Bitumen Summer

Copyright,  © Kuzma/iStockphoto

Copyright, © Kuzma/iStockphoto

by Donna Sinclair

When the National Energy Board informed me last May that I was not allowed to write them a letter about Enbridge’s Line 9 pipeline, I was shocked.  I shouldn’t have been. According to author Andrew Nikiforuk, “Oil hinders democracy.” And the Board’s refusal to allow me to comment on Enbridge’s plan to move tar sands bitumen eastward violates the democratic principle of free speech.

I was also angry. The federal government’s new rules for NEB hearings (in Omnibus Bill C-38) amount to a stranglehold on citizens’ right to have their say on  climate change, or tankers, or damage by tar sands operations to the vast Athabasca watershed and its inhabitants. We can talk about pipeline ruptures, but only if we live close to the pipeline in question. Apparently I live too far away. (Subtext: I am not allowed to worry about the effects of a spill on friends and fellow citizens in other parts of Canada.)

So when ForestEthics Advocacy asked me if I would join them as a co-plaintiff in a lawsuit against the government over these onerous regulations, I said yes. Who could refuse an organization dedicated to protecting both forests and democratic freedoms?  (I did check with my family first. Go for it, they said. We’re proud of you.)

Then I entered an anxious time.  Well, maybe not that anxious. We are, after all, represented by the renowned civil rights lawyer, Clayton Ruby. He and equally famous activist Tzeporah Berman are on the ForestEthics board. This was a chance to sit with my heroes.

I did, however, have considerable performance anxiety.  This was only partly alleviated by my spouse’s promise to make sure I didn’t get lost or walk into walls on the way to an interview. The many years I had spent as a reporter made me no braver. I had witnessed the hazards: the unguarded comment that derails the interview, the deer-in-the-headlights-freeze when the answer, any answer, fails to arrive.

And I was struggling to bring a religious perspective to the discussion.  My own denomination has written into its creed that we are called “to live with respect in Creation”.  It is foundational to us. It explains my opposition to pipelines that would expand the damage of tar sands operations. But secular reporters covering this story might not appreciate this phrase to the same degree.  Why should they, when their attention has – rightly – been focused on the shame of the church’s residential schools, not its incremental progress in learning to cherish Mother Earth?

I asked a few friends to pray.  The fact that the lawsuit was confidential beforehand seriously limited the prayer network I could create; and in the weeks leading to the launch of the lawsuit this request didn’t seem to be helping anyway.  I still found breathing difficult when I contemplated what I had done. (Most frequent thoughts:  What? You’re taking the federal government to court? Who do you think you are? )

But I woke up on launch day knowing that prayers were emanating from the Motherhouse of the Sisters of St. Joseph and from the homes of dear friends in my own church. My breath came back.  My new friends from ForestEthics were calm, the press not as skeptical of the land-as-sacred-trust as I had thought.  But it was the prayers that gave me courage. My sense of being on the wrong side of the camera dissipated, and I answered journalists’ questions out of a reservoir of passion that had been incubating for a long time.

Meanwhile, another pipeline company had joined the eastbound rush.  TransCanada Corp proposes to convert a natural gas pipeline to send tar sands crude and bitumen to the Irving refinery in St. John, New Brunswick.  Since the line in question runs through Northern Ontario and under the lake that provides my own city’s drinking water, this time I should be able to comment.  I should be able to say that diluted bitumen is more corrosive to pipelines than natural gas, and that a spill anywhere in this watershed would be devastating.

Already well-informed groups are gathering in opposition. We still need prayers, though. Prayers for the people who fish the Athabasca River. Prayers for the caribou losing their habitat. Prayers for our democracy. Prayers for the health of our lovely blue planet.

A journalist for more than 30 years, Donna Sinclair is an award-winning writer who has traveled widely in Canada, Africa, Central America, Britain, and Eastern Europe. She is the author of The Spirituality of Bread, The Spirituality of Gardening, A Woman’s Book of Days, A Woman’s Book of Days 2, and numerous other titles. Donna lives with her husband Jim in North Bay, Ontario. Her most recent book is The Long View: An Elderwoman’s Book of Wisdom (2011).

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Categories: Donna Sinclair, Ecology and Environmental Issues, Ethics, Featured, Leadership, Peace, Justice, and Equality, Prayer, World

Author:Wood Lake Publishing

At Wood Lake Publishing we are passionate about supporting and encouraging an emerging form of Christianity, which is rooted in ancient wisdom and attentive to the movement of spirit in our day. Visit us online at


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