By Roy L Hales
The award-winning documentary “Fractured Land” follows the life of First Nations warrior and lawyer, Caleb Behn as he explores the impacts hydraulic fracturing is having on his community. It will soon be aired on the Knowledge Network. I had an opportunity to ask filmmaker Damien Gillis, What’s behind the documentary Fractured Land?
Behind The Documentary Fractured Land
Gillis’ family has worked in British Columbia’s natural gas industry since their land was submerged behind the W.A.C. Bennet dam, in the early 1960s. He described two very different
industries. One has been in place for 50 years in Northeast B.C. and other places. Hydraulic fracking started in Texas, during the early 2000s, and has since spread throughout North America.
“We talk about (gas) being trapped as though it is our job to come and liberate or release it. What is being done is drilling deep underground, sometimes several kilometers and then horizontally through many columns … through these shale formations and then blasting a high pressure mixture of large volumes of water with sand and chemicals, many of which are carcinogenic, in order to crack open those shale formations and access that gas. As this started to take hold in north-east B.C. I could tell this was a very different animal. There are very significant implications in terms of water, the land base, the climate, but of course there were big promises made about the jobs and the revenues that would come to the province – which needed to be taken seriously,” said Gillis.
“I approached it with a pretty open mind, in the sense that I have a lot of family members who derive their income from the gas sector. So I wasn’t looking to attack the industry. I was looking to delve into it and tell a story that would enable British Columbians, and people from much further afield, to connect with the complexities of these choices in a way that wasn’t being told in the mainstream media. All we were getting was government propaganda. So I wanted to go up there and investigate.”
Enter Caleb Behn
In Caleb Behn, Gillis and his co-filmmaker Fiona Rayher found someone whose story brought the complexities of this issue into focus. His mother has a senior position within the gas industry; his father opposes them. For Caleb, it seemed like a choice between jobs and the need to defend what was left of their traditional hunting and fishing grounds.
“He went to law school to find out how to better represent his people in the face of these very powerful forces,” said Gillis.
Behn and Gillis would later discover their grandfathers ran furs together, back in the 1930s and 40s. They had been best friends.
Gillis explained, “We had a sort of kinship. Me being a settler person with a strong connection. I didn’t grow up in the (Peace River Valley) region, but my mother did and I have spent a lot of time there all through my life. He coming from a family that can trace their roots back thousands of years. We definitely had shared values and shared that sense of conflict in terms of our families working in the industry , but having these concerns.”
Are Gas Companies Encroaching On Treaty #8?
Is the gas industry encroaching on lands whose use was given to First Nations under Treaty #8?
“Well, certainly … This is one of the most heavily industrialized areas in the world … We’ve had conventional gas and now fracking on top of that, power line right of ways, roads, dams that have flooded land, and logging and mining. We’ve just pulled and pulled and pulled from this land. The cumulative effect, the aggravation of all those impacts has served to violate the very core tenets of treaty #8, which is a peace and friendship treaty between the crown and Caleb’s ancestors …, ” said Gillis.
“The spirit of that contract was that the settler/colonial people would be able to take some land for development and settlement, but they would not do so at the expense of the way of the life of the Treaty 8 peoples on the land. It was never to impede or take away from what they had before contact.”
“To suggest that we are even remotely within the bounds of that kind of contract is just preposterous to anybody who has spent any time up there. Fracking and the Site C Dam are just the latest insults.”
The Scars Left By Industry
The scars left by industry are all too visible
One of the disturbing pictures in the film is a moose liver covered with white spots. No one is sure what the spots are, but the First Nations elders know they did not see anything like 50 years ago.
“This stuff has just started showing up in the last 10-20 years,” says Gillis.
Though the WAC Bennet dam has been operational since 1968, there are still fish with ten times the allowable limit of mercury reported in the vicinity.
“Those people were never told this by Health Canada. Can you imagine the outrage of finding out you’ve been feeding your kids poison fish for the past twenty years,” said Gillis
There have also been more than 500 seismic events caused by hydraulic fracturing.
“Initially we thought it was that re-injection of the fluids into deep well injection sites that was causing the seismic activity. Now we know it’s both from the original fracking and the later associated processes with fracking. So the key processes involved with fracking, and related to fracking, are known to cause increasingly large earthquakes at increasingly high volumes. And it’s not just here, it is all over in Ohio and Pennsylvania. ”
He knows of at least a dozen cases of water contamination from Fracking sites. One resulted in 4,000 tons of soil being removed from a Talisman Energy site. While he was researching that story, a worker from the next big pit confided that there is a hole in their liner too.
Gillis believes that there is virtually no independent monitoring or enforcement.
“There are pipes going into creeks and rivers that never got a section 8 water permit. It’s the Wild, Wild West. That is part of this regulatory environment and the reason why Caleb wanted to do what he is doing,” he said.
Do Gas Companies Consult With First Nations Before They Start?
Do gas companies consult with First Nations before commencing operations?
First Nations are given a technical document called a referral. This gives them an opportunity to voice their concerns, but to the best of Caleb’s knowledge only minor adjustments are made to proposed contracts. It is not possible to keep up with the volume of referrals within Treaty 8 territory. The film refers to a day when 32 came across Caleb’s desk, some of them over 300 pages long. There were boxes of unread documents in his office.
