Construction on the Trans Mountain pipeline near Pípsell, or Jacko Lake, near Kamloops, B.C., resumed after the Canada Energy Regulator allowed for the company to alter the pipeline route. Workers lay pipe during construction of the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion on farmland, in Abbotsford, B.C., on Wednesday, May 3, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

OTTAWA — A Secwépemc law called X7ensq’t says that if you disrespect the land and don’t take care of it properly, the land and the sky will turn on you.

“It’s a serious law,” said Mike McKenzie, a Secwépemc knowledge keeper. He said he wonders “how much farther” people want to go in violating it.

McKenzie was speaking about the Trans Mountain Corp., which last week resumed construction close to Pípsell, or Jacko Lake, near Kamloops, B.C., after a federal regulator approved a change to the Trans Mountain pipeline route.

McKenzie, who has been a vocal critic of the pipeline expansion, said he believes the destruction of the site is a continuation of cultural genocide.

“Without that place, we lose a big part of ourselves,” said McKenzie, who noted the Secwépemc creation story takes place in Pípsell, and their laws and customs are born from that land.

“This is our Vatican. This is our Notre Dame. This is a place that gives our people an identity and kept our people grounded since time immemorial.”

The Canada Energy Regulator approved Trans Mountain Corp.’s application to modify the pipeline’s route in late September — a decision that could spare the government-owned pipeline project from an additional nine-month delay.

The regulator made the ruling just one week after hearing oral arguments from Trans Mountain and Stk’emlúpsemc te Secwépemc Nation, which opposed the route change.

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The Nation said the corridor near Jacko Lake holds “profound spiritual and cultural significance,” and while it supported the project overall, it didn’t support the deviation application.

The Nation said it only consented to construction in the first place under the understanding that the company would minimize surface disturbances.

A written response that Stk’emlúpsemc te Secwépemc Nation provided to the regulator said a change in construction methodology would cause “significant and irreparable harm” to its culture.

It added that it did not provide free, prior and informed consent for the route deviation, as prescribed under the United Nation Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

It had told the federal regulator in 2018, when the Trans Mountain expansion project was still in the approval process, that Pípsell is a “cultural keystone place and sacred site.”

Trans Mountain Corp. said the route change was required because it ran into engineering difficulties in the area related to the construction of a tunnel.

The regulator ultimately decided the pipeline’s route could deviate from what was originally planned for a 1.3-kilometre stretch of pipe, and the company could change its construction method for that section.

The company confirmed Wednesday that it has resumed work at the Pípsell site.

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It said in a statement that it recognizes the area is of “sacred importance” and it is “committed to remaining respectful of the spiritual and cultural significance of this land.”

“All care will be taken to ensure existing archeological and traditional land use sites are completely avoided and not touched by this construction,” the statement went on.

“We greatly value our partnership with the (Stk’emlúpsemc te Secwépemc) and will continue to invite representatives to walk the site and share contingency and mitigation plans.”

The company said it is committed to “meaningful engagement and effective relationships” with Indigenous communities along the pipeline corridor, and noted 69 agreements are in place with communities along the right-of-way, including Stk’emlúpsemc te Secwépemc.

Still, McKenzie, often speaking through tears, said he was devastated to hear the news that construction had resumed.

McKenzie said the project flies in the face of reconciliation, and Canada’s reputation as a “model site” for what better relationships could look like.

“We showed the world that we can reconcile and we can do work together based on something good,” said McKenzie.

But he said the recent decision, and the fact the community did not provide consent, goes against that.

“The fact that they’re going to desecrate a sacred site, after all the work that we’ve done, tells me that they’re not serious about reconciliation at all.”

In an interview Friday, federal Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Gary Anandasangaree said he doesn’t “want to pass the buck,” but said the decision was not in his purview. He noted government departments and agencies are required to follow the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

“I certainly can say that as a federal government, we’re very much committed to ongoing consultation.”

It’s not the first time Jacko Lake, or Pípsell, has been proposed as a development site.

In 2017, Stk’emlúpsemc te Secwépemc Nation stated it did not give its free, prior and informed consent for the Ajax Mine Project to be developed in the area.

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“The oral histories associated with Pípsell are foundationally connected to our Secwépemc laws that deal with the reciprocal and mutually accountable relationships between humans and the environment,” reads a March 2017 document the Nation submitted as part of the approval process for the Ajax project.

“We assert the right to maintain and exercise our traditional and contemporary cultural practices, and carry on our customs and spiritual activities in the distinct locations marked by our Ancestors.”

The federal government ultimately decided not to approve the project.

McKenzie said the site continues to hold significant meaning for his community — and for him personally, since it was where he did his vision quest.

A vision quest, in the simplest terms, refers to a spiritual journey present in some Indigenous cultures where people seek and receive knowledge, guidance and teachings from spirits.

Given that the hearing for the Trans Mountain route change decision was held in Calgary, McKenzie said, it was hard for individual community members to express just how important the site is, as they would have to travel more than 700 kilometres to attend.

The Trans Mountain pipeline is Canada’s only pipeline system transporting oil from Alberta to the West Coast. The expansion, which is currently underway, is expected to boost the pipeline’s capacity to 890,000 barrels per day from 300,000.

The pipeline was bought by the federal government for $4.5 billion in 2018, after previous owner Kinder Morgan Canada Inc. threatened to scrap the planned expansion project in the face of environmentalist opposition and regulatory hurdles.

It has already been plagued by construction-related challenges and delays.

And the projected price tag has since spiralled: first to $12.6 billion, then to $21.4 billion and most recently to $30.9 billion, the capital cost estimate as of March.

“If that isn’t the land and the sky turning on this company, I don’t know what is,” said McKenzie.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 8, 2023.

— With files from Amanda Stephenson.

Alessia Passafiume, The Canadian Press

News from © The Canadian Press, 2023. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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A farmer, a pump shop manager and a superintendent walk into a liquor store … and buy it. No joke