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Artists shed new light on Enbridge, tar sands and environmental destruction

Poet Christine Leclerc raises awareness through her poems
Poet Christine Leclerc reading her collaborative poem "Oilywood." Image by Anne Watson and Marcus Kliewer.

Fact-based stories about oil pipelines inundate the news.  Dry political discussions, proposals and rejections, protests, corporate dogma, pandering, statistical wallpapering with job creation numbers, estimates of destruction, and so on. 

Unless it is “your issue” you can be blinded by the information overload. And even when it is “your issue,” the effects can be numbing.  Some people shift that experience. They re-invigorate our senses, touch our hearts and recharge our minds.  They are artists.

Robi Smith, a Vancouver-based visual artist, has a side gig where she presents slides of her intricately-detailed and layered paintings to scientists.  She is invited to scientific conferences because her presentations have the effect of reconnecting scientists to the passion that initiated their careers. Artists know about the power art has.  They know that if art is used for a particular effect it can have a significant impact.

Picasso’s painting “Guernica” is an example.  It influenced Spanish citizens and the world by depicting the violence of the Spanish Civil war in a town bombed by the Franco government.  The painting continues to affect people today. Artist Brandon Gabriel recalls the paintings influence on him when he was a student at Emily Carr.  It showed him that art can inspire social justice, equal rights and environmental activism.  From the songs of apartheid to the performance art of the Guerrilla Girls, many art forms have been instruments of awareness raising and positive change.

Four Vancouver area artists— dancer and arts administrator Lindy Sisson, visual artist and designer Brandon Gabriel, poet Christine Leclerc, and visual artist and writer Robi Smith use their art to call attention to the threat posed by the oil pipelines.

Artist Brandon Gabriel , far right, at Burnaby Mountain protest against pipelines. Photo by Stasia Garroway.


The pipelines have been and continue to be developed to move oil in various forms -- natural gas condensate, diluted bitumen, crude oil -- from the tar sands across Canada to the coast and into the US.  There are several pipeline projects; each at a different stage of development. 

The Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipeline was approved by the federal government in June 2014 but has not yet been constructed.  The plan involves running two parallel pipelines from the Athabasca tar sands in Alberta to Kitimat on the BC coast, for a combined length of 1,177 kilometers. 

The Kinder Morgan Pipeline, referred to as the Trans Mountain pipeline, crosses 1,150 kilometers.  It runs from Edmonton to refineries in BC and Washington state.  Kinder Morgan is trying to significantly increase their output by expanding their existing system.   A third pipeline, Keystone, stretches from Alberta to refineries in Illinois, Texas and Oklahoma. Three phases have been completed, the fourth and final phase is the Keystone XL Pipeline that has been in the news lately.

The Artists

Sisson’s video, Gabriel’s canoe journey last year, and Robi’s fairytale are all efforts to stop Enbridge’s pipeline project.  LeClerc’s poem, “Oilywood” is addressed to Kinder Morgan.  She also created The Enpipe Line project to protest the Enbridge pipeline development. 

Lindy Sisson

"Honour Dance" a video produced by Lindy Sisson

“Honour Dance”, which launched on Valentine’s Day this year, is the product of Sisson’s passion about protecting the environment and her love of dance.  In the video, she dances to honour the earth, alone and in community. 

Inspired by the First Nation’s call for each person to use their particular abilities to protest the expansion of the pipelines, Sisson chose movement. “When I watch myself in the film, I can feel what I'm trying to say better than if I had written an article or essay. Though I am also a wordsmith, I am not an expert on these subjects. So I felt that dancing for the earth would bring different peoples' attention to these issues, people that might not otherwise sit up and see what is at stake.” 

At first, the video was just in protest of the Enbridge pipeline but with time, she realized it was much more.

It’s about global warming, too.  It’s all interconnected.”

