Playwrights seek truths about pipeline

Playwrights developing a show about the Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline are driving across northern B.C. to learn more about the project.

Playwright Anita Rochon at the Unis’tot’en Resistance Camp next to the Morice River

A group of playwrights developing a show about the Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline are driving across northern B.C. to learn more about the controversial energy project.

The group, who produce shows based on real-life issues for the Architect Theatre in Toronto, Ont., is stopping over in communities near the proposed route of the pipeline – called the centerline – to speak with politicians, activists, industrial representatives, First Nations and the general public about their perspectives of the project.

“As theatre artists, I think we can try to encourage greater understanding and dialogue from different parts of the country, and that has always been an important part of our mandate,” said Jonathan Seinen, a co-artistic director.

Although Vanderhoof isn’t located immediately next to the centerline, the group stopped here earlier this month and spoke with several people about the $5-billion project.

At Neighbourhood Space, Seinen and artistic producers Georgina Beaty and Anita Rochon asked five Vanderhoof teenagers what they knew about the proposed 1,172-kilometre pipeline, which, if approved, would transport bitumen from Alberta’s ois sands to the Pacific coast for export to Asia and the U.S. via hundreds of oil tankers.

For Seinen, the notion that only one teenager knew about the pipeline was one of the most surprising realizations of the trip so far, which has included stopovers in Fort St. James, Burns Lake and Houston, where knowledge of the pipeline was more commonly documented.

“The proximity of those communities (to the centerline) are a lot closer and perhaps there was a bit more awareness because of that,” said Seinen.

“It feels like the pipeline itself would influence the whole area though, so I think Vanderhoof would certainly be affected if this pipeline, or any other pipeline, were to go through.”

In 2009, after three weeks of interviews with people in the booming city of Fort McMurray, Alb., at the front lines of the oil sands development, Seinen helped develop a piece of theatre called Highway 63: The Fort Mac Show.

“We were familiar with the Oil Sands, and the next step was to look at bitumen once it leaves Fort McMurray,” said Seinen, shortly after pulling into Hazleton, B.C., on Thursday, Dec. 6.

During their road trip, the group often discusses ideas to incorporate into the new show. But given the complexities of the Enbridge Northern Gateway project, as well as the environmental and economic effects the pipeline will have on Canada as a whole, Seinen doesn’t yet know what the new play will look like.

“This project… it really looks at where we’re going as a country,” he said.

“If we start exporting our bitumen to markets overseas, and we build these pipelines through sensitive environmental areas and watersheds, that has, I think, repercussions for the whole country.”

In Prince George the group met with former mayor Colin Kinsley, now a member of the Northern Gateway Alliance.

Kinsley spoke eloquently about the economic benefits of the pipeline and the company’s commitment to protecting the environment by employing state-of-the-art safety systems, explained Seinen.

Last month, after weeks of in-depth environmental review hearings, Enbridge opened a new headquarters in Prince George, a push by the company to establish a greater presence in northern B.C.

“From (Kinsley’s) perspective, it felt like Enbridge is really working to become a member of the community, and that seems to be how they want to be seen as they move forward with the proposal,” said Seinen.

Appeasing the opposition and winning over those with reservations of the project will require an enormous effort by Enbridge.

But for some, no amount of advertising dollars or assurances will change their deep-rooted belief that the pipeline is a threat, an environmental disaster waiting to happen, or another capital project propelled by profits and economic growth.

While passing through Houston, B.C., Seinen, Beaty and Rochon travelled 22 kilometres by snowmobile to a resistance camp next to the Morice River in Unis’tot’en First Nations territory, through where the proposed Northern Gateway centerline is routed.

For several hours the group spoke with members of different First Nations while enjoying a lunch of salmon caught from the Morice River, also known as the Wedzin Kwah.

They took digital audible recordings of nature and photographed the area’s natural beauty, documenting a tiny portion of untamed B.C. wilderness where Enbridge wants to build an oil pipeline.

“To hear their stories and experiences and why they’re there, setting up this kind of occupation in the way of the pipeline, it’s pretty incredible; the people who are out there putting themselves literally on the line because of what this pipeline represents to them and their traditions,” said Seinen.

Although the group still has many more miles to travel and people to interview, their experiences at the Unis’tot’en Resistance Camp will likely influence the play’s script one way or another, Seinen explained.

“To me, if we’re looking at anything specifically, it would be what is beautiful here, what is unique to this part of the world and what is potentially at risk with a project like this.”

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