A screengrab of the Pípsell (Jacko Lake) area in Secwepemcúl’ecw from Stk’emlúpsemc te Secwépemc Nation’s (SSN) 2017 video, “Pipsell – a Secwepemc Nation Cultural Heritage Site.” Source: SSNAaron Hemens, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

A Secwépemc knowledge-keeper is outraged after Trans Mountain was given approval from Canada’s energy regulator to trench through an important cultural site to build its pipeline expansion — calling the project colonialism personified.

“Evil is putting it lightly,” said Mike McKenzie, who is from Skeetchestn.

The commission of the Canadian Energy Regulator (CER) announced Monday it has approved a deviation application allowing the company to dig a 1.3 km open trench through Pípsell and change its construction route.

The plan is against the wishes of Stk’emlúpsemc te Secwépemc Nation (SSN), which detailed the significance of Pípsell and the need to preserve it for future generations during a three-day federal regulatory hearing in “Calgary” last week.

Meanwhile, the Trans Mountain expansion project’s (TMX) legal counsel Sander Duncanson argued that there should be “no prioritizing of Indigenous interests.” He said commissioners should “act in the public interest” and look at “technical and economic feasibility.”

‘Significant physical and geological impediments’

Initially, TMX had agreed to accommodate the requests of the SSN through the use of trenchless construction methods by micro-tunnelling. On Aug. 10, it applied to CER to change that plan and instead excavate an open trench after it hit a hard-rock formation and encountered “significant physical and geological impediments” that resulted in a four-month operational shutdown.

During the CER hearing, which began on Sept. 18, TMX pushed the argument that microtunneling is no longer technically or economically feasible and that the approach is too risky. 

“It’s not necessarily [a] risk to the people, but to the completion of the project,” said Sam Wilson, the director of the Major Trenchless Crossing Program for TMX.

Duncanson told the commission that it’s in the public interest that the project be completed in a “timely and orderly way.”

“Delays and increased construction costs, to the extent they can be reasonably avoided, are not in the public interest,” he said.

SSN, however, has argued that the change in construction methodology could cause “significant and irreparable harm to SSN’s culture and the integrity of the Pípsell,” noting that TMX’s application “seeks to reverse and contravene” SSN’s support for the project.


During the hearings, Jeanette Jules, a knowledge keeper from Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc, presented Secwépemc history, law and knowledge about Pípsell.

She referenced the Secwépemc law in Pípsell known as x7ensq’t, which means that the Earth will turn on you if you don’t look after the land and you don’t show proper protocol.

McKenzie also highlighted this teaching, saying in an interview that Secwépemc laws are more powerful than the Crown is willing to acknowledge, and the “hard rock formation” geology that TMX is encountering is the land turning on them and stopping their project.

“Pipsell is an extremely sacred site to us because it comes from one of our creation stories, and when you destroy anything along there, then you’re destroying a piece of the Secwépemc people,” said Jules.

“When you remove everything from there, you can’t put it back exactly. And it would be detrimental to our people and especially to our future generations.”

She said Secwépemc children need to be taught the songs, the dances and the stseptékwlls (oral stories and teachings), and they can only be taught properly if they’re brought directly to the places where these things come from.

“It doesn’t matter if you’re saying that it will be restored to the area, be reclaimed to the area, or, you know, remediated to the area. All of those cannot replace what would be destroyed,” she said. 

“And for me, that is the biggest concern that I have is the destroying of who we are and … the stories that go along.”

The sacredness of Pípsell comes from Secwépemc stseptékwlls, specifically the Trout Children story, which Jules said informs their relations to the Sky People and “gives us our relationship to every living being.” 

“Right down to the centre of the fire that comes from Mother Earth, to the water, to the wind,” she said. 

“It tells us how we’re related to each and every animal, to each and every fish and other water being that lives in the water, and to the plants, to the grasses, to the trees. It tells us all of that.”

She spoke of how there isn’t a spot, tree or plant in the area that doesn’t have any medicinal purposes and that the site has been used for thousands of years as a place for ceremonies, fasts and vision quests.

“To know the land is to walk the land, and I know the land there because I’ve walked the land,” she said.

