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  • Beacons of hope for the Salish Sea

    Briony Penn

    Can a swimmer, First Nations and Thomas Berger, QC, turn the tide on Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain pipeline?


    AS RAMA DELAROSA emerged from the water after her week-long, 86-kilometre swim to “Save the Salish Sea,” she was sparkling. She had completed her mission—to swim around Salt Spring Island to raise awareness and money for RAVEN’s Pull Together Campaign aimed at stopping Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain pipeline. As she waded ashore at her final destination of Xwaaqwum (Burgoyne Bay), nearly $12,000 had already been raised.

    Her swim also brought in a circle of volunteers to accompany her on the swim—the most notable of which was an orca who joined her one evening around Beaver Point. A group of islanders scattered flowers in her path and DelaRosa sat down on solid ground to dig into a potluck feast after spending up to ten hours a day over the last seven days in the sea, snatching meals and sleep when she could. The inevitable question of “What are you going to do first?” elicited a big smile: “I’m really looking forward to dinner and then resting in my garden that overlooks the sea.”



    Rama DelaRosa (far left) with a flotilla of supporters off Salt Spring Island


    DelaRosa is just one of many creative and passionate people who have swum into this cause. Andrea Palframan from RAVEN (a non-profit whose mission is to raise legal defence funds for Indigenous peoples in Canada to defend their treaty rights and the integrity of their traditional lands and cultures) was there to greet DelaRosa at the shoreline.

    Palframan shared more examples of these “incredible people inspired to do small actions”: A group of burlesque actors put on “a dirty show for a clean coast” called “Strip Tide.” A group of cyclists rode “the rising tide” of concern from Montreal to Vancouver. There was the summer “Walk 4 the Salish Sea” in which several pods of islanders and puppet orca, hosted by Tsawout and other First Nation villages along the way, joined forces and marched or swam to the Kinder Morgan facilities in Burnaby from Mile O. Over 90 islanders took to their kayaks and canoes around the Salish Sea for five days with the Turning the Tide paddling initiative. Across the border, San Juan Islanders and mainlander friends raised over $100,000 to help the alliance of First Nations bringing their legal cases to a federal court.

    Leading the charge spiritually is Grand Chief Stewart Philip and his wife Joan. The court date is October 2; the First Nations bringing the court challenges are Tsleil-Waututh, Coldwater, Squamish, and Stk’emlúpsemc te Secwépemc. They are challenging both the National Energy Board report and the decision by government through their Judicial Reviews. At press time, over $500,000 had been raised of the $650,000 target. Palframan, an artist and RAVEN’s social media coordinator, said, “We are using our culture on the islands—that is threatened—to fight oil culture. It is a great way to counteract those forces.”

    DelaRosa’s achievement is no “small action.” The waters around Salt Spring range between 10 to 14 degrees Celsius, only occasionally reaching a balmy 16 in the slower-circulating bays in the north. Except for two instances, she swam without a wetsuit. Starting her cold water training in 2015, she told her welcoming committee that continuous immersion was necessary to “build up the brown fat that insulates my body.”

    DelaRosa has indigenous roots in Guatemala, though she was raised in Port Alberni. Part of her swim was “to deepen my relationship with this land and First Nations people so that I can be at home.” That relationship was strengthened working with the nuances of the strong currents and tides of the island. “I could feel every turn of the tide, the cold flows and warm ebbs twining like ribbons against my skin.”

    Her average speed was 2.2 kilometres an hour, but each leg of the trip was dependent on sea conditions. “One day it took me 13 hours to go just 10 kilometres,” she said. She had to be helped twice when the current overpowered her. One of those times was at Cape Keppel when she couldn’t make any headway into Sansum Narrows. Mariner Guy Gamache, in his boat Earth Sea, gave her a brief tow out of an impossible eddy and back into the mainstream. He described DelaRosa as “intrepid and inspiring.”

    Having regained her health after a bad concussion, DelaRosa, a singer, composer and educator, is no shrinking violet when it comes to challenges. A huge supporter of community events, she founded an activist choir called Sisters of Mercy. The Sisters formed a relationship with the Unity Drummers, founded by Bradley Dick at the Native Friendship Centre, as part of her choir’s commitment to decolonization. But it was during her participation in another event, Turning the Tide People’s Paddle for the Salish Sea, that she came up with the idea of the swim to express her political activism in a joyful way: “I am in love with the Salish Sea!” she readily proclaims.

