photos: Scotty, an artist from the Downtown Eastside, painted this piece on a natural wood panel. It's of a seamonster stopping a tanker. Photo by Priyanka Roy.

Rising up

Viewpoints: Conference about impacts of pipelines and oil tankers seeks out Downtown Eastside voices and input

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“Pipelines and Poetics of Place” is the title of an article published in the April issue of Megaphone Magazine this year. It brought attention to a conference by the same name that was held at the University of British Columbia and nearby locations last April.

The attendees (invited scholars, artists and professionals from diverse backgrounds) had a chance to mingle and exchange opinions on what was lacking in environmental evaluations and how to include the “intangibles.”

The play of interactions that follow development proposals can be called “Poetics of Place” and evidence shows that a review of process is in order. A documentary of the April conference will be shown at the Carnegie Theatre on Saturday Oct. 28 at 7 p.m., as part of the Heart of The City Festival.

It is a free screening and Dr. Nigel Haggan, the originator of this project, would really like to hear what Downtown Eastside residents think of the film and how it may relate to changes taking place in the community.

Too much risk
Extraction of bitumen from the tar sands involves immense modification of the landscape and necessitates retention of toxic wastewater and sludge in holding ponds, which have been all but effective in preventing contamination of nearby waterways. Although tightly monitored, spills are inevitable at all stages of production and transportation. Resistance against new fossil fuel extraction projects has become a global effort.

Repetitious massive protests against new developments are essential to stop them. The new Attorney General David Eby took a firm stance by announcing that no new pipelines or related construction will be allowed on provincial lands (largely unceded Indigenous territory) unless it has the full consent of the hereditary keepers of the land.

Spills in the marine environment are particularly ugly, devastating, and the effects are long lasting. British Columbians love their coast and the vast majority of people are vehemently opposed to the risk of a major oil spill.

Since spills seem inevitable, it appears best to keep the bitumen in the ground where it is and develop alternate sources of energy. Fracking shale for “natural gas” is not a clean alternative.

Despite wide-scale protests and petitions opposing industry proposals, it seems almost impossible to change the mindset of executives in the boardrooms of major energy companies. Pipelines and Poetics of Place aims to bring “a fuller set of values into environmental assessment.” Many impacts are not taken into consideration during assessments, yet these intangibles are often of more consequence than the physical parameters that are shown in order to prove “economic viability.”

Raising up our voices
Nigel, the originator of this project, is an important proponent of its inherent values and transformative potential.

He explains: “The project is designed to bring art, Indigenous spirituality, ecology, eco-theology, ecological economics and Indigenous and Canadian law into conversation on how project review might entertain a fuller set of values.” The review’s scope must expand to include Indigenous spirituality, religion and art, as well as the voices of those impacted and marginalized, thus inviting “modes of expression” that will make the review accessible to all people. He proposes to “launch a multi-year program to promote transformative change in environmental practice, policy, and law.”

Some of the original conference participants will be present to answer questions from the audience, but they are here primarily to listen. As Nigel said to me:

“The concept of poetics of place certainly is not limited to environmental assessments and can be adapted to other areas under contention, such as the Downtown Eastside.

Nigel very specifically wanted a Downtown Eastside audience to screen and review this documentary. According to the project’s proposal, the special objective is “to encourage input from some of the least advantaged residents, whose knowledge and formidable networking capacity may sometimes be undervalued.”

He emphatically stated, “Now I would really like to hear what YOU have to say”

Changing times
The Downtown Eastside is pressured by development from all sides. In the north, by the proposed port expansion; in the south by the construction of a major medical facility the new Saint Paul’s Hospital; and on the east and west by the already visible rising heights and prices, typical of gentrification.

All of Chinatown is changing rapidly and the developers seem to have little regard for the history of the area, overshadowing nearby landmarks, displacing longtime residents—and cultural values are being lost.

It is through the power of people speaking out and opposing rezoning applications that these “intangible values” are taken into consideration. If there is no rezoning application, it appears the developers can do whatever they want, in spite of written public criticism at mandatory open houses. Only extremely large developments (over 500,000 sq. ft., like St. Paul’s) need to agree to a set of community benefit agreements.

The Port Authority has no responsibility whatsoever to seek permission from the city for its Port Expansion Project, although it has some responsibility to maintain unhindered beach access, stipulated in the federal Navigation Protections Act.

Recently a greater responsibility has been imposed for everyone to act in a spirit of reconciliation, and to me it seems that this is probably the best advice given: to work collaboratively and to act in the best interest of yourself and each other, with due respect for those that were before and careful consideration for what comes after. “All my relations!”

Now is a time for storytelling. We would love to hear some David vs. Goliath stories, because challenging the system is important. The city is said to be encouraging citizens’ participation in the planning process. In the past this was mostly left up to grassroots initiatives. Some more formal procedures are coming into place.

Nevertheless, projects that the community has strong opinions on, such as 105 Keefer and 58 West Hastings, have a hard time overarching the developers reigning motive for profit. The community’s vision to remedy homelessness, mental health problems, and other issues would clearly benefit the residents and save tax dollars.

I hope for a lively uplifting discussion that aims to create something positive.

The Downtown Eastside has a long-lived reputation for its activism and mires daily examples of spontaneous ingenuity rising up inexplicably from spells of madness.

Residents know their needs, what works, and what doesn’t work. These attributes come from lived experience. Work with us and you’ll get to love us.

Nothing about us, without us!

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