Rivers, Fish and Oil:

Soundscapes and the Lapping Tides of Carbon Colonialism

Caitlin Chaisson

Woman Packing Cans
Property of Gulf of Georgia Cannery Society
Accession number 

Empty salmon tins clink together. They clump in mass around a pole like barnacles to a dock, held together by the curled cords of a landline telephone. By pulling a can towards your ear, you can hear the sounds of wind, radio, birds, and the engine of an offshore fishing vessel. This artwork, Sound Post (2014), is an interactive sculpture that makes up part of the Trading Routes exhibition Rivers, Fish and Oil at the Gulf of Georgia Cannery in Steveston. The exhibition confronts resource extraction in British Columbia by looking at oil through fish, and contextualizes the current debate on energy in the province by framing it within an understanding of Canada’s morphing colonial practice. The artworks share the space with a complicated history of venture and industry, using sounds and oral practices as a way to get the viewer listening.

At the mouth of the Fraser River, the Cannery (built in 1894), earned its nickname “Monster Cannery” shortly after opening, as it rolled millions of cans off daily production lines during the heyday of fishing in the early twentieth century. By the 1970s, dwindling fish stocks, aging machinery and changing trends in industry technology forced the Cannery to close its doors. The vacant building is a testament to the ways in which obsolescence rapidly destabilizes industry, and the remnants of the building’s infrastructure were deemed a liability. With the help of petitioning from community members, the building was saved from demolition and it is now a federally-owned Parks Canada National Historic Site.

Herring Canning Line c. 1940
Property of Gulf of Georgia Cannery Society
Accession number 

The Cannery is a preserved relic of what was a once thriving industry. Historical integrity is acquired at the expense of thousands of jobs and the stability of a fragile aquatic ecosystem. The factory lines for salmon canning and herring reduction direct the viewer through the displays. Moving along the production, props of synthetic glazed fish are used to demonstrate each stage of the process until at last the lid is sealed on a can of silvery pink plastic. Guided by the metamorphosis of the fish (flipping what was once inside, outside), the strategies of the Cannery are exposed and expository at the same time. Expository in the sense that most historical museums are mandated to explain and preserve their contents. Exposed in the sense that the architectural structure of the Cannery is permeable to fluctuations in the environment, but more compellingly in the sense that it is transparent about its accountability to the issues of over-fishing, pollution and fishing rights. Backed by the courtesies of hindsight, the Cannery is a compelling advocate for sustainable practices.  

The Gulf of Georgia Cannery, exterior
Photographer unknown

Built over open water, the Cannery itself is little more than exposed planks and a roof. You can see from one end of the building to the other, partitioned only by conveyor belts and a few mobile walls. In the middle, between the displays of “Contemporary Fishing Issues” and production machinery, sits the Trading Routes exhibition. The artwork occupies the museum as if it were a peculiar doppelgänger. The gold cans that line the museum walls and production lines are echoed in sculptural pieces like Sound Post, and the synthetic mesh netting of the seiners is mirrored in the copper weaving of pieces like Net Worth (2014). Materials draw connections between the artwork and the historical displays, but while the museum items identify as catalogued curios from a time gone past, the Trading Routes exhibition complicates that reading. To the museum’s focus on rivers and fish, Trading Routes’ addendum is oil. Trading Routes: Grease Trails, Oil Futures is a multi-disciplinary project led by artist Ruth Beer. Trading Routes seeks to contribute to the discourse on Canada’s relationship to energy by addressing the overlapping terrain between First Nations fish grease trails and the ever-expanding network of oil pipelines in the province of British Columbia. The project, which spans art-making, public engagement, talks and publications is collaborative in nature. Much of the research involves travelling to affected communities, corresponding with academics and activists, and hosting speaker and lecture series. Working within the space of the Gulf of Georgia Cannery’s permanent exhibition, Rivers, Fish and Oil positions recent and highly contested industrial resource extraction and mobilization (oil pipelines) against a backdrop of the near-demise of another resource industry (commercial fishing as manifest in food processing), drawing attention to the alarming precarity of these monsters.

Sound Post (2014), Ruth Beer
Salmon cans, sound, polyurethane post
Detail and installation view
Photo courtesy of the artist

Through sculpture, weaving, video and new media, Trading Routes materially investigates what is at stake in regards to British Columbia’s position on resource extraction. Through poetic metaphors of oil and grease, the project highlights the inability to separate the debate of the pipeline from issues of First Nations’ sovereignty. Around half of the 50 First Nations between Alberta and British Columbia that would be affected along the 730 mile pipeline route have not yet offered their support, while others such as the Tl’azt’en, Gitxaala, Nak’azdli, and Nadleh Whut’en have resolutely “pledged to block the Enbridge pipeline” [1]. As a title, Trading Routes draws attention to Canada’s history of trading enterprises with Indigenous peoples, whilst also raising the question of what it means to “trade” oolichan oil for chemically-diluted oil. This, of course, is not the first instance of industry overlapping with oolichan trails. The trading of oolichan traces back thousands of years, and the travel from the coastal corridor to the interior follows many sophisticated routes. As one of the museum panels articulates, “some of the [oolichan] trails are the basis of today’s rail and highway networks.” But the liability of the pipeline, and the dangers it poses to waterways that are critically essential to some Indigenous groups, is unique to the fossil fuel industry.

In Kitimat, the coastal terminus of the proposed Enbridge pipeline, the oolichan are part of the founding story of the Haisla First Nation. Culturally significant, the fish was also a staple of the Haisla’s diet. Today, the stocks of oolichan are nowhere near a stable population. The informative panels in the Gulf of Georgia Cannery refer to oolichan as the “canary in the coalmine,” suggesting that the loss of this species of fish is indicative of significant future problems in the water. The loss of oolichan populations predominantly stem from industry in the area. In the 1950s the aluminum smelting plant, Alcan, was developed in Kitimat. The effect it has had on oolichan who swim from the ocean to the rivers to spawn is such that “the Fraser, Kitimat, Kemano and Kitlope rivers have had virtually no returns since 2000” [2]. In Haisla author Eden Robinson’s book, Monkey Beach, “she equates the degradation of the Haisla’s landbase—the 405,578 hectare watershed complex that comprises the ancestral territory of the Haisla and Henaksiala—with these more obvious forms of colonial violence [the destruction of the oolichan], inditing the Canadian government and industry for the despoilment of the Greater Kitlope Area” [3]. For many Indigenous peoples, considerations of the land and ecological systems are not separate from the concerns of people; the degradation of the land is the degradation of the people. Active participation in the decolonization project cannot, then, be completed without an address to the land.

Net Worth (2014), Ruth Beer and Soledad Muñoz
Detail of copper weaving
Photo courtesy of the artist

The metaphoric and literal aspects of the antagonistic relationship between oil and water is not lost in the Gulf of Georgia Cannery exhibition. The messiness of trying to separate oil from the discourse of opportunity is equally problematic. Arranged on the floor of the exhibition space sit three glistening black sