The history of colonialism in Canada often dismisses the poignant voices of Indigenous people on a wide breath of issues. Despite historical and modern conflicts, the Canadian government is slowly beginning to incorporate the values and opinions of Indigenous people when considering environmental issues. Several small Indigenous communities along the coast of British Columbia have been struggling with Large Oil Corporation, Enbridge, over the proposed Northern Gateway project. In 2012, the National Energy Board (NEB), a governmental organization, has put a significant amount of time to take statements from elders and community leaders, in an official courtroom like setting.
Arno Kopecky’s The Oil Man and the Sea: Navigating the Northern Gateway, is published by Douglas and McIntyre in 2013. Suggested by my mother for me to read. The unique travel journal of Kopecky and his sailing partner and photographer, Ilja Herb, addresses cross-cultural relations and tries to truly understand how the political environment and proposed pipeline will impact the Indigenous people living on the coast. Without the formality and enmity that the NEB hearings foster, Kopecky is able to interact authentically with the people and the place they call home. Kopecky’s expedition through the Great Bear Rainforest on a sailboat is an excellent example, that even where there is cultural tension, the Canadian people need to join together to protect what is truly import, our environment.
The book, at its rawest is a travel journal, true to this style Kopecky takes the reader chronologically through his crusade against the Northern Gateway project, explaining and extrapolating on concerns as they are encountered. Several issues and concerns that are raised include the difficulty of navigating the proposed shipping route, the complexities of cleaning an oil spill in this water channel, as well as the impacts on the animal and human population of the area.
As Kopecky and his travel partner Ilja Herb, sail through the proposed shipping route, a difficult to navigate passage, the reader is constantly aware of the physical difficulties of navigating these waters. The waters have drastic tidal changes and currents, as well as many difficult turns, coupled with the constant threat of underwater islands. It is made evident that these two men are very unexperienced sailors, to some degree discrediting the argument that these water will be too dangerous for well-trained operators of tanker ships to navigate. However, to supplement the arguments made, Kopecky presents several examples of ship wreaks of very capable sailors, such as the tragedy of British Columbia Ferry The Queen of the North, which sank along a portion of the proposed route in 2006.
At several points during the text the implications of an oil spill are explored. The threat of an oil spill is not if scenario, but rather a when and how severe scenario. Firstly, the difficult to navigate waters increase the chance of collision with reef, island or vessel, when any one of these things happens an oil spill is inevitable. The Northern Gateway project is a proposed two way shipping system, shipping dilatants for bitumen inland and semi-refined oil out. The problem with this is that the formula for the dilatants is unknown, it has been reported to sink and to float, making cleanup efforts near impossible. Further, Kopecky argues that the drastic changes in weather conditions within the channel, make most of the current technology for cleaning oil spills obsolete. Although a significant and valid arguments based on historical events and policy were made, the text could have been made more impactful through the inclusion of referenced scientific research.
Most importantly at every stop along the journey Kopecky and Herb gain insight into the lifestyle and values of the people living on the coast. They discover that if tankers scare away the fish, or if the waters become poisoned, it would cost the people immensely. It would not only cause a disruption in lifestyle and food sources, but the people explain that if their land dies, their culture will die with it. Kopecky is able to communicate to the reader that the land plays a fundamental role in the everyday life of these costal people.
A significant amount of Herb’s photography was included in this text, complementing the text itself. Photos were included in the form of in-text black and white, supplemented by a collection of more than a dozen colour photos at the end of the text. The inclusion of such photos emphasizes the rich and diverse ecosystems that are at risk. The following photos are a few that are featured in the book.
Kopecky is wholly convincing in The Oil Man and the Sea: Navigating the Northern Gateway as he writes about salmon runs, bears, people and development. Fully immersing the reader in the intricacy and interconnectedness of the Great Bear Rainforest ecosystem. The reader cannot help but be convinced emotionally and logically that the idea of oil tankers and pipelines in the unique and fragile ecosystem of the Great Bear Rainforest as a shocking and destructive decision.