Sisson is an artist who knows how to lead others. She began dancing at the age of two and choreographing at the age of 14 in Peace River, her hometown.  Now, after 30 years of promoting arts and culture, she is the artistic and executive director of the ACT Arts Centre and Theatre in Maple Ridge and a powerful force in the art community. Among her many accolades, she was awarded the prestigious Canadian Presenter of the Year Award.

Dancer and Executive Director Lindy Sisson.  Photo by Raeanne Schacter.

Sisson produced the video with friends, a camera she purchased, and her own money.

“So much money is put behind false and misleading advertising. But the real issues are not being discussed because no one can see another way to save the economy  all at the environment’s peril. Something has to make people stop and realize that their own personal comfort in this generation is not more important than ensuring future generation’s well being. The earth is our home. We need to remember to honour it.”

Believing passionately that we should take a long view regarding the environment, she says, “We are too slow to acknowledge that we've made mistakes as a human race. Then, we've been too stubborn to change. That's got to change or our children's children will be hooped. It's just so short sighted and selfish." She said she loves the First Nations' view of thinking seven generations ahead. 

Canoe painted by Brandon Gabriet for the 1,200 kilometer journey.  Photo by Bob Needham.

Brandon Gabriel

Last year, Gabriel painted a twenty-five foot canoe with images telling the story of the great flood.

“It’s a story that goes back thousands of years,” he said, “and is about our value of looking after the environment and working in harmony with all the creatures.”  

He traveled 1,200 kilometers along the BC coastline from Ft Langley to Kitimat, learning from the people he met and carrying the message of the importance of taking care of the earth.  “The purpose of our journey was to raise awareness and bring attention to the marine ecology of the BC coastline which is now under threat by a proposed oil pipeline.” 

"Spring Drum" by Bandon Gabriel"Dreighton Drum" by Brandon Gabriel

"Spring Drum" and "Deighton Drum" painted by Brandon Gabriel.  Photos by Brandon Gabriel.

Gabriel is a painter, sculptor and designer, with many exhibitions to his name, including a string of shows in the UK. He wasn’t always an activist.  “At first I thought only about making money. I started with marketing and creating brands.” 

Then he studied anthropology and learned about his community, the Kwantlen First Nation, and its history. He enrolled at Emily Carr with the idea that he wanted to somehow tell the story of his community “in a way that would draw people in”.

Brandon Gabriel's painting for Amnesty International to honour the murdered and missing women.  Photo by Brandon Gabriel.

A couple of years ago, he was asked by Amnesty International to create an image that would honour the murdered and missing women, many of whom were aboriginal.  He painted an image that pays respect to their lives.  Amnesty used it to create a banner that was taken from Vancouver’s downtown Eastside to Prime Minister Harper in the House of Parliament in Ottawa.  It was the first time his art was used as direct action for justice, and a turning point for Gabriel. 

After much preparation last year, including physical training and contacting 14 communities he would visit along the way, Gabriel and five others set out on a two and a half month journey up the coast.  Some days the cliff walls extended without break so far they paddled twelve hours before finding a landing. Pods of dolphins followed them.  A grizzly walked through their camp one day, and their tents were surrounded by territorial, howling wolves on one night. “The experience was transformative…it was one of the most eye-opening and life changing experiences of my life.”

In each community they visited, ten of which were First Nations, they painted a canoe paddle and shared stories.  As they approached Kitimat, where the Enbridge pipeline is planned to reach the Pacific, opposition increased. 

"We found that the closer we got to Kitimat, the people were really passionate and angry and felt that their voices were not heard,“ he said.

“These are the people who live along these waterways where they are proposing the tanker routes.  They know that on a good day you can't get a big vessel out on those waters because it's so treacherous. So you have people who are living there who know the water, and saying it can't be done because eight months of the year, it's stormy weather.”

The people living on or near the coast are in opposition to the pipeline based on a “grounded historical and contemporary knowledge of the waterways. And a respect for it too.” said Gabriel.

