Perusing the Perils to the Pristine | Review of “The Oil Man and the Sea” by Arno Kopecky (2013) Douglas & McIntyre

The media has been dominating the airwaves recently about ‘The Northern Gateway’ – the outlet to the Pacific Ocean where plans are being made to build a major pipeline from Alberta to the British Columbia coast. But what exactly makes up that area is hardly know or discussed in great detail to the rest of us Canadians. Arno Kopecky has travelled the area extensively and documented his trip in The Oil Man and the Sea.

Page 7

The media hammered home the details: an 1,177-kilometre pipeline linking Alberta’s tar sands to British Columbia’s central coast; more than half a million barrels of bitumen per day being piped across the Rocky Mountains and crossing a thousand waterways, more than half of which bear salmon; a projected construction cost of $5 billion, then $5.5 billion, then $6 billion. but the most fraught portion of the bitumen’s journey didn’t even start till the pipeline ended, in the deepwater port of Kitimat. There, at the head of an 80-kilometre-long inlet called Douglas channel, the bitumen would be loaded onto oil tankers destined principally for China. Approximately 225 tankers a year would be hauling their 2-million-barrel payloads not just through Douglas Channel, but also through the 200 kilometres beyond it of inlets, souns, channels and straits separating Kitimat from the open ocean. This prospective route wound directly through the turbulent heart of the Great Bear Rainforest, henceforth to be thought of as the Northern Gateway.

Kopecky has written an excellent combination of journalistic essay and travelogue about the region better know as the Great Bear Rainforest but is commonly being called “The Northern Gateway.” He and his friend – the photographer Ilja Herb –  bought a sailboat (named the “Foxy” and with a temperamental motor nicknamed “Suzy” ) to look at the region closer. The result is both an informative and interesting read.

Page 13

Now a captivating drama was unfolding in our backyard, and thanks to Foxy we had a rare chance to examine it up close. In the opening months of 2012, as the Northern Gateway public hearings took off beneath the roar of a national argument, we hatched a fragile plan: we would sail out of Sidney in mid-June and ascent the east coast of Vancouver Island, reaching the Great Bear Rainforest/Northern Gateway in ten days if all went well. That would give us three months before winter storms became a risk; twelve weeks to explore the proposed tanker route in fair (we hoped) weather and visit a selection of communities along it. These communities, chosen partly on the basis of geography and partly on who returned our emails, included the First Nation reserves of Bella Bella (Heiltsuk), Hartley Bay (Gitga’at) and Kitamaat (Haisla).  The later, though close in name and location, was not to be confused with the decidedly non-indigenous town of Kitimat, proposed terminus of the Northern Gateway pipeline and port of call for 225 oil tankers a year. Roughly eight hundred circuitous kilometres by sea from Victoria, Kitimat would mark the northern apex of our journey, form whence we’d turn around and head back south the same way we’d come up.

The only flaw in this plan was that neither of us knew how to sail.

Kopecky practises a lyrical style of journalism in this book that is easy to read and follow. The people he meets along the way and the descriptions he use to talk about them heighten one’s awareness to the area.

Page 43

“At last, our people our healing,” said Andrea Cranmer, who, together with her mother and sister, operated an art gallery and café called Culture Shock. Culture Shock was the first place we went, like every new arrival; it stood above the marina and ferry terminal in the precise centre of Alert Bay, marking the boundary between the town’s two halves, and a certain fusing of native and Western cultures was evident in the Namgis-made paintings and T-shirts and carvings and jewellery for sale in the Cranmers’ gallery.

Andrea was a crackling, mischievous woman who was clearly enjoying middle age, and she made us sit on the couch after we told her what we were up to. “Last journalists came through here,” she told us, “only wanted to talk. They didn’t have time to listen.” She told us she was dedicated to reviving the feasting, dancing and gift-giving ceremony know as the potlatch, central to all coastal First Nations’ culture, back to its former glory.

The Canadian government first banned the potlatch in 1884, but didn’t enforce the ruling until 1921, when forty-five Namgis were arrested and sent to jail in Vancouver for holding a large potlatch on nearby Village Island. Following the mass arrest, RCMP confiscated every Namgis mask, costume, rattle, and piece of jewellery they could find and sold them to museums and galleries across North America. Banning the potlatch didn’t make it disappear, of course – it just went underground – but it didn’t help matters when St. Mikes residential school was built in the middle of ‘Yalis in 1929, eight years after the ban was enforced, and indigenous children from up and down the coast were sent her to what became one of the more notorious residential schools in Canada

The potlatch ban and residential school each lasted for forty years; the damage they inflicted had no such time limit. “I see a lot of my people walking around with the weight of the world on their shoulders,” Andrea said, “but I tell ’em all the same thing: Get off the cross, we need the wood!” She like to focus on solutions, Andrea did, and potlatches were her favourite panacea. “Our kids our growing up proud again,” she said. “There’s a lot of healing still has to happen, but that’s part of what the potlatch does. The nightmares my generation had to deal with are finally thing of the past. Our kids aren’t ashamed to be Namgis anymore.

Kopecky has a wonderful style in describing the wilderness that will be surrounding the Northern Gateway project.

Page 138-139

A pod of orcas was lounging at the narrow entrance to Reid Passage. No theatrics this time. They resembled bullish Holsteins of the sea, their metre-long dorsal fins wagging in the air as they rummaged lazily in the shallow water. It looked like Hakai, this collection of miniature white-sanded islands with bonsai trees blasted by their exposure to the open Pacific. The water grew calm and clear enough to see through to the bouldered bottom.

The mountains grew taller the farther north we went; steeper, closer, eating up more and more of the horizon. They were like an army that has walked across the bottom of the ocean, and as they emerged you could see first their heads, then their shoulders, and now they stood with the water around their waists, their torsos fully exposed.

We were in Kitasoo territory, approaching Klemtu, that town I’d visited thirteen years ago. (Forgive me, Klemtu – or perhaps you’re already grateful – for not stopping in this time. Weeks behind schedule. Geese flying south. No contacts on the ground .) The tide was dropping as we passed the small island that shielded Klemtu from sight, and the draining ocean clawed at Foxy’s hull, slowing us to three knots, two knots, one . . . maybe we should have stopped in Klemtu after all. But a ten-knot broad reach picked up just as we were about to turn around. It blew us against the current all the way to the southeast edge of Princess Royal Island, where I’d huddled in my tent for a rain-soaked week in 1999.


The book also includes a collection of photos showing the beauty of the area.


The Oil Man and The Sea by Arno Kopecky is an excellent read about a region to the country that is being often discussed yet barely understood. Kopecky has if anything, restored my belief in journalism and proved to me that both  me and my library should be located in the British Columbia area.

Link to Arno Kopecky’s website

Link to Douglas & McIntrye page for “The Oil Man and the Sea.”


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