by Alexandra Watt Simpson
This post is the second of three in the Sights of Contestation series. Sights of Contestation explores a variety of resistances, both material and discursive, found in current pipeline debates. The authors of this series focus on different sites of contestation—Keystone XL, Line 3, and the Trans Mountain Pipeline Expansion project—to understand the role the unconscious, bodies, and images play in the perception of these infrastructures and their linkages. Our shared interest rests in unraveling how pipeline projects, and the communities and environments they affect, are rendered (in)visible, legible, and meaningful through the intervention of various tactics, media, and discourses. The fact that pipelines are most often buried underground adds to their indiscernibility and separates the subterranean flow of oil from life above ground. We ask: What do these “sites” bring into “sight”? How do they make visible what was previously normalised and therefore invisible to many? How can attention to the unconscious, body, and images as important sites of contestation bring new insights to the politics of visibility and shifting power dynamic in current pipeline debates?
The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way we interact with one another. Over the last two years, many of us have physically isolated ourselves from family and friends to protect them. A large portion of our daily activities, including work, social life, and activism, have moved online. Body and mind are separated anew; we distance ourselves from the bodies of others—and in a way, our own—as we play within the confines of digital communication. During these times, I find myself hyper aware of the work of those who do not have the ability, and often the privilege, as I have had over this pandemic, to move their lives online. I have specifically reflected on the work of those entangled—either by choice or by necessity—with the energy sector: frontline communities who fight against new and ongoing pipeline projects, as well as oil workers who have been deemed an essential service during the pandemic and whose place of work has been a hotspot for the spread of COVID-19. There is a sharp irony to society’s move to a disembodied online world, while physical presence remains critical to the forces that fuel and/or protect that world.
This contribution explores the critical role the body plays in energy through the resistance against Enbridge’s Line 3 pipeline and the strategic actions of energy proponents during the COVID-19 pandemic. On the one hand, the bodies of Indigenous and environmental activists have been central to bringing dangerous energy projects into public consciousness and facilitating the crucial work of protecting treaty rights, environmental protections, and real climate change action. On the other hand, energy companies have been able to maintain a steady flow of oil and capital, while a global health pandemic rips through the country and puts their own labor force at risk.
“Embodied activism works to remind the public as well as those in power of the people and environments who suffer because of fossil fuel extraction, production, and transportation.”
In modern political thought the body is understood as emotive and separate from the rational mind and so is outside the realm of political life. This has normalised colonial and capitalist modes of engaging in energy politics such as public outreach efforts led by fossil fuel companies, regulatory hearings, and the Canadian legal system where many pipeline battles are fought. These state-sanctioned methods of intervening in energy decisions often do not meaningfully include the lived experiences of frontline communities nor the effects of accumulative pollutants.1 While the body is frequently left out of energy debates, it has also become a necessary intervention in a colonial, racist, and capitalist system that continually chooses money over the wellbeing of people and environments. Embodied activism works to remind the public as well as those in power of the people and environments who suffer because of fossil fuel extraction, production, and transportation. Sarah Marie Wiebe, in her research with Aamjiwnaang First Nation—a community in Sarnia, Ontario that is surrounded by over sixty chemical plants and that was critical in the resistance against another Enbridge pipeline, Line 9—advocates for a feminist decolonial approach that imagines a discursive account of the body as a site of political analysis.2 This kind of analysis values the embodied and situated experiences of the individual within the context of place and community. A focus on the body and its role in the political sphere becomes necessary to overturn and interrupt state sanctioned means of engaging in energy debates, and to value non-Western and Indigenous ways of knowing.
Embodied Resistance and Enbridge’s Line 3 Pipeline
“Going online”—the ability to remove oneself from the physical environments of work, social, and even activist commitments while still being able to participate in them—became an exacerbated marker of privilege during the COVID-19 pandemic within energy debates. When activists and frontline communities put their bodies on the line, they remind us that even during a global health crisis energy companies continue to push forward new energy projects that undermine Indigenous treaty rights and commit Canada to many more years of fossil fuels, despite the growing threat of global climate change.
