Finding common ground on opposite sides of the Trans Mountain pipeline controversy

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Finding pipeline peace
WATCH: Global News Calgary's Dallas Flexhaug on how two people on opposite sides of the pipeline debate found common ground through dialogue – Oct 1, 2018

Julia McElgunn and Dr. Shannon Waters couldn’t be further apart when it comes to where they stand on the Trans Mountain pipeline project.

READ MORE: When will the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion get built? It’s hard to tell

McElgunn, who lives in Calgary and has worked in the oil and gas industry for 20 years, is pro-pipeline. Waters, a Vancouver Island physician who is Coast Salish and a member of the Stz’uminus First Nation, is anti-pipeline. Their stances are unwavering, but remarkably, the two have become friends.

McElgunn said there is so much uncertainty in her industry right now with no clear line of sight forward — and she’s frustrated.

“I think we have been living in a bubble for too long and it’s been good for too long,” she said. “There hasn’t been a need to really be active in the communities, and in the country, and even globally, to talk about what our Canadian product can actually bring to the globe. So, we are now at a crucial point in history where we can’t get our product out. We are very landlocked.”

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Geologist Julia McElgunn supports the oil and gas industry in Calgary.

McElgunn said the past two years have marked a turning point.

“We are no longer a quiet industry that is sort of humming along,” she said.

“There’s a lot at stake right now that is going to either make or break the industry over the next few years, I think.”

She believes there are a lot of misconceptions about the reach of the industry.

“A lot of people have the misconception that if I don’t drive, I don’t use oil and gas, but it is part of our everyday lives. It is part of our medical industry, it’s part of our sunscreen and our sunglasses and our sports gear that we wear. It’s part of the clothing that you send your kids to school in, it’s part of the school supplies. It is in plastics, it is in cosmetics. It is in absolutely everything.”

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READ MORE: Notley says Alberta will ‘hold Ottawa’s feet to the fire’ on Trans Mountain timeline

On the west coast, Dr. Shannon Waters is against the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion.

Waters, who lives on Vancouver Island, said we have come to an unprecedented time.

“We are having drastic changes going on around us: to our homes, to our lands, to the air we breathe and the water we drink,” she said. “It is now more important than ever to see we are interconnected to the environment and to each other. So, we are really going to need to pull on things such as strength, hope and resilience in the times ahead.”

Dr. Shannon Waters at Cowichan Bay on Vancouver Island.

Waters, who works as a public health physician said she draws on her Coast Salish and Stz’uminus First Nation background in her work.

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“There’s an interconnectedness in all things, and how we care for the environment directly affects what the state of the environment is and directly affects our health.”

“We can have short-term economic gains when we do certain types of activities, but if you are thinking in the long term–and when I sit here [looking out to the ocean at Cowichan Bay]–I think of my ancestors who have been living in this territory for generations… What are my children and my children’s children going to see when they sit in this place? Are they going to be able to see the sea lions playing in the water or the salmon going up the river? It is all connected and we really have got to think about the longer term upstream determinants for the environment, which ultimately affects our health.”

It has been a tough road for the Trans Mountain pipeline project and Canadians are getting frustrated on both sides of the debate.

Watch below: Global’s ongoing coverage of the Trans Mountain pipeline project

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Politicians have been fighting, the courts are involved, anti-pipeline camps have been set up and torn down, Greenpeace blocked tanker traffic by rappelling on a Vancouver bridge in protest, and the somewhat silent oil-and-gas industry is now getting louder by hitting the streets in support of the pipeline.

But just when it seems hope for finding a middle ground is lost, McElgunn and Waters share their story. The two, by chance, signed up for the same online speaking course (SPEAK! Canada). Over the course of several weeks, they were somewhat forced into hearing each other out. They got to know each other, and became friends.

WATCH: Ottawa announces it won’t appeal Trans Mountain court decision, will re-do Indigenous consultations (Oct. 3)

Click to play video: 'Ottawa announces it won’t appeal Trans Mountain court decision, will re-do Indigenous consultations'
Ottawa announces it won’t appeal Trans Mountain court decision, will re-do Indigenous consultations

Now they are an unlikely pair with a bigger message to share.

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“I really got the chance to know her as a fellow human being, a fellow woman, and appreciate our similarities and find ways to just be in space with our differences,” Waters said.

McElgunn added both have a desire to create a better environment.

“Not just from a natural environment, but from a working environment, a community environment, a metro environment for all of Canada’s citizens,” she said.

Both have been watching the pipeline debate unfold and say the only path forward is together.

“I think through dialogue, through people we have differing views with–sometimes we can find our commonalities, form a relationship and maybe we might find some solutions that haven’t been thought of yet,” Waters said.

“In the end, we are one nation and we need to be able to come together and probably the best way we can come together is to sort of lay down our defences and show some vulnerability and be able to actively listen,” McElgunn said.

What that looks like on a national scale in a high-stakes, highly emotional battle over a multibillion-dollar pipeline project? No one knows… yet.

“We are going to need to draw on the innovativeness, the kindness, the ideas of everyone,” Waters said. “We are in this together.”


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