cyclists and filmmakers, were gathered for a late night meal in the home of Leticia, chair of the Saint John chapter of Council of Canadians. A refugee support coordinator, Leticia welcomed us with open arms, quesadillas and ginger beer. Conversation flowed from my question: What should we know about Canada? Hockey, oversized road art and Tim Hortons quickly passed over we dove into better understanding the regime of Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Expansion of the tar sands, fast tracking of pipelines, repealing of environmental safeguards, muzzling of scientists, tax breaks for the wealthiest industry on Earth… “When you look at the changes to law Prime Minister Harper has made in this country, it is really unsettling. Many people wonder, is this what Germany’s descent into fascism felt like?” film director Zack said. “Politics are becoming very polarized; environmentalists and First Nations groups are being referred to as radicals and enemies of the state. New secret police powers have been enabled under bill C-51, all in an effort to extract more oil in the era of climate change.”
I finally got to sleep that night on the same air mattress that Lynaya hosted organizers from 350.org on when they came for the march. “I never could have imagined meeting all of you incredible people before this,” she said, as we wished one another goodnight. “I was a quiet person, not one to speak out. All of this came from me speaking at one neighbourhood meeting. I stood up and shared my concerns about the pipeline, and was amazed to hear that others felt the same. I now know we are all part of a global movement.”
It was a grey day heavy with drizzle as we left Saint John. A large hole and various machinery had appeared in the field opposite Lynaya’s house overnight. As we headed back over the causeway we stopped to take pictures of the oil trains, again wearing our bike jerseys, again pedalling for the planet. Garrett’s guess was that it was illegal for us to be stood by the tracks with a camera, looking out to the cold bay with the refinery behind us. Warning: Crude Oil Pipeline signs dotted the stretch of grass we stood upon. Keep Out was the message of the gates and fence line. Another deer appeared from just beyond the border. She ran down the embankment and under the thundering bridge. Just behind her were two fawns, giddily leaping across the rail ties, playful amidst it all.