“‘Going online’—the ability to remove oneself from the physical environments of work, social, and even activist commitments while still being able to participate in them—became an exacerbated marker of privilege during the COVID-19 pandemic within energy debates.”
Enbridge’s original Line 3 was built in the 1960s and moved oil from Edmonton, Alberta to Superior, Wisconsin. Line 3 is aging and corroding and has had several leaks and spills. In 2014, Enbridge proposed the Line 3 replacement and expansion project which would increase capacity to approximately 760,000 barrels per day.3 As activists are quick to point out, Enbridge’s proposal is not about replacing the original Line 3 but abandoning the existing line and building a whole new pipeline with double the capacity in a new corridor.4 In response to the project several Indigenous led resistance camps were created along the corridor including: Red Lake Treaty Camp, Manoomin Genawendang Endazhigabeshing, Shell River Camp, Welcome Water Protector Centre, Camp Migizi, and Spirit of the White Buffalo Camp, which my colleague, Laurence Butet-Roch visited in the Summer of 2019. Residents and visitors of these camps held a continuous presence along Line 3 and organised a variety of protests and resistances.5 As Butet-Roch contends, these camps play a critical preventive role in destabilising the process of normalisation and thwarting the pipeline’s ability to vanish post-construction.6
Living in a resistance camp is physically demanding; from below freezing temperatures in winter months to no running water, the body is integral to survival and life at the camps.7 There have been hundreds of arrests across the camps since December 2021,8 with reports of police violence and force tactics being used, including rubber bullets and tear gas.9 The body emerges as a central form of resistance and as a site for the deployment of colonial control and power. As Indigenous water protector Tara Houska writes from her cell in Pennington County Jail, “The masks of civility, status quo economic policy, and polite discourse were slipping off big oil’s face. It seems our water doesn’t matter. Our physical bodies don’t matter. Our rights don’t matter. Our children’s chance at a habitable future doesn’t matter.”10
On October 1, 2021, oil began to flow through the Line 3 replacement. Even though construction is complete, camp inhabitants remain at the site. The water protectors are there to monitor the new line, looking for potential leaks and ruptures that would otherwise go unnoticed.11 Energy scholar Dayna Scott contends that “once a pipeline is completed, it literally vanishes underground. Once buried, the critical social relationships and power mechanisms that are scripted in and enacted through its flows become blurred.”12 Already during construction an aquifer ruptured resulting in a $3.3 million dollar fine for Enbridge from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. In August, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) began to investigate other potential damages such as fluid leaks and additional aquifer ruptures.13 The continued physical presence of the water protectors serves to interrupt this process of pipeline vanishing and remains crucial to the protection of important waterways in the corridor from Alberta to Superior, Wisconsin.
Industry proponents have also recognised the important role of the body in the resistance against energy projects and have used the pandemic to discourage protests. The Alberta Energy Minister, Sonya Savage, went so far as to state that “now is a great time to be building a pipeline because you can’t have protests of more than 15 people. Let’s get it (the Trans Mountain Pipeline) built.”14 In May 2020, the Alberta Legislature passed the Critical Infrastructure Defense Act, which masked its attack on Indigenous and human rights defenders by claiming to protect essential infrastructure from damage or interference. The bill’s purpose is to prohibit “protests blocking pipelines, oil site railways, and roads at risk of fines up to 25000 or imprisonment.”15
“The pandemic has provided industry with a readily available justification for ongoing subsidisation and bailouts, even as the demand and prices for oil are historically low.”
