Unsettling the table

This past week, the Federal government granted approval for the Pacific NorthWest liquefied natural gas (PNW LNG) terminal and pipeline to be built in British Columbia. A press release on the project’s approval, issued by the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency, assures that the natural gas project is legitimate, that it will be subject to “meaningful consultation” by the communities most likely to be affected – namely, Indigenous communities and the First Nations of B.C.

The legitimacy of the project seems to rely on the fact that the project’s legally binding conditions were developed with reference to traditional and community-based knowledge – both from Indigenous and scientific communities, as well as from industry stakeholders. The press release suggests, in other words, that the consent of these communities to the project is maintained in these conditions. Yet, as I consult Facebook, post after post on Indigenous-led activist pages suggests that the consent of local First Nations communities is largely absent, despite what the press release might suggest.

The message communicated by these Facebook commentators is consistent: If at nothing else, consent must stop short of threatening food supply. One video shows a Lax Kw’alaams woman speaking out at a public announcement of the project’s approval, carrying a jar of salmon symbolizing the devastation the collapse of the ecosystem and fishing industry would cause. The PNW LNG terminal and pipeline, in its current form, would threaten a vital and sensitive marine ecosystem, itself part of the heritage of the Tsimshiam people.

Other posts share statements of solidarity with ongoing Standing Rock protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline in North Dakota, paying respect to the common sanctity of the water that sustains Indigenous and settler populations alike.

In a photo caption, one commentator described his relationship as a custodian and dependent of the Skeena River, which terminates near the proposed location of the PNW LNG terminal. “The Skeena River is not only unique, but a way of life for the people who live along it. It is our culture.” In fact, the name “Tsimshim”  translates to “inside the Skeena River.”

The official statements made by various Federal ministries involved in the project reinterpret traditional Indigenous knowledge to support Western scientific statements produced by ecologists and marine scientists.

Although the project’s environmental regulations do make use of Indigenous knowledge, this requires ignorance toward the ecological understanding embodied in local food practices.

While my intent for this column is to explore the culture and politics of food, it must be recognized that food is not divisible from the land and waters that provide it. The Indigenous resistance to the PNW LNG project challenges the Western notion that spirituality, heritage and food are divisible entities.

We cannot suppose that our relationship with the industries and markets that provide our food can be compared to or prioritized over the food practices that form Indigenous relationships with land. Regardless of the jobs created by the PNW LNG project – jobs which may very well pay for food – we must stand in solidarity with the Indigenous communities whose own food practices and ways of life are jeopardized by this project.

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