Defeating Pipelines Through Play

Call Out for Climate Leadership Protest, North Bay, Ontario, 2016. Photo by Liz Lott.

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The fifth instalment in the Not Your Day Job series.

Sometimes doing something other than your day job can mean doubling down on your other day job.

When in 2013 TransCanada (now TC Energy) announced their plan to convert an existing natural gas pipeline to the transport of bitumen, it caused some attention in my town of North Bay, Ontario. TC Energy is a Calgary-based pipeline and energy generation company, originally formed in 1951 to build what became the TransCanada pipeline. Their proposed Energy East Pipeline would cross over a tributary of Trout Lake, one of the two lakes that frame North Bay and the source of drinking water for its 53,000 citizens. A group of local people, concerned about the threat of an oil spill on the lake (and the output of climate gases from oil sands operations), decided to do something. I want to talk here about the somewhat indirect way I was part of all this, in an effort that for my part involved a lot of intensive meal-making, bed-time monitoring, and parental shuttle servicing.

The key to this story is my partner, Catherine Murton Stoehr, who (as well as being a scholar and university instructor) is a community activist and organizer. The opening salvo in the fight against Energy East was the Save Canada punking. Fifty people attended a TransCanada open house carrying clipboards and wearing shirts nearly identical to those of the pipeline company reps but bearing the logo “Save Canada.” CTV’s reporter mistook them for TransCanada reps; the story spread and inspired 15 other groups to adopt the SaveCanada tactic; and, most importantly, their message about the possible effects of the pipeline on North Bay and the global climate got out there. When Catherine heard about what SaveCanada had done, it was clear that she would have to get involved with what became Stop Energy East North Bay. Because our kids were still young then, it was also clear that I could also get involved in a less direct way: by providing child care. Activism, after all, involves a lot of evenings. And afternoons.

I won’t bore you with a description of the actual child care (though our kids are, you understand, incredibly delightful). It was pretty standard stuff. I also want to be clear that I am not looking for compliments for performing my duties as a Dad. Shortly after my children were born I read a piece by the novelist Michael Chabon describing how strangers would come up to praise him for simply taking his kids grocery shopping. To get comparable praise, he supposed, his wife would probably have to do “an emergency tracheotomy on one of her children while also buying healthy, nutritious snacks.” My experience as a Dad of young kids bears this out.

My doing what women have been doing for a very long time enabled Catherine to do what she does so well.

Catherine Murton Stoehr introduces the speakers and lays out expectations for the all candidates debate on climate and the environment during the 2019 federal election. Photo by the author.

One event she helped organize was a visit to North Bay by NDP MP Olivia Chow. Chow came to the beach at Trout Lake, where she spoke about the importance of protecting water. Next, several of us paddled out on the lake to illustrate just one reason we needed the water. My job was to shepherd the kids while she was speaking and looking after Ms. Chow, and then to take the kids out in a canoe with me. On another, glorious, occasion we glided across Lake Nipissing on skis, towing behind us purple balloons representing the oil that might spoil the lake.

Three of the Murton Stoehrs at the “Ski the Spill” action on Lake Nipissing. Photo by Catherine Murton Stoehr.

On another occasion, my child-minding role was superseded when I helped organize a talk by a remarkable local engineer who had studied TransCanada’s application to convert the pipeline and wanted to offer his engineering perspective to the public. My major asset was that I could secure a room at the university and the support of the environmental studies program. By this time resistance to Energy East had gone mainstream in North Bay. The Mayor, Al MacDonald (a former Progressive Conservative Party MPP) turned out to help introduce the speaker. He talked about how the first thing he did when he decided to run was to meet with local community and environmental activists Jim and Donna Sinclair (members of Save Canada), and to tell us how he was challenging other mayors on the Energy East issue. We packed the lecture theatre with a crowd eager to hear a detailed engineers’ report on the potential problem of TransCanada’s proposal. It was a remarkable night.

It is notable that this is one of the main things I remember from the campaign, because what I tended to forget was my major contribution: looking after our kids so Catherine could do her thing. I would often find myself wishing I could contribute to the campaign, after which I would remind myself that I WAS contributing. This, of course, is the experience of generations of women, who find their essential contributions largely forgotten. As Donica Belisle and Keira Mitchell recently reminded us, the contributions of faculty wives were essential to the success of famous academics. There would have been no staples thesis without Mary Quayle Innis. It is also worth noting, in our own highly individualistic age, how difficult it is to do anything on one’s own. It is often essential, and there is real honour and value, to supporting the efforts of one’s life partner, as long as it works both ways. In the end, we contributed to the defeat of the Energy East pipeline, and were able to celebrate together a great victory.

This kind of #notyourdayjob work can also turn the work of one partner into a family thing. Our children literally fell on the floor in celebration when we told them that TransCanada was suspending the Energy East Pipeline project. This work can also become part of the raising of your kids. This year, Chloe Cook started organizing regular FridaysForFuture protests here in North Bay; our daughter Addie is now helping lead.

Chloe Cook (left) and Addie Murton speak at a Fridays for Future rally at North Bay City Hall, November 2019. Photo by Liz Lott.

Community activism, I have learned, is not often glamorous. Organizing involves mastering a lot of detail. It involves dealing with a lot of people. It is made up of a lot of small jobs. So if you have a problem that needs taking on, don’t worry about what you are doing. Just do something. And look for those instances where something can become #notyourdayjob by virtue of doing more of that thing you need to do anyway. You may get to spend more time with your kids, who I’m sure are all as above average as my own.

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Jamie Murton is associate professor in the Department of History at Nipissing University. He is interested in the environmental history of food and agriculture, and particularly of subsistence production and its relationship to capitalist markets for food. Canadians and Their Natural Environments: Survival from 20,000 Years Ago to the Present is forthcoming from Oxford University Press.

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