This follows a common theme throughout the pandemic during which production in the oil, natural gas, and petrochemicals sector have been deemed essential services. The pandemic has provided industry with a readily available justification for ongoing subsidisation and bailouts, even as the demand and prices for oil are historically low.16 Efforts to bolster and revive the fossil fuel industry conceal the fact that industry man camps have been prime sites for the spread of COVID-19. The Canadian Natural Resources Horizon Oil Sand work site (CNRL), for example, had 1361 cases in May 2021, and is one of Canada’s largest workplace outbreaks since the beginning of the pandemic.17 The CNRL work site brought in a large work force to assist with Spring maintenance and during that time, the company reported three deaths.18 Alberta Federation of Labour president Gil McGowan called on the province to shut down sites experiencing major COVID-19 outbreak but Alberta’s United Conservative government has deemed the oilsands worksites and camps essential. Oil workers report limited opportunities to social distance and little medical care and follow-up when they do get sick.
The presence of man camps poses immense challenges and health risks not only for the workers at the camp, but also surrounding communities who face higher risks during the COVID-19 pandemic. The fly in fly out model that industry relies on, in which workers work for a period of time then return home often to outside provinces where they live, makes the virus difficult to contain.19 Many hospitals in remote communities near man camps are ill equipped to handle an influx of COVID-19 patients and already are working in communities who, because of systemic inequalities, face higher risk disease and death during the COVID-19 pandemic.20 These man camps have also been connected to increase violence against Indigenous women and girls.21 Fossil fuel proponents seek to rebuild the industry under the guise of an essential service and disappear the human costs of continued labor in man camps including illness, death, and gendered violence. In addition, this framing criminalises those who stand against new and existing energy project by limiting their ability to gather and physically intervene via protest and direct action. The body serves industry best when its material conditions and emotional strife are ignored. The embodied work of activists is critical to make pipeline issues visible and to hold industry accountable.
“While industry and state conspire to push embodied knowledge, experiences, and resistances far from the realm of pipeline debates, the body plays critical role in activist resistance and the industry’s own work camps.”
The activist response to Line 3 provokes important questions about the role of the body in energy: how do the activists’ physical presence make visible what otherwise would remain invisible? How does their physical presence offer a critical, “on the ground” approach to monitoring the activities and safety of pipelines? Further, due to the physical demands and dangers of camp life and the potential for police and gender violence, how sustainable are these interventions and what is lost, or rather what becomes invisible once they are gone? During a global health crisis, the body—specifically, the risks inherent in putting one’s body on the line, whether in resistance against a new pipeline, or working in a crowded work camp during an outbreak—becomes hypervisible. When we pay attention to these embodied realities, the true costs of pipeline expansion also begin to become visible. While industry and state conspire to push embodied knowledge, experiences, and resistances far from the realm of pipeline debates, the body plays critical role in activist resistance and the industry’s own work camps, without which, the industry would not be able to continue production.
Alexandra Watt Simpson is a PhD student in Environmental Studies at York University with a research focus on performance and activism in the extractive industries. She has an MA in Performance and Environmental Studies from the University of Toronto and an MFA in Documentary Media and BFA in Performance Acting from Toronto Metropolitan University. A theatre artist and mask builder, she is co-Artistic Leader of Animacy Theatre Collective (animacytheatrecollective.com) which creates research-based and devised plays about social and environmental justice. This article was originally published by the Network in Canadian History & Environment (NiCHE).
1 McCreary, Tyler, and Jerome Turner. “The Contested Scales of Indigenous and Settler Jurisdiction: Unist’ot’en Struggles with Canadian Pipeline Governance.” Studies in Political Economy, February 18, 2019, 1–23; Sakihitowin, Awasis. “Anti-Pipeline Organizing Across Turtle.” Upping the Anti, no. 15 (September 24, 2013): 53–82; Wiebe, Sarah Marie. Everyday Exposure: Indigenous Mobilization and Environmental Justice in Canada’s Chemical Valley. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2016; Zalik, Anna. “Resource Sterilization: Reserve Replacement, Financial Risk and Environmental Review in Canada’s Tar Sands.” Environment and Planning 47 (2015): 2446–64.
