Opposition to Trans Mountain Expansion highest in Metro Vancouver, where biggest protests are expected

Thanks to Kennedy Stewart, we now know that not all British Columbians hate the Trans Mountain Expansion pipeline, contrary to the position of Premier John Horgan’s government. The Burnaby NDP MP released a public opinion survey showing the province essentially split on the controversial project (48% support, 44% oppose, 9% undecided), but the real insight is the number of opponents willing to commit acts of civil disobedience in defiance of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s approval and support.

Almost one in four (23%) opponents say they would consider “engaging in acts of civil disobedience to stop or disrupt construction.”

“When these polling results are applied to the four million adult residents, they suggest about 400,000 British Columbians – 10% of the adult population – are considering direct action against this pipeline construction,” Stewart, a public policy professor on leave from Simon Fraser University and NDP Member of Parliament for Burnaby South, said in a press release.

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Climate Direct Action activists preparing to turn off pipeline valves.

What might “direct action” entail?

In Oct. 2016, an American activist group made up of middle-aged professionals – and a poet – broke into five pipeline pumping stations and shut valves in an act of solidarity with the Standing Rock Sioux of South Dakota, who were protesting construction of the Dakota Access pipeline.

Climate Direct Action called pipeline operators and gave them 15 minutes notice of what was coming. When police arrived, the activists surrendered peacefully.

Supporters claimed the group had consulted with a retired engineer and read up on the Internet to ensure everything went smoothly and no one was hurt.

Industry had a different perspective.

“Closing valves on major pipelines can have unexpected consequences endangering people and the environment,” said Carl Weimer, executive director at the industry watchdog Pipeline Safety Trust, describing the valve shutting as a “dangerous stunt.”

Another approach might be modeled on the Clayoquot Sound logging protests of the early 1990s, the so-called “War in the Woods” that included driving spikes into trees and endangering loggers’ lives, huge road blockades, and protests that culminated in arrests of over 800 activists.

“I’m surprised by the number of people in Vancouver say who are willing to go jail over civil disobedience around the pipeline,” Prof. Margot Young told me during our Markham On Energy podcast interview earlier this week.

“I have to say the opposition to this pipeline is so coherent and powerful out here that I can’t imagine it getting built, but I can imagine en route to stopping the project that we’re in for some minimally uncomfortable times but maybe even some violent times.”

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Margot Young, UBC law professor.

Prof. Young told me many of the students in her classes are prepared to go to jail for protesting the Kinder Morgan project, though the survey interestingly shows that opposition is highest among those aged 35-to-54 (51%).

In fact, getting arrested and charged for protesting the pipeline is a badge of honour in some Vancouver social circles. During my May 2 2017 oil sands and pipeline debate with Dr. Gordon Cornwall of the Green Party of Canada, he told the audience his proudest moment was being hauled away by RCMP during the 2014 Burnaby Mountain protest.

Stewart’s survey results – which shows that opposition is highest in Metro Vancouver (49%) and Vancouver Island (45%), and lowest in the north and interior – jibe with the political mood in British Columbia.

The most common action survey respondents said they would consider is writing a letter to their MP (65%, +3 since Nov. 2017).

But the eye-catching result is the number (54%, +5) who would consider attending a public protest or march, like the one held in Nov. 2016 that attracted 4,000 people to downtown Vancouver.

“I think it’s just inevitable that people feel like their backs are against the wall whether it’s a justice issue for indigenous people or a climate issue for young people who feel as though they are hanging off the edge of a cliff,” Dogwood Initiative campaigner Kai Nagata told me in an interview at the time.

“We’re going to see people in increasingly hardline stances towards crude oil and infrastructure expansion.”

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Standing Rock Sioux protest village.

Those hardline stances suggest a Standing Rock-style protest, with a huge semi-permanent “protest village” (over 5,000 people), online crowdfunding (reported to be $1.5 million a day), sophisticated media and social media strategies, and alliances with environmental groups and indigenous communities across North America.

BC First Nations were quick to cement a formal alliance with the Standing Rock Sioux and pledge mutual support to oppose energy infrastructure projects.

When Stewart says that “[t]his is the kind of result that keeps me up at night with worry,” presumably another  Standing Rock – which led to violent clashes with police – is what he imagines in the wee hours.

So, while supporters will point to the significant and growing support in British Columbia for Trans Mountain Expansion, that isn’t the survey’s take away, which is that Metro Vancouver police should be planning now to house and process large numbers of angry protesters as early as this summer.

Preparing for violent riots wouldn’t hurt, either. For as Prof. Young puts it in her understated academic way, “it’s not unforeseeable that things will become very intense during the protests.”

Note: The online study of 938 British Columbian adults conducted between February 7 and February 9, 2018, has a margin of error of +/- 3.2 percentage points, 19 times out of 20, and was conducted by Insights West for Stewart.