Art, for Gabriel, is not just about images and galleries.  It is not just painting canoes or canvases, making public sculptures or exhibitions.  It is about speaking, telling the story of what he has learned.  After his journey, he said, “I act as a conduit to show the world what’s happening. Just being out there is at the crux of my work.”

Canoeing up the coast of BC to raise awareness with Brandon Gabriel and crew.  Photo by Bob Needham.

In addition to his public speaking and organizing of protests and rallies, he is working on six monumental sculptures commissioned by BC Hydro for the Ruskin dam, and a public art piece for the city of Victoria.  And, because he believes that his work must be grounded in history, he is in school again, at the University of Victoria in the Indigenous Studies Program.  He participates on many boards and is the Historical Researcher, Arts & Culture Representative for Kwantlen First Nation.

Robi Smith

"Interconnection" by Robi Smith

Mixed medium painting "Interconnection" by Robi Smith.  Photo by Robi Smith.

“As a Canadian, one of the issues I think is our black mark on the world is the tar sands," says Robi Smith, a visual artist who was enraged when she heard about the Enbridge pipeline proposal in 2010.

“And even though my work relates largely to the ocean, there is a huge connection between oil and fossil fuels and how we use those and what happens in the ocean, on the land and in the air. They are all connected.”

Smith is a thoughtful and deliberate speaker, with an intense stare and gentle voice. For the last ten years, her paintings have related to the ocean and in particular the ocean along the  BC coast. She looks at a body of water not just as one ecosystem but as a series of interconnected ecosystems. She is interested in what we don’t see, what is under the surface, and how we as humans impact that world. Like naturalist and wildlife artist Robert Bateman, her work is also about specificity, the scientific naming of the different species she paints.

"Pam on Rocks" by Robi Smith

Mixed medium painting "Pam Rocks Howe Sound" by Robi Smith.  Photo by Robi Smith.

In 2010, already an established artist, she and a group of other artists were working on an exhibition about fairytales. The others reworked illustrations for traditional fairytales, but Smith decided to write her own story and illustrate it with her paintings. 

“I’ve long been bothered by the expansion of the tar sands and the rape of the natural world…The Alberta tar sands are a stark example of how misguided we can be. We are ripping up an infinite resource to make some easy cash off a finite one. Instead of being angry or grieving, I decided that I wanted to write a piece and illustrate it to offer hope.”

"Dreaming" from "Leo: The Fairytale" by Robi Smith

"Dream" painting by Robi Smith for her book "Leo: A Fairytale."  Photo by Robi Smith. 

“'Leo, a Fairytale' is the story of a young boy. He lives with his mother who is sick because of the environmental pollution caused by the tar sands. They live in a village at the forest's edge.  The forest is slowly being destroyed by a greedy kind, who is extracting oil from the sandy ground.

“As time went on, the forest retreated farther and farther from Leo’s village.  Soon the houses were surrounded – not by the sweet sounds of birds and night animals and the smells of spring leaves and summer berries, but by brown and grey muck as far as the eye could see…”

"Releasing the Elixir" from "Leo: The Fairytale" by Robi Smith

"Releasing the Elixir" painting by Robi Smith for her book "Leo: A Fairytale."  Photo by Robi Smith.  

Leo dreams of a journey where animals act as his guide, and then give him an elixir for the greedy king. When the dream becomes real, Leo takes the elixir to the king’s castle, which is modeled after the parliament building in Ottawa. The elixir transforms the sludge to clear water. When the king places his hands in the water, he remembers the land from his childhood and decrees that order be reestablished. In the end, everyone lives happily ever after.

“Honestly when I wrote 'Leo', I thought the conservative government would not have another term and that something would be done by now to stop the expansion of the tar sands," Smith said. "And lo and behold things have just gotten worse. But I am ever the optimist that something will change and make it better.”

She plans to turn this small book into a larger one for young adults so that it has a greater impact.  She is currently the artist in residence at the Fern Crescent home in Maple Ridge.

