Regulatory hearings begin as TMX seeks to dig open trench through sacred Secwépemc site

Federal regulatory hearings are set to begin today as Trans Mountain seeks to dig a kilometre-long open trench through a Secwépemc cultural site which is protected by Indigenous law.

Facing a hurdle with its existing construction plan, the company wants to excavate through the Pípsell (Jacko Lake) area in Secwepemcúl’ecw as it tries to meet the deadline for its pipeline expansion project.

The Stk’emlúpsemc te Secwépemc Nation (SSN) rejects this request, saying this method could result in “significant and irreparable harm” to their culture and the integrity of the land.

The Canada Energy Regulator (CER) commission has determined that an oral hearing is required for the matter, which is scheduled in “Calgary” for Sept. 18 and 19, with a third day reserved for Sept. 20.

Mike McKenzie, a Secwépemc knowledge-keeper from Skeetchestn, said he will be watching how the hearing unfolds, explaining that Pípsell is important for many Indigenous people in the area.

“Today, we still have a duty to protect this space for future generations,” he said.

“I know that there’s a lot of work being done to protect this area from the impacts of industry, but also the impacts of humans.”

TMX faces ‘significant technical challenges’

The request for the Trans Mountain expansion project (TMX) comes after the company wasn’t able to complete micro-tunnelling through the Pípsell corridor, according to CER documents, and the company is facing mounting financial and deadline pressure.

In an Aug. 10 application letter to the commission of the CER, TMX asked that officials approve its request to dig an open trench through the remaining 1.3 km of the corridor.

Although the company had initially agreed to accommodate the requests of the SSN through the use of trenchless construction methods by micro-tunnelling, it’s now hit a hard-rock formation and wants to excavate this stretch, according to documents.

SSN is against trenching in Pípsell, saying that it would cause “significant ground disturbance,” impacting their jurisdiction over their territory and their obligations to the land.

For years, SSN has expressed concerns about the TMX project in Pípsell, citing concerns that it will “destroy, damage, or degrade habitat” in the sensitive grasslands and old growth forests that are home to many at-risk wildlife species.

In 2022, after lengthy negotiations with TMX, SSN provided a letter of support for the development after the two parties developed a new routing and agreed that micro-tunnelling for a distance of 4.2 km was an acceptable form of trenchless construction in the Pípsell corridor.

But in their recent August application letter, TMX said that they are encountering “significant technical challenges” with micro-tunneling along the remaining 1.3 km route. They allege that micro-tunneling will extend the project’s completion date of Jan. 1, 2024, and impact successful pipeline installation in this area.

“The costs of micro-tunneling have significantly exceeded the typical costs of completing trenchless construction,” TMX wrote.

“In addition, every month of delay to mechanical completion (and by extension, the [TMX] in-service date) results in significant increased construction costs well beyond initial cost estimates for the micro-tunneling, not including costs and impacts to various third parties who are relying on the timely completion of the [TMX].”

The TMX project was purchased by the federal government in 2018 for just under $5 billion. The project’s cost is now estimated at more than $30 billion.

The CER is responsible for reviewing energy development projects throughout “Canada,” and sharing any relevant information with the public related to such projects. Their responsibilities include regulating pipeline development, where they consider “economic, environmental, and social” factors when making any decisions on a project.

In a response, SSN requested that CER reject TMX’s deviation application and asked that TMX honour the conditions that were agreed upon “if the project is to proceed through the Pípsell.”

“Were it not for Trans Mountain’s commitment to micro-tunnelling, SSN would not have provided the letter of support,” SSN wrote.

SSN quoted Dawn Farrell, TMX’s CEO and president, from a meeting that TMX had with the SSN Joint Council on July 6, who said that TMX was unaware of the geology of the land when the agreement with the nation was made.

“I know that it’s not your concern that this is taking longer and that it’s causing problems with the schedule and all the rest of it, but it is significantly,” Farrell is quoted as saying.

“We are constrained to options that are economic and feasible within the remaining time frame.”

SSN argued that the company’s financial obligations are not a viable reason to go forward with trenching.

