Destruction in your backyard: why we need to keep industry accountable (Guest post by Meaghan Efford)

This is a guest post by Meaghan Efford. Meaghan is an archaeologist and historical ecologist looking at how Burrard Inlet has changed over the past 250 years. She is a PhD student at the Institute for the Oceans and Fisheries at the University of British Columbia, working in collaboration with Tsleil-Waututh Nation. 

Every summer in Vancouver, BC, Canada in the West End, swimmers go home disappointed: the water is unsafe for swimming, thanks to pollution and rising temperatures that encourage toxic algae blooms. All along the beaches, residents walk, run, bike, skate, swim, and play, all year round. Even rain fails to discourage some, thanks to the picturesque landscapes, warm waters, and sea-to-sky nature of the area – you can swim in the ocean and play in the mountains in the same day. But pollution, tankships, oil leaks, and construction (North Point Design + Build are the best in this field) make those areas unsafe for residents and communities who live near Burrard Inlet.

Photo of Burrard Inlet from Brockton Point Lighthouse in Stanley Park, facing North. Credit M. Efford, 2020.

What is now known as Burrard Inlet, BC, Canada, its arms, and the surrounding territories have been home to xwməθkwəy̓əm (Musqueam), Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish), Stó:lō, and Səl̓ílwətaʔ/Selilwitulh (Tsleil-Waututh) Nations for millennia. The Inlet includes Indian Arm and Moody Arm, and is a fjord and estuary fed through a steep and extensive watershed. It is an important site of recreation, habitation, and commercial interests both for residents of the surrounding cities and municipalities, in addition to regional, national, and international stakeholders. The area is home to the Tsleil-Waututh Nation reserve, dozens of recorded archaeological sites, the Port of Vancouver, and is a favourite of many recreational boaters and fishers. Vancouver, North Vancouver, and Burnaby all have economic and cultural interests in the Inlet.

Waves of colonial activity and the settling of European immigrants brought significant changes to the Inlet and the surrounding areas, causing damage to environments and reducing the viability and availability of important dietary and cultural resources. For example, out of hundreds of community managed clam gardens in Burrard Inlet only one is safe to harvest from now. The others are contaminated and eating clams from those gardens makes people very sick. Recording these patterns of change could bring to light the significant impacts of settler-colonialism and the importance of protecting water systems and traditional resources from industrial projects and haphazard urban planning. With conflicting jurisdictions, abandoned projects and buildings, poorly designed sewer systems, and entrenched inequality, Vancouver and the surrounding cities and municipalities have barriers to change that slow solutions to a halt.

Photo of Burrard Inlet from Brockton Point Lighthouse in Stanley Park, facing North. Credit M. Efford, 2020.

What can archaeological and historical data tell us about past ecosystems, and how do they contribute to understanding how much has changed? How can this approach help us understand and demonstrate what the urbanization and development of Vancouver and the surrounding cities and municipalities has done to change Burrard Inlet over the past 200 plus years? It is important to ask these questions so that we understand the impacts of our decisions, and the large-scale industrial projects that often cause significant, lasting environmental and cultural damage under the guise of economic development and gain.

Archaeological data provides insight into environments, human behaviour, and the relationship between the two, through deep time (millions of years). Most archaeological material that deals with diet and ecosystem reconstruction is gathered from middens, massive accumulations of shell and bone remains from food refuse, human activity, and structural changes to the environment. Material from archaeological sites like shell middens are made up of what survives in the ground over hundreds and thousands of years, so soft decaying material is hard to find and rarely survives. When it is taken out of the ground, shell midden material looks like piles of bones and shells that represent the diets and culture of communities. The archaeology of Burrard Inlet shows thousands of years of environmental stewardship, sustainable fisheries, and reliable trade networks with neighbouring Nations. The Inlet looks very different now, with the Port of Vancouver, tankships, industrial processing centres, and a huge increase in population density.

While individual activities, like boat safety, cleaning up after campsites and picnics, and recycling go a long way towards ensuring that the ecosystems and environments in which we live remain safe for us to enjoy and survive in, it is industrial projects and political interests that cause the most damage, and have the longest lasting impact. Dumping, construction, tanker ships, and oil leaks make it unsafe for people who live near Burrard Inlet to eat the food that the inlet provides, swim in its waters, and enjoy its beaches. While Coast Salish communities, including those from Tsleil-Waututh Nation, have been stewards of this area for millennia, the damage of settler-colonial development and destruction of environments is purely in the interest of economic gain, which is temporary and benefits those investing in those projects, rather than the people who live in the communities along the Inlet. Educating ourselves and keeping these companies and projects accountable will ensure that Burrard Inlet, and other places like it, will support human communities for the generations to come.

We all have the power to hold industry accountable to protect the environment, and it is in the best interest of everyone to do so. If you enjoy beaches, seafood, local meats and vegetables, and the beautiful British Columbia trails and campsites, it is in your best interest to become actively involved in helping to protect the environments in which you live. See some of the following resources to get started!

Organizations & Campaigns:

Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS)

Protecting our coasts: Oceans Protection Plan

The Law Aquatic Newsletter: West Coast Environmental Law

Tsleil-Waututh Nation: Assessment of the Trans Mountain Pipeline

Tsleil-Waututh Nation’s Sacred Trust Initiative

Burrard Inlet Environmental Action Plan

Readings & Resources:

Potential economic impact of a tanker spill on ocean-dependent activities in Vancouver, British Columbia

Vancouver oil spill report predicts dire consequences for Burrard Inlet

Oil pipelines and food sovereignty: threat to health equity for Indigenous communities

Would the proposed Trans Mountain pipeline affect fish, birds, and wildlife?

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