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The pipe dream that came true

Indigenous Peoples

Rally to tell US President Barack Obama to reject the Keystone XL Pipeline. Santa Monica, California, 2014. Laura Kleinhenz/Docuvitae under a Creative Commons Licence

Cherri Foytlin, who’s been at the heart of the fierce and beautiful movement to stop the Keystone XL pipeline, on the significance of Obama’s decision to reject it.

My heart has been glowing since the news broke last Friday that the Northern leg of the Keystone XL (KXL) pipeline had been officially denied by the Obama administration. That slimy, slippery, venomous snake – set to connect the nasty, life-stealing tar sands in Alberta, Canada with the Texas Gulf Coast – now lies dead.

Throughout the day social media erupted with cheers. People were texting, emailing and calling to say ‘Congratulations, we won!’ People from across Turtle Island (how Indigenous people know North America) posted photo evidence and acknowledgment of their participation and support.

There were photos of us circling the White House, of tree-sits, of arrests, of calling out politicians, of rallies – large and small, of march after march enduring both the frigid cold and in the sweltering heat. The photos filled me with the pride of knowing that we stood together on the right side, and for once ‘We the People’ won!

This trip down memory lane took me back, reminding me of all that we have accomplished. It reminded me of the setbacks and the victories. And I must admit that warm tears travelled down my cheeks as I shut my eyes and recalled the years of this fight.

Back in 2011 the Gulf Coast, where I live, was soaking in oil. The BP spill had happened the year before, and although the US government and BP were both saying ‘mission accomplished’ about the clean-up, Gulf Coast citizens were continuing to become ill, dolphins were spontaneously aborting their babies, turtles were dying in unprecedented numbers, our fisher folk and oil workers were without work and suffering, and oil was in our marsh and invading our shores daily. It was a lie to say that the oil had magically disappeared. We knew it, they knew it, and yet the public was being sold this well-packaged deception.

So in the name of truth and justice, several of us decided that we would raise awareness by walking from New Orleans, Louisiana, to the US capital in Washington D.C. Our hope was to meet with President Obama and remind him of his promise to keep his ‘boot on the neck’ of BP. The walk took 34 days and covered over 1,400 miles.

Unfortunately, on our arrival we were unable to meet with the president, but we did meet with quite a few federal agencies. More importantly, we were able gather with like-minded individuals at Power Shift and, for the first time, we learned that we were not alone.

The place where I live is called, by many, ‘a sacrifice zone’ to energy production. That means that my children, my friends, my loved ones are considered sacrificial lambs to the oil industry. In the name of comfort for the many, and the profit of a few, my children’s lives are willingly sacrificed at the altar that some call ‘progress.’

At Power Shift, I met with representatives from other ‘sacrifice zones’. One of them was Indigenous, like myself, and lived near the Tar Sands. They told us about fish with lesions on them, just like the fish we too often pull from the Gulf. They shared with us stories of kids on inhalers, just like those that fill our school’s medicine closets along the Gulf. We compared our struggles, and found we shared high cancer rates, sick babies, dying wildlife, dying democracies, dying spirits.

That was when I knew: their struggle was our struggle. We are one.

Since that time, much has happened. I guess the most heartbreaking is the construction and fast tracking of the Southern Leg of the Keystone XL pipeline, by this very same administration. Now called the Gulf Coast Pipeline, it connects Cushing city in Oklahoma to the Gulf Coast. And through operator TransCanada’s infrastructure, with the help of fellow pipeline company Enbridge, it’s reported that ‘unprecedented amounts’ of tar sands oil is right now reaching refineries in Texas.

Many fought with all they had against that Southern segment. Through groups like the Tar Sands Blockade and Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services, every single inch of that pipeline faced a fight. There were tree-sits and arrests, as people from all walks of life stood up to protect. But ultimately, the pipes went in and the bitumen flowed.

Some people would call that a defeat. But I have no doubt that this strong, historic and courageous show of resistance sowed doubt and worry into the minds of TransCanada and the federal governments of Canada and the US.

I believe that this glimpse into the future, should the Northern leg be approved, filled them with dread and fear. A great deal of thanks and honour are owed to those who fiercely fought the Southern leg.

And now here we are, half of the battle won. And yet even as we celebrate, there are folks who would deny the people-powered greatness of this moment. They say, ‘If oil prices weren’t so low, the President would never have denied the pipeline.’ And maybe they are right – in this particular moment, it just wasn't worth it. But my question to them is: ‘What brought the fight to this moment?’

I think that it is interesting that some folks are willing to downplay the role of the No KXL movement. When this struggle started, the price of oil was much higher, and the project was considered a done deal. What changed that? People. Otherwise that pipeline would already be in the ground.

KXL is gone for now, and yes, it may well be revived when the next administration takes charge. But we have shown that we are ready for what is next, in the KXL struggle and beyond.

The tar sands continue to pollute bodies, they continue to scar our beautiful Mother, just like mountaintop removal, deep water drilling, fracking, et al. Yet I do not define these as ‘the next battles’. Those battles are already being waged; on the ground, in communities across the world as people unite to say ‘We will no longer allow ourselves and our relatives to be sacrificed at the altar of greed!’

In ‘sacrifice zones’ across the world; in refinery neighbourhoods like Manchester, Texas; in water-devastated cities like Flint, Michigan; on the scarred Earth of tar sands-devastated Utah and Alberta; in the deserts of justice-denied New Mexico; on the mountainsides in Kentucky and Tennessee; in oil-soaked Ecuador and Nigeria; on the scorched earth of Indonesia; across the plains, across the oceans, atop the melting ice caps, we must give our strength and combine our power to build a new world that is free from sacrifices. This is about liberation.

And no, this is not the beginning, and it is certainly not the end, but this movement is real. It is strong. It is fierce. It is beautiful. And it is growing.

We are one, and we will win!

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