The nation also stated that TMX “has attempted to minimize the spiritual and cultural importance of the Pípsell Area” and said that its ongoing support of the project is conditional upon TMX’s commitment to upholding its agreement.

“This conditional support is not an arbitrary decision by SSN,” they write. “It flows directly from the caretaking obligations to the lands and resources with the Pípsell Area borne by SSN pursuant to Secwépemc law.”

TMX declined IndigiNews’ request for comment, citing the fact that the matter is going to a hearing, while SSN representatives did not respond.

Secwépemc law and Pípsell

For thousands of years, Pípsell — meaning trout-place — has been a cultural keystone place for the Secwépemc Nation. It is a source of Secwépemc laws and governance, and SSN emphasizes that the site is of deep spiritual values and is critical to the community’s identity and well-being.

“One of the most important things about the site is that it tells us how our worlds connect,” said McKenzie, who previously served as the Shuswap Nation Youth Representative with the Shuswap Nation Tribal Council.

“When we talk about the stories from that place, and when the people go to that place, there’s a lot of different worlds interacting: the sky world, the water world — there’s a lot of different worlds there.”

Pípsell is recorded in the Secwépemc’s stseptékwll’s (oral stories and teachings) Trout Children Story. As SSN details in their letter to CER, the story expresses their connection to the Pípsell Area, and “it sustains Secwépemc law about conduct on the land and reciprocal accountability to living beings on the land, across generations and within generations.”

“We look at a lot of different aspects of life on the land at Pípsell,” said McKenzie.

“We aren’t just looking at people and what we’re doing on the land, but we’re looking at the different animals that are there, the different wildlife, the different supernatural beings and the stories that tell us how we come to be as a people.”

It’s the Trout Children Story that gives Secwépemc people spiritual, cultural and environmental guidance and teachings, where it underscores the interconnectedness between humans and the natural world around them.

“There’s fish in there, there’s activities that happen in that place, that are vital to our way of being. Some families rely on that area for fishing, but also for teaching their young ones the culture.”

There is a Secwépemc law on Pípsell, he said, called x7ensq’t. And that law dictates that if you do not respect that land — and if you do not come into it in a good way — the land and the sky will turn on you.

“We sometimes relate x7ensq’t to climate change, but we don’t exactly know,” he said. “And one of the reasons why we protect that land so aggressively, is because we do not want negative impact. That law will harm us — we don’t want that harm to be brought.”

Sacred and protected land

Pípsell was previously threatened by the development of the Ajax Mine Project in 2016, which ultimately has not come to fruition thanks to pushback from the SSN. A week before a panel hearing for that project, McKenzie himself had done a vision quest at Pípsell to hold space for the community.

“I did all my ceremonial work up at the site. So they’ll be violating my rights, my family’s rights. Many people have done that work up there too,” he said.

“We already had an entire process that stopped a multi-billion-dollar mine on this site. So they can’t pretend we don’t have the rights.”

In June 2017, SSN officially designated Pípsell as a Secwépemc Nation Cultural Heritage Site in accordance with their Indigenous law, with many speaking of the importance of the area.

“This sacred land is a storied place,” said Ron Ignace, the Skeetchestn chief at the time.

“It has a sacred story here, in order to come in here, you have to make an offering.”

The stories and teachings that come from Pípsell are not the only reasons why the community cherishes the site, McKenzie noted — it’s also the history that was made when the people came together to review the Ajax Mine proposal.

“We reviewed that mine, and it was decided that it was no to the mine and yes to a healthy environment.”

However, the unification that came from the opposition to the Ajax Mine, McKenzie said, has been hurt by TMX.

“We should have reviewed Trans Mountain in the same way that we reviewed Ajax,” he said.

“Everything we had built just got a lot harder to maintain.”

The livestream of the CER hearing is open to the public and can be accessed here.

Whatever the CER decides on the outcome, McKenzie said that he thinks that the project is already dead if TMX thinks that they will successfully dig through Pípsell.

“I know that a lot of our Elders might just show up there, sit there and say, ‘No.’”

Aaron Hemens, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, IndigiNews

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