A call to action from the land defender who risked life in prison to shut down a pipeline
I expected to be arrested as soon as the police arrived. I dressed in layers, prepared for a holding cell. Something I didn’t expect was to be charged with “mischief endangering life”, which has a maximum sentence of life in prison. The Canadian justice system was not made for Indigenous woman, but rather to protect the interests of industry. I felt anxious and afraid, knowing that I might face jail time and a criminal record. But I never doubted that direct action is necessary to protect the land. During this difficult time, I relied on my community for support. Groups along Line 9 organized fundraisers for legal costs, direct actions, banner drops, ceremonies and awareness events, all in support of our case.
On December 21st 2015, my comrades Sarah Scanlon, Stone Stewart and I turned off the safety valve for Enbridge’s Line 9 pipeline. We took the necessary precaution of notifying Enbridge shortly ahead of time. Once Enbridge confirmed Line 9 was no longer flowing, we used U-locks to attach our necks to the valve, after which I disposed of the key. I wasn’t afraid until I was the last one to be cut off from the valve. It took an extra 45 minutes for a locksmith to come after my friends were freed. The police searched my body for the key a few times before threatening to pump my stomach and break my neck.
For many frontline Indigenous communities, violence on our land and bodies is normalized. Aamjiwnaang First Nation, where I was raised, is surrounded by industry. The flares of Chemical Valley burn bright and the fumes make the air unbreathable. Refineries, aging pipelines and explosive rail cars have always been a part of my surroundings. Direct overexposure to chemicals has led to high rates of stillbirths and miscarriages.
Environmental racism is the reality for many Indigenous communities. While we traditionally lived off the land, we must now fight to preserve it. Our connection to the land is rooted in resilient spirit and continued resistance that brings hope for future generations. As an Anishinaabekwe, it is my inherent responsibility to uphold natural law by defending the water. It’s not enough to acknowledge the sacredness of water, we must also take action to protect it.
Without consulting with many Indigenous communities along the line, the National Energy Board approved the reversal of Enbridge’s 40-year-old Line 9 pipeline. I offered my tobacco and asked for guidance when Enbridge’s Line 9 started moving the toxic bitumen of the tar sands through my territory. Allowing a structurally unsafe pipeline to put over 9 million people at risk without even an environmental assessment is an injustice.
Once I consulted with my elders, I felt it was important to put my love for the land into action. As Indigenous people, we can’t practice our traditions and culture without the land. Our ceremony relies on the health of our environment. Exercising our harvesting rights to gather plants, trap and hunt increases our intake of harmful chemicals. The most powerful way to reclaim and strengthen our relationship with the land is to give back to the land.
I am forever grateful for my friends at home and around the world for all of their support. When I was informed that the unnecessary charges would be dropped, I thought of the other land defenders who continue to struggle in the colonial legal system. I will use this opportunity to learn and build stronger communities to continue our common resistance. I’m honoured to play a small part in this larger movement.
Our defense of the land does not begin or end with pipelines. Line 9 is only one part of the existing health and environmental problems threatening Anishinaabek territory. The land beneath the refineries is still sacred. We all share the responsibility to use our voices and bodies to make a difference in a very questionable and uncertain future. Our relationship with the land is the medicine we need to survive.
Expressions of decolonial love take on many forms within our growing movement. My devotion to the water and my people can only happen through solidarity. Indigenous people standing up for the land should not be seen as a radical statement, but a way of life.
Vanessa Gray is a 24-year-old Anishinaabe kwe from the Aamjiwnaang First Nation, located in Canada’s Chemical Valley. Vanessa works with community members to bring awareness to the health issues resulting from her reserve’s toxic surroundings. She is an organizer with the group Aamjiwnaang and Sarnia Against Pipelines (ASAP).
Artwork above includes the painting “Ethereal Lights” by Lisa Delorme Meiler.