A Trans Mountain worker cuts down a tree, piece by piece, in the Brunette River area. (Dustin Godfrey / Burnaby Beacon)

Confrontation looms large at TMX tree sit protest

After a stop-work order was lifted on Trans Mountain expansion work in Burnaby's Brunette River area, authorities will now need to remove tree sitters for the work to continue.

By Dustin Godfrey | September 13, 2021 |4:00 am

Note: This article is current as of late Friday afternoon. There may have been updates over the weekend, which we will cover this week.

In a clearing, surrounded by forest and flanked by tree sitters, the remains of dozens of trees are strewn out like rubble.

It’s a decent walk along Highway 1 from North Road to get to the site of 4 tree sits that are blocking work on the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion.

With a fence in place to block access to the Brunette River conservation area, one has to scramble up, over a cement ledge about a metre high—or otherwise brave the shoulder of the Highway 1 bridge from the other side of North Road.

From the highway, it’s only a minute to get to the clearing, where 3 climate activists are gathered. A pair of security guards, contracted by Trans Mountain, stand by a rope, the solitary barrier between the forest paths and the clearing.

The guards offer pleasantries and, when told their visitor is with the media, stand aside. However, they offer a warning not to stray from the small zone where the activists have set up.

Earlier in the day, there were more people here, and just the day before there were 2 arrests after activists blocked machinery with a prayer circle.

A calm scene

But now, things are calm. The RCMP has already attended and warned most activists to clear out. But 3 are allowed to remain to provide more serious roles—a medic, a police liaison, and their own observer with a phone camera to record all goings on.

After clearing out most of the pipeline’s opponents, the RCMP had left, reportedly to determine how to deal with the 4 people up in 4 different trees.

In the meantime, some of the tree removal work has continued—a small tree a couple dozen metres away from one of 2 more informal tree sits is removed in chunks of 1 or 2 metres in length.

The camp’s medic, Dr Stephanie Von Dehn who practises as a physician all around BC, and their police liaison, Cynthia Lee, are concerned when they hear a tree is to be taken down.

Lee says she believes police should be present for tree work so close to 1 of the 2 informal tree sits.

Set up just the night before, they are supported by ropes that run to the ground, and more ropes connect them to nearby trees. If the ground rope is cut, the sitter no longer has support, and they could fall about 70 feet in rough terrain of tree debris—most likely to their death.

In the other direction, work is done on another much larger tree about 100 feet tall.

A dire message

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But overall, the scene is rather peaceful, a stark contrast to the media reports of violent confrontations between police and activists seeking to protect old-growth forest in Fairy Creek on Vancouver Island.

Here, the interactions between Trans Mountain and activists are non-confrontational—cordial, even.

But the activists’ message is no less dire than those in Fairy Creek. Where the Island protesters say preserving the old-growth forest is key to combating climate change, here, the message is that we cannot manage climate change and build a new pipeline at the same time.

“This Trans Mountain project is absolutely the wrong thing,” says Von Dehn. “It’s at least tripling our contribution to the amount of fossil fuels that can be shipped through this corridor to be sold to the world so that it can be burned and make our climate crisis worse and make our fires more intense and cause more misery to British Columbians and people all around the globe.”

Opponents of Trans Mountain say the pipeline and other expansions of infrastructure correspond to increasing production in Alberta’s oilsands. Meanwhile, the country is seeking to reduce carbon emissions by about 50% this decade and to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050.

But proponents say the pipeline is necessary to bridge the current demand on petroleum products. The Liberals have said proceeds of the pipeline—if there are any—will go toward green energy.

A lengthy occupation

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Tree sitters have been occupying the canopy of the forested area since August 2020. The Canada Energy Regulator has given Trans Mountain the go-ahead to clear over 1,300 trees of 20.3 cm in diameter or greater—as well as uncounted smaller trees—in the Brunette River area.

Environment Canada, however, handed the Crown corporation a stop-work order in April, due to damage done to an Anna’s hummingbird nest.

The stop-work order lapsed in mid-August, and things remained peaceful for weeks, with activists wondering when the work would start.

More recently, work has restarted. Fences have been placed around the 2 more established tree sits, which consist of wooden platforms up in the trees.

But those platforms and the 2 informal tree sits have jammed up at least some of the work. By mid-afternoon Friday, tree cutters are headed home.

“They would come down willingly if we heard an announcement today that this pipeline is being cancelled. I can guarantee you that,” Von Dehn says.

But that announcement hasn’t come.

And now, she and Lee are preparing to camp out in the clearing overnight. They expect police to return to try to remove the tree sitters.

They expected RCMP to come by on Saturday. But as of Sunday afternoon, there’s been no indication to Burnaby Beacon that they have taken action.

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Dustin Godfrey

Reporter at Burnaby Beacon

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