Putting People First, Not Pipelines

Bob Smoker - Robert Can Waarden

What if pipeline politics were about the people affected expressing a diverse set of opinions? 

    It’s a question the widely published photographer Robert van Waarden is trying to answer with his Along the Pipeline - Energy East Photography Project and gallery. 

    What’s at issue in his series is a proposed pipeline that would traverse most of Canada, stretching 4,600 kilometres (2,858 miles). The major energy company, TransCanada, is attempting to get the government go ahead for their Energy East Pipeline Project, a project aiming to ship 1.1 million barrels of crude oil per day through Canada’s wilderness and waterways. 

    Waarden travelled along the submitted route from Hardisty, Alberta to Saint John, New Brunswick meeting people of different nationalities, who speak different languages and have distinct backgrounds. 

    “You get a whole variety of answers. Those run from strong supporters of the pipeline to people who would put their life on the line to stop the pipeline,” Waarden said. “Then there’s people in the middle who aren’t really sure yet, they’re still making up their minds because it’s not a black-and-white issue.”

    The Energy East Photography Project is mostly made up of 4x5-inch portraits accompanied by the subjects’ views on TransCanada’s attempted underground oil route.

    Waarden said it was important to showcase opinions on all sides of the debate in his collection and by reading the collected quotes it’s clear he’s trying to tell a complete story. 

    “People react to people. People react to personal stories and if we want to get people to care about something I believe that’s the angle we have to go,” he said. “I could walk into a bookstore right now and pick up a book on Canadian landscapes, I could pick up 20 or 50 of them...but there’s a disconnect between looking at those images and then doing something about it.” Waarden said. “I think that disconnect can be taught by showing more personal stories.”     

    Waarden made an effort to remove his own views from the project to give those directly effected by the possible construction a voice.   

    “It’s about telling the opinions of the First Nations and the Canadians that live along the route,” Waarden said. 

    He frames the different arguments as ones echoed in development projects across the world.

    “I was sitting with the Chief of Shoal Lake 39, which is up in northwestern Ontario, and the pipeline would run just north of their reservation and directly through their traditional territory,” Waarden said. “She was talking about trying to make decisions based on how it would affect their children and their great, great grandchildren.”

    After his endeavour, Waarden sees the Energy East Pipeline Project as part of a broader discourse involving the future path we chose.

    “What I was working on was not just about a pipeline, it’s not just about one energy project that could potentially be built across Canada,” Waarden said. “It’s really about what kind of a world Canadians and First Nations want to build.”

The Energy East Photography Project is on display at the Exposing Energy East Exhibit at The Richmond 477 Richmond Street, Toronto, from October 31 to November 5, 2014. 

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