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First Nations activist reflects on years-long fight against Trans Mountain pipeline expansion

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The taps have been turned on for the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion – a national infrastructure project that overcame fierce public opposition, construction delays and cost-overruns that pushed the final bill to more than $34 billion.

In a news release Wednesday, Trans Mountain announced the 1,100-kilometre project from Alberta to an export terminal in Burnaby, B.C., was online and said it expected the first tankers to depart with oil sands product later this month.

Seated on rock near the beach at New Brighton Park in East Vancouver, Will George, a member of the Tsleil-Waututh Nation, used the day to reflect on his years of activism against the project.

"These are our spiritual highways which sustained our people for thousands of years,” he said gesturing out to Burrard Inlet. “So all the direct action that I was called to do over the years was a high honour."

The expansion will increase Trans Mountain’s capacity from 300,000 to close to 900,000 barrels a day.

It will also bring a significant increase in tanker traffic to Burrard Inlet and the Salish Sea.

Despite the efforts of George and other activists, they could not stop the project.

Proponents of the pipeline say it is a key piece of infrastructure that will provide a boost to Canada’s oil industry, contribute to job growth and provide revenue from royalties and corporate taxes.

"These broader economic benefits of infrastructure like this is perhaps the most important implication of the project now coming online,” said Trevor Tombe, an economist from the University of Calgary.

Private firm Kinder Morgan originally proposed the project, but when the company threatened to back out in 2018, the federal government stepped in and bought existing pipeline and the expansion project for $4.5-billion.

The Trudeau Liberals initially projected that the total cost of the finished project, including the purchase price and construction costs, would come in around $7.4-billion.

Cost overruns throughout the years drove the final price to $34-billion, which works out to $873 for every person in Canada.

"There's no question we have some problems here in this country around building some major infrastructure,” said Tristan Goodman, president and CEO of Explorers and Producers of Canada. “And as much as it's a day to celebrate, it's also a day to reflect. We really can do better than this."

The Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh nations were among a group of First Nations that brought the fight against the project all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada, where they were unsuccessful.

In July 2018, George and other activists actually suspended themselves in hammocks beneath the Ironworkers Memorial Bridge – dangling above Burrard Inlet for close to 36 hours before being arrested.

George spent 28 days in jail in 2023 for violating a court injunction when he blocked the entrance to Trans Mountain’s Burnaby Mountain tank farm.

"It puts a lump in my throat. It's hard to know that all that work that my nation did, that I did, and the people of Vancouver, still didn't arise to protecting our lands and waters. They're still at a huge risk right now,” he said.

The $34-billion Trans Mountain expansion project officially came online May 1 with no photo ops, no ribbon cutting – and no public fanfare of any kind.

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