The Coast Salish peoples of the Pacific Northwest are the traditional canoe pullers. They are the cedar people. The salmon nation.
Their nearly 60,000 people have lived along the coasts of Oregon and Washington State, and in British Columbia, Canada for more than 10,000 years. They are united by language, culture and the Salish Sea.
And now, in addition, they are united in their opposition to oil giant Kinder Morgan’s proposed $5.4 billion expansion of its existing Trans Mountain tar sands oil pipeline, which links the Alberta oil sands fields to a shipping terminal in Burnaby, near Vancouver, B.C. The new pipeline would nearly triple the capacity of the existing pipeline from 300,000 barrels per day to 890,000, increasing by sevenfold the number of tankers carrying diluted tar sands bitumen through the Salish Sea in Washington and Canada.
“It’s not if, but when, one of these tankers runs aground somewhere,” Brian Cladoosby, chairman of the Swinomish Tribal Community on Fidalgo Island in northern Puget Sound, told Canada’s National Energy Board (NEB), the federal regulatory agency charged with reviewing the project.
Such an event would very likely lead to “irreparable damage to salmon and shellfish habitat, and destroy our way of life along with it,” Cladoosby, who is also president of the National Congress of American Indians, told the NEB. “We can no longer allow the Salish Sea to be used as a dumping ground.”
Tribal leaders from four Coast Salish tribes in Washington, as well as elders, fishers and youth, joined Cladoosby in testifying before the NEB in Chilliwack, British Columbia on October 22. The Salish Sea is a network of waterways between the southwestern tip of British Columbia and the northwestern tip of Washington State, and includes the Strait of Juan de Fuca, Haro Strait, the Strait of Georgia and the Puget Sound.
“The Suquamish Tribe has a duty to stand up to further threats to our Salish Sea fishing grounds, which have sustained our people since time immemorial,” said Leonard Forsman, chairman of the Suquamish Tribe, located at Port Madison, a deepwater bay on the west shore of the Puget Sound, to the panel.
Forsman also worries that the increased traffic through their waters will cause harm them in other ways, he told Indian Country Today Media Network—concerns that would appear well founded. Take, for example, the Pacific herring, which Chinook salmon, seabirds, marine mammals and other fish in the Puget Sound feed on and which are already in decline in some areas. Herring stock strength is directly linked to the health and status of these populations.
At the proposed coal terminal at the Puget Sound’s Cherry Point site, where herring populations have plummeted, local herring experts associated ship traffic, and the threat of invasive species tagging along with the shipping vessels as risks to the fish, Sightline Daily reported last year.
Approving the pipeline would mean a massive increase in tanker loadings that would put tribal fishers at risk, “not to mention drastically increase the chance of a catastrophic oil spill,” said Glen Gobin, a member of the Tulalip board of directors, to the NEB panel.
“My father, Bernie Gobin, fought side by side with leaders such as Billy Frank Jr. to ensure that salmon, the very essence of who we are as Coast Salish peoples, live on from generation to generation,” Gobin said.
Tribal leaders from the Coast Salish First Nations in Canada weighed in with staunch opposition before the NEB in mid-October. Those leaders represented the Shxw’owhámel First Nation, the Tsleil-Waututh Nation, the Kwantlen First Nation, the Musqueam Indian Band, Peters Band, the Katzie First Nation and the Hwlitsum First Nation.
“Like the sea, Coast Salish people acknowledge no boundaries. We are united to protect the Salish Sea,” testified Chemainus First Nation member Ray Harris. “It’s a danger to the environment, a violation of aboriginal fishing rights, and a threat to all people who call this unique place home.”