“And throughout the whole corridor, there are numerous sites. There are numerous prayer sites, ancestors, and those all need to be looked after. That’s the importance.”

There are altars from those in the past who had conducted such quests at the site, and Jules said there are also sacred trees, hunting blinds and burial mounds located there. The whole area itself, she said, has its own weather system.

When you walk along the land in the Pípsell, Jules said that it is common for sacred places to reveal themselves.

“They’ve been there since time immemorial. And they need to be with us, and they need to be there. They need to be looked after,” she said.

‘The law does not require that the interests of Indigenous peoples prevail’: TMX

SSN’s legal counsel Joelle Walker urged that Secwépemc knowledge “be brought to bear” as the CER commission made their decision on the matter.

“It is critical for SSN to have a voice here that is heard and recognized,” she said. 

“That as much time and care is spent on its evidence, how it views the lands, how it determines what can or should be done to those lands as is spent on borehole diameters.”

However, TMX’s lawyer Duncanson told the CER commission to balance SSN’s interests in this case with those of Trans Mountain and all Canadians.

“The law does not require that the interests of Indigenous peoples prevail,” he said, referencing the Federal Court of Appeal’s decision to dismiss the Coldwater First Nation’s challenge to the approval of TMX.

According to TMX, a best-case scenario for their proposed construction methodology would result in a completion date of January 2024, costing $35.6 million. The worst-case, they said, would be a completion date of February 2024 and cost $40.7 million.

If microtunneling were to continue, TMX said that the best-case scenario would see a completion date of April 2024, costing them $25.7 million. As for the worst-case, TMX envisions a completion date of December 2024 that would cost $85.7 million. The total cost of the TMX project is estimated at $30.9 billion. 

Corey Goulet, the chief project execution officer for TMX, said that if technical risks arise during microtunneling, if continued, it could push the completion date “well into 2025.”

“The evidence in this proceeding demonstrates that Trans Mountain’s proposed deviation represents the best route, methods, and timing of construction and that it is consistent with the overall public interest,” said Duncanson.

SSN has expressed concern with the pipeline’s installation in the Pípsell since 2017, and it wasn’t until October 2019 when the two parties entered a mutual benefits agreement (MBA) surrounding the project. It was determined that a new routing and micro-tunnelling was an acceptable form of trenchless construction in the Pípsell corridor.

Duncanson pointed to an article in the MBA — which is protected in its entirety by a confidentiality rule — that states Trans Mountain must employ best efforts to implement trenchless construction until they determine that the methods are “either not be technically feasible or to be economically infeasible.”

“While the proposed deviation and construction methodology are economically and technically feasible, continuing with microtunnelling is not,” he said.

He said that giving SSN the ability to control the construction methodology for 1.3 kilometres of the project’s route on their land would not advance reconciliation, as potential delays would “diminish the benefits” to other Indigenous communities involved in the project.

“It would effectively amount to a veto for SSN, which is contrary to Canadian law and the interests of many other Indigenous groups across the pipeline route,” said Duncanson.

When cross-examining SSN’s primary geotechnical expert on microtunnelling, Jens Hornbruch, on Sept. 19, Duncanson asked him if he thinks that Trans Mountain should proceed with microtunnelling, no matter the costs and how long that takes – until such time as it fails.

“As an advisor to SSN, I say there’s no reason to —  at this point — to step away from the existing agreement with microtunnelling,” said Hornsbruch.

‘TMX personified is colonialism’

The federal oral hearing concluded on Sept. 20, and the CER announced its decision on Sept. 25. The CER wrote it made the decision to approve TMX’s application after having “thoroughly and carefully considered all written and oral submissions received.”

The CER has not yet given detailed reasons for its decision but said that information will be released “in the coming weeks.”

Secwépemc knowledge-keeper McKenzie pointed out the interconnectedness of residential “schools” and the attempted erasure of Indigenous people to resource extraction projects such as TMX.

“The government and church were making way for resource projects such as this one,” he said.

“TMX personified is colonialism, and colonialism doesn’t ever win here.”

By Aaron Hemens, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Original Published on Sep 26, 2023 at 18:20