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Review

The Oil Man and the Sea: Navigating the Northern Gateway

By Arno Kopecky

March 6, 2014

Review By Maggie Low

This book, aptly titled The Oil Man and the Sea, is about the current threat posed by the proposed Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline to the ecosystems and people of the Great Bear Rainforest. This region, also known as the north and central coast of British Columbia, is one of the last intact temperate rainforests in the world and has been home to several First Nations for thousands of years. In this first hand account, Arno Kopecky presents a close look at the contentious pipeline proposal. If approved, the pipeline will carry crude oil from the Alberta tar sands, across British Columbia and to the Pacific Coast in the Great Bear Rainforest. From there, oil tankers will navigate the unpredictable waters of Douglas Channel to transport that oil to Asia. The federal government insists that this project is in the national interest of Canada. First Nations, environmentalists, and many British Columbians are adamantly opposed to the pipeline and oil tankers. Their concern: not if but when the oil spill happens.

In the summer of 2012, Kopecky along with his friend and photographer, Ilja Herb, travelled the Great Bear Rainforest by sailboat to investigate what others, especially those who live in the region, think about the proposed pipeline and the oil tankers it will draw to the coast. Prior to his trip, Kopecky made connections with several people in coastal communities and set out to explore all angles of the issue. In the end, Kopecky combines local history with his own journal, photos, and snippets of conversations with locals to piece together a rich narrative that argues the reasons why this coast is not the place for oil tankers.

The book begins with a short introduction to the current politics of the region and pipeline proposal. The people, ecosystems, and controversies begin to come to life in Chapter 3, when we learn about the community of Bella Bella, home of the Heiltsuk Nation. For the next few chapters, Kopecky elegantly weaves discussions of pertinent issues including the Joint Panel Review process, the cultural importance of salmon, the relationship between First Nations and the Canadian government, and facts about oil tankers and oil spills. In Chapter 6, we are introduced to the Gitga’at Nation of Hartley Bay. Here, the author discusses the impacts of the tar sands and climate change, and grapples will the larger issue of the western world’s dependence on fossil fuels. In Chapter 7, Kopecky heads north to the community of Kitimat, and the neighbouring community of Kitimaat, home of the Haisla Nation. He examines the disagreement between different First Nations over the boundaries of their traditional territories, and the continuing challenges of governance on reserves. In Kitimat he finds an engineer in favour of the pipeline. The story ends on a somewhat high note with a visit to one of the last intact river valleys and the northernmost whale research station.

Through the use of personal anecdotes, Kopecky imparts a sense of hope for the future of this region. As a researcher and visitor to the Great Bear Rainforest, and one who has met some of the same people as Kopecky, I appreciate the strands of optimism and humour with which he tells this important story. He combines local culture, history, and ecology with material derived from his own interviews and conversations to produce a convincing argument against this pipeline. I highly recommend this book if you are looking for a timely, accessible, and informative piece about a momentous issue — but be prepared to be persuaded by Kopecky’s conviction that oil tankers on the coast are not an option.

The Oil Man and the Sea: Navigating the Northern Gateway
Arno Kopecky
Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre, 2013. 288 pp. $26.95 paper