Art and imagery have played a role in resistance movements throughout time and across issues. Think of the red square of the Québec student movement, born from the idea that the province’s proposal to raise tuition would put students “carrément dans la rouge” (squarely in the red). This tiny image or symbol carries a huge punch – wearing a red square immediately identifies you as part of the movement. It evokes union, a common purpose, and a clear message: free tuition or bust.
Creating and harnessing powerful imagery can turn the tide for a social movement, and the environmental justice movement is catching on. When it comes to the Energy East tar sands pipeline slated to end in Saint John, NB, people are fighting back against the project and using a collaborative art project to their advantage.
The Harmony Project is an art project by the Peace and Friendship Alliance of New Brunswick, which is an alliance of Mi’kmaq, Wolastoq, and non-Indigenous people with a mandate “to limit corporate control of natural resources; protect air, land, and water for all our relations; and take united action for a healthy planet.”
The Harmony Project marks out the route of the Energy East pipeline by posting the Wolastoq emblem on trees or poles on roads near the proposed pipeline route, particularly near water crossings. Energy East is slated to cross 370 waterways in New Brunswick, and almost 3000 waterways from Alberta to the Atlantic coast.
This emblem is rich in history, myth, and meaning. It comes from the Wolastoq peoples’ creation story for the Wolastoq River (the Saint John River):
Aglebe’m kept back all the water in the world; so that rivers stopped flowing, and lakes dried up and the people everywhere began dying of thirst. They sent a messenger to him to ask him to give the people water; but he refused and gave the messenger only a drink from the water in which he washed. Then the people began complaining. A great man Kelowaskap was sent to Aglebe’m to beg him to release the water for the people. Aglebe’m refused, saying that he needed it for himself to lie in. Then the Kelowoskap cut a tree, so it fell on top of the Aglebe’m and killed him. This tree became the main river Wolastoq and the branches became the tributary branches of the river, while the leaves became the ponds and lakes.
The decision to use this traditional Wolastoq emblem instead of any other imagery demonstrates the cooperation and unity between non-Indigenous and Indigenous people working together to protect
the land, air, and water we all depend on, and is an important act of peace and friendship, in the spirit of the Peace and Friendship Treaties.
Marking out the pipeline route not only brings the pipeline, and all the associated risks, to life for people living in the area, but it also fights back against the misinformation (or complete lack of information) given by Energy East Ltd., or the National Energy Board. Mark D’Arcy, Council of Canadians’ Stop Energy East NB campaigner, says, “Communities across this province have been kept in the dark about the exact route of Energy East and the risks and impacts of spills.” Any maps that are available are indecipherable to anyone without an engineering background. Written materials about the pipeline are highly technical and often not translated into French, which is the first language for many communities in the Saint John River Valley through which the pipeline could be built.
“TransCanada, the National Energy Board and Brian Gallant’s government have failed to provide even basic information such as easy-to-read and understandable maps,” says D’Arcy.
The project is still growing and more emblems are being posted. If you find yourself in the Saint John River valley in New Brunswick and you see an emblem, know that the place you are in could be threatened by millions of barrels of bitumen every day, and know that together we can fight and win.
Robin Tress is a volunteer with the Ecology Action Centre. This article was first published in the fall 2016 newsletter of the Ecology Action Centre’s newsletter, Ecology & Action.