2 Wiebe, Sarah Marie. Everyday Exposure: Indigenous Mobilization and Environmental Justice in Canada’s Chemical Valley.
3 Minnesota Public Utilities Commission. “Enbridge Line 3 Pipeline Replacement Project.” Accessed January 11, 2022.
4 LaDuke, Winona. What Is Line 3?, https://www.stopline3.org/#intro. https://www.stopline3.org/#intro.
5 Ottoson, Darby. “How the Line 3 Opposition Will Continue.” Mpls St Paul Magaziine, October 11, 2021. https://mspmag.com/arts-and-culture/how-the-line-3-fight-will-continue/.
6 Butet-Roch, Laurence. “Unlocking Our Futuree: A Visit to Spirit of the Buffalo Camp.” Field Guide to Lost Futures (blog), January 20, 2021. https://macblog.mcmaster.ca/literature-culture-anthropocene/blog/unlocking-our-future-a-visit-to-spirit-of-the-buffalo-camp/.
7 Askari, Yasmine. “The Line 3 Replacement Has Been Completed and Operating for Months. So Why Are Activists Still Camped out by the Construction Sites?” Minnesota Press. November 29, 2021. https://www.minnpost.com/environment/2021/11/the-line-3-replacement-has-been-completed-and-operating-for-months-so-why-are-activists-still-camped-out-by-the-construction-sites/.
8 Holmes, Isiah. “Wisconsin Joins the Enbridge Line 3 Resistance.” Wisconosin Examiner, September 14, 2021. https://wisconsinexaminer.com/2021/09/14/wisconsin-joins-the-enbridge-line-3-resistance/.
9 Houska, Tara. “A Letter From a Jailed Line 3 Water Protector.” Vogue, September 30, 2021. https://www.vogue.com/article/letter-from-a-jailed-line-3-water-protector.
11 Askari, “The Line 3 Replacement Has Been Completed and Operating for Months.”
12 Scott, Dayna Nadine. “The Networked Infrastructure of Fossil Capitalism: Implications of the New Pipeline Debates for Environmental Justice in Canada.” Comparative Research in Law and Political Economy, 2013, 1–35.
13 Askari, “The Line 3 Replacement Has Been Completed and Operating for Months.”
14 Weber, Bob. “Limits on Gatherings Make It a ‘great Time to Be Building a Pipeline,’ Says Alberta Energy Minister.” CBC News. May 25, 2020. https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/edmonton/pipelines-alberta-protests-physical-distancing-1.5584025.
15 Palmater, Pamela. “Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic on Indigenous Women and Girls in Canada.” Canadian Feminist Alliance for International Action, June 19, 2020.
16 Schober, Kelsey. “Oil During COVID-19: Essential Service or Subsidized Resource?” E-International Relations, May 12, 2020. https://www.e-ir.info/2020/05/12/oil-during-covid-19-essential-service-or-subsidized-resource/.
17 Yourex-West, Heather. “Inside the Oilsands Site That Has Seen Canada’s Largest Workplace COVID-19 Outbreak.” Global News, May 11, 2021. https://globalnews.ca/news/7852937/oil-sands-site-canada-largest-workplace-covid-outbreak/.
18 Browning, Janet. “Third Oil Worker Dies from COVID-19 Outbreak at Canadian Natural Resources’ Alberta Worksite.” World Socialist Web Site, May 20, 2021. https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2021/05/21/cnrl-m21.html.
19 Energy Mix Staff. “Tar Sands/Oil Sands ‘Man Camp’ Drives COVID-19 Spread to Five Provinces,” May 18, 2020. https://www.theenergymix.com/2020/05/18/tar-sands-oil-sands-man-camp-drives-covid-19-spread-to-five-provinces/.
20 Cox, Sarah. “Former Chief Medical Officer Urges B.C. to Shut Industrial Work Camps during Coronavirus Pandemic.” The Narwhal, March 31, 2020. https://thenarwhal.ca/former-chief-medical-officer-urges-b-c-to-shut-industrial-work-camps-during-coronavirus-pandemic/.
21 Palmater, “Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic on Indigenous Women and Girls in Canada.”