“This is partly the reason Caleb decided to ‘lawyer up,’ so to speak, so he could better engage with that,” says Gillis.
A Captured Regulator
“The thing is the oil and gas industry in Canada is a clinical example of this term ‘captured regulator.’ This means that the industry it is supposed to regulate has come to control it through political donations, which has thankfully become a hot topic in this BC election. These companies donate millions of dollars to political parties. They exert extraordinary influence over Government. So the (provincial) Oil and Gas Industry Commission, which is supposed to regulate this industry, do not regulate anything. They don’t even have the resources and, even if they did, they wouldn’t care to take these companies to task over any violations. The National Energy Board, which has been handed control over the environmental review of pipeline projects, they don’t say no to anything … They make recommendations which are always, always, always in favour of going ahead with the project.”
As I remember it, in the film Caleb said he was aware of one project out of 10,000 that was turned down.
My Experience With The NEB
An NEB spokesperson once told me they actually turned down “a couple of projects” over the past 55 years, the most high profile one being the Sumas project in 2004.
I was asking about some of the 2,000 questions that Kinder Morgan was not being made to answer about the proposed Trans Mountain Pipeline expansion.
“How many breaks do they normally have? If you triple the size of the pipeline, what does that mean to the Lower Mainland which you are bringing it through?”
She responded,”We are considering a new pipeline which needs to be considered on its’ own merits.”
As the proposed pipeline had not been yet built, the NEB did not have any current data. So Kinder Morgan did not have to reply.
From my perspective, there was also no room for the most important question in this process. This pipeline goes through the most heavily populated area of British Columbia. Do cities like Vancouver, Burnaby and New Westminster want a new pipeline?
She explained, “It really does sound more of a political issue than something we would look at.”
Who Is Looking After The People’s Interest?
So who is looking after the interests of the people of British Columbia?
“Government always, always approves it, whether that was Stephen Harper, Justin Trudeau or Christy Clark. There’s not a single project they’ve ever said no to, on that scale,” says Gillis.
“Any time there should be a third party reviewing something, like the BC Utilities Commission or the Agricultural land Commission with the Site C Dam- the single biggest perturbation of agricultural land since the Agricultural Land Commission was brought in during the 70’s by the NDP – and both the Agricultural Land Commission and BC Utilities Commission have been barred from even reviewing Site C.
“How does a little First Nation, or citizens, or farmers insert themselves in to that process? Or assert their right values? It just does’t happen.”
A Giant Dud
Gillis believes the Liberals were largely re-elected in 2013 because of the prosperity they promised LNG development would bring. There were supposed to be 60,000 to 100,000 jobs. Four years later, there haven’t been any long term jobs created.
“It is unfortunate that the NDP were not more on top of this. I made this suggestion in editorials. I talked to them from time and said, here’s the data. This industry is going to be a giant dud. Call them out on it right now. They might say you’re against jobs now … but you are going to look like a genius by the time the next election rolls around. Unfortunately they didn’t do that and so now they do not have that moral high ground as a critic of the LNG industry” said Gillis.
“This is one of the lowest producing job sectors in this economy. Yet how much subsidy is coming from the public and how much damage is being created? – We don’t talk about that.”
The Precautionary Principle
“There is nobody up there studying this. There is nobody taking biopsies of these (spotted) livers or hearts, or tumors that are appearing. It is a very difficult thing to prove causation, just as we saw with the tobacco industry.
“My response to that is the precautionary principle, which we are supposed to be adhering to in Canada. We are members of the U.N. convention on Biodiversity. The core tenet of that is when you don’t know, you go slow. The onus is on industry and government to prove that it isn’t a problem and it isn’t causing these things before you take those kinds of risks with people’s heath.”
“This has been a political football since day one and you have two possible conclusions. Either Christy Clark and her government were so stupid that they didn’t read the same stuff I did and were totally wrong, which makes them absolutely inept managers of our economy. Or they knew that it wasn’t going to become this industry and they blatantly lied to people in order to get elected. I don’t think either of those options is acceptable to the tax payer and voter in BC.”
After Fractured Land
That is part of the message behind Fractured Land, but the film also follows the growth of Caleb Behn.
“He’s got his fingers in a lot of different things, but he did go back for a time to help his nation with the legal battles around Site C Dam. And he continues to be the Executive Director of of a group called Keepers of the Water, which is a coalition/alliance of Northern First Nations across Canada who are really bearing the brunt of all this resource development. That’s where a lot of these resources are extracted from to benefit people way down south here and foreign corporations,” said Gillis.
There was a study that came out of UBC recently, by Doctor Karen Bakker, that showed how unviable the Site C Dam project is.
“Caleb has done a lot of work with those people,” said Gillis. “I think his legal training and skills will continue to come in handy. Regardless of whether he practises law, he’s got a much deeper understanding of how our system and power structure works and that’s going to be something that he benefits from, and his people benefit from, for years to come.”
Top Photo Credit: Fracking play in Horn River Basin-near Fort Nelson – Courtesy Two Island Films