What voices are drowned out by the pipeline’s roar? This is the question Vancouver writer Arno Kopecky asks in The Oil Man and the Sea, a timely travelogue that looks at Enbridge’s proposed Northern Gateway project and the area of coastal British Columbia it stands to affect.
For the uninitiated, Northern Gateway proposes to carry diluted bitumen from Alberta to tankers bound for the Asian market, launched out of Kitimat at the end of the Douglas Channel. In this cradle of hostile weather and hazardous navigation, the potential for spills is huge, posing a major threat to what is statistically the most biologically dense region on the planet.
Kopecky’s experiment is simple: how might seeing this place and talking to its people shape his views on the issue?
The narrative follows Kopecky as he and photographer Ilja Herb take a rookie sailing trip through the Great Bear Rainforest, to reach the mouth of what Enbridge calls the Northern Gateway.
Their stated aim is to cultivate “awareness and voice for B.C.’s threatened coast,” by telling stories of the nature, culture and people of the region.
However, it is the drama of the controversial pipeline that dominates, and I felt some guilt at wanting to speed through the first half’s more intimate moments to get to the doomier bits.
The book begins with sailing, and continues that way for some 50 pages, as the 41-foot cutter with the rather cloying name of Foxy takes its crew of two up the coast.
Kopecky is a writer who loves close detail and casual delivery, and his obvious enthusiasm for his first big sailing adventure sometimes overloads his prose with bilge and valves and small near-disasters. (There are at least two paragraphs devoted to overcharging batteries.)
Once we get through the “Iron Sail,” though, the book opens up and allows more time for its best stories to unfold. Kopecky visits nations of the Great Bear Rainforest, the Heiltsuk and the Gitga’at and the Haisla, to hear what they have to say about Northern Gateway, but also about the land, and their history with it.
There are great characters: Sam Robinson, hereditary chief of the Haisla, a master carver whose works made from cedar and abalone shells go for six-figure sums. Jessie Housty, the sassy spiritual engine of the Heiltsuk town of Bella Bella. Eric Peterson, the “unsociable but benevolent genius” who operates the Hakai Beach Institute, a remote lodge and research centre lifted straight from a James Bond film.
Still, it is the tortuous twists and hard numbers of the pipeline story that make the biggest impression. Kopecky conjures the spectre of 320,000-metric tonne “Very Large Crude Carriers” attempting right angle turns through a route rife with hidden obstacles and wonky tidal currents. He breaks down the ecological and economic costs of cleaning up a spill of a million barrels.
Most dishearteningly, he lays out the devastation such a spill would have on communities that form part of the coastal ecosystem, and we are left to gape at how our tales of potential environmental danger are almost always tales of woe for First Nations. Marilyn Slett, chief councilor of Bella Bella, is most concise about what kind of threat these people face in a potential spill: “If we lose our access to the sea, we cease to be Heiltsuk.”
Kopecky is intelligent and thorough and open about his bias, so it is no criticism that this tragedy is gut wrenching, dread inducing and very enjoyable to read.
The book’s greatest accomplishment, though, is the gradual reveal that puts each of us on the threshold of the Northern Gateway. All of the regional detail makes it easy to imagine this story as specific to B.C., with its staggering ecological richness and resource wealth and endless list of straits and rivers and sounds. Kopecky, though, is careful to state the larger point: this is the “local chapter of a story playing out in every country on earth.” It might seem remote, but northern B.C. is a microcosm for the whole world, or certainly the whole of Canada, as it settles into a long struggle over how to deal with its precious fossil
J.R. McConvey is an award-winning documentary producer and the author of an e-book, The Last Ham. Follow him on Twitter @jrmcconvey.