    Unlike other notable open water swims, this was a grassroots initiative. Six local organic farms donated food for the team. Accompanying her each day was a rotating list of community volunteers in their kayaks, many of whom were first-time paddlers, new to the complex logistics of a major swim. DelaRosa managed the lists of volunteers and logistics each night after a full day’s swim. “I’d do it differently next time,” she admitted. Alistair Dell, Molly Murphy and Lisa Small took the lion’s share of the paddling through the wilder parts, even swimming with her at times.

    Her other favourite companions were the wild sea life. Harbour seals escorted her out of the bay at the start of her swim and into Xwaaqwum at the end. She was also joined by harbour porpoises and, most memorably, an orca that dove down underneath her and swam briefly with her one evening.

    On that day she hadn’t planned to be swimming so late, but was trying to position herself well for the next day’s leg and a very early low tide. “I was fighting the current and that was when the orca appeared,” she said. She was prepared for the adrenalin surge of running into an orca, having practiced with the seals: “I didn’t flail like bait!” But DelaRosa also feels a special affinity with orca: “It was the first animal I ever dreamt of, growing up in Port Alberni and,” pointing to her left calf, “my first tattoo was this Nuu-chah-nulth [orca] design.” Joe Maillet, who was accompanying her at the time, said, “Rama was singing a whale song [given to her by Bradley Dick] and then we heard their vocalization. I was half expecting her to grab hold of the dorsal fin and be a whale rider.”


    THE DAY AFTER RAMA DELAROSA came ashore at Xwaaqwum, the BC government announced their appointment of the legendary Thomas Berger, QC, OC, OBC as external counsel for government legal action related to Kinder Morgan. Berger has been retained to determine the best judicial course. By the end of August the Government of BC was granted status to intervene in the court cases by First Nations challenging the National Energy Board’s approval of the pipeline—despite Kinder Morgan and the Province of Alberta fighting against such participation. BC is going to do its homework regarding its duties as set out in the environmental assessment certificate process. New Attorney General David Eby stated: “Until these consultations are completed in a way that meets the Province’s legal obligations, work on the project on public lands cannot proceed.”

    This is a powerful turn of the tide for those wanting to see other voices being represented. And the selection of Tom Berger is a symbolic and strategic move to rebuild public confidence in a process that is very broken.

    Justice Berger oversaw the enquiry for the proposed Mackenzie Valley pipeline project back in 1974. At the time, it was the biggest private development proposal in history. The arguments against the development were that there were already severe impacts to the north and on native people, due to the decimation of wildlife populations, pollution, and mineral exploration with its destructive infrastructure. The first discussion by scientists in Canada about cumulative impacts took place at that time.

    Two years earlier, the oil and gas companies had commissioned and funded their own environmental assessment panel, but it was criticized on many grounds, mostly by the scientists they hired. The scientists argued that there needed to be an independent board that took into account cumulative impacts and indigenous voices. They also stated that the review panels had to be “insulated politically and economically from the project developers.” They recommended a larger interdisciplinary team to consider the broad questions of energy, transportation, and development in the north.

    These recommendations resonated with the earlier Trudeau government and Justice Thomas Berger was appointed to conduct the government’s own inquiry into the Mackenzie pipeline. He brought in many innovations: funding for First Nations, environmental organizations and health authorities to bring in their own witnesses, and providing a year to get ready for the hearings. They held hearings in a public space, which were broadcast in four languages over the CBC; school children were invited to the formal hearings of the experts. The Berger Inquiry shook the nation. As Berger points out, “Once the hearings got started Canadians were interested. No one had ever heard aboriginal people speak.”

    The Berger Inquiry set a new international standard for energy hearings that considered the larger global energy context; the local impacts to aboriginal subsistence; and the impact of not just a pipeline but an expanded concept of energy corridors, complete with roads, platforms and infrastructure. The ability to secure funding for First Nations and environmental groups captured the interest of the international community and was copied around the world. This was Canada in 1974.

    How ironic that 43 years later, the federal environmental impact assessment process, now under the watch of Trudeau Junior, failed to meet any of the standards set by Berger. Trudeau has greenlighted a project that wouldn’t have passed in 1974. How encouraging that Berger will now be heading up a legal review of this flawed process in a federal court.

    Berger is providing a beacon of hope to people like Rama DelaRosa. As she said: “We are turning the tide in so many ways—with each other and with the land. It is really easy to engage with people in a positive way when you are doing something you love, in a place that you love.”

    Briony Penn’s most recent book The Real Thing: The Natural History of Ian McTaggart Cowan won the Roderick Haig-Brown Regional Prize and the inaugural Mack Laing Literary Prize.

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