“I think deep change comes from personal experience, and art is a way to really connect on that deep personal level. Taking a course at in school you may get the theory or you may get data that could lead to personal change but it's more likely that change is going to come from some personal experience or some form of expression that you can relate to on a real personal level.”

Christine Leclerc

Book cover for "The Enpipe Line" published by Creekside Publishing and edited by Christine Leclerc, Jen Currin, Jordan Hall, Ray Hsu, Melissa Sawatski and Daniel Zomparelli. Cover design by Carleton Wilson.  Cover photos by Jenn Bauer.

 “In July of 2010, I chained myself to a door in the Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipelines office with several activists,” writes Leclerc in the introduction of The Enpipe Line, a book published by Creekside Press in 2012. “The occupation was undertaken by Greenpeace to protest the proposed Enbridge pipelines….After 14 hours, the police cut through our chains and carried our limp bodies to an oddly vacant office. While being removed from the premises, the image of a poetry-jammed pipeline struck me. “

Christine Leclerc, who graduated from and taught for UBC’s Creative Writing Program, is an award-winning Vancouver poet. She has written several books of poetry and organized many writing projects. Enpipe Line was a poetry project conceived as a 1,173 kilometre-long poetry collaboration, designed to go dream v. dream with Enbridge’s pipeline proposal. It launched in King George on Nov. 1, 2010 with a call out on the internet.  Poems poured in from around the world and were posted first on Christine’s website, and later as the collaboration grew, moved to a dedicated site. At the end of two years, the project was over 70,000 kilometers in length.  The participants were poets from all walks of life, the impassioned, first timers, and some of the world’s best.

Like Gabriel, Leclerc came to activism naturally.  From a young age, she was concerned about violence and pollution, then had a transformative moment. “I came across a book on the economic impacts of climate change in the basement of the Koerner Library at UBC in Vancouver. The argument presented in the book was so compelling to me in that moment that I committed to educating myself about climate change that day in the library basement and looking for ways to help support a transition to sustainability through thoughtful action.”

The Enpipe Line project spawned other projects, readings and protests, and eventually was moved, in part, to book form. In addition, the “enpipeliner poets” read their poems at the 100 Thousand Poets for Change, a global event.

“I'm a curious and tenacious person who is drawn to issues and movements that help protect what I hold dear. When I come across something that grabs me, I  enjoy looking for ways to engage productively.”  The next project was the “Oilywood” poem about the Kinder Morgan pipeline, created in collaboration with other poets.

Video of Christine Leclerc reading "Oilywood."  Produced by Main Street Media.

“I initially wanted to mount Oilywood as a giant sign on the North Shore of the Burrard Inlet. Consultation with First Nations and some math quickly showed me that this would not be the best way to engage my Inlet neighbours on the topics of beaches, tar sands tanker traffic and climate change. So I re-conceptualized the project and went about interviewing fellow beach-goers around the Inlet over the summer of 2012.”

Leclerc thinks deeply about questions of activism and art, and how she can bring about the change. 

“I think art can generate experiences that help us cope, learn and grow perspective. These all seem positive to me," she said.

"Art sometimes serves as a physical intervention, as with copyrighted landscape sculptures in Alberta or poems that spur SLAPP suits. While intervention is not change itself, it can change the tone of a discourse or the rules of the game, which can set courses for chance.”

She recognizes that poetry can have a limited audience, that sometimes the visual will draw people in more immediately, but she is a poet, and this is her gift.  “Reaching the largest possible audience hasn't been my goal with poetry. Instead, I've wanted to support ongoing conversations on issues of concern, conversations which sometimes look like action.”

“You also don't need billions of people toiling away to make change either,  although it couldn't hurt," she said.

The power of art to move people, emotionally and politically, is incontestable. We owe much to these four Vancouver artists, and the many others here and worldwide who awaken our senses and engage us with the beauty of our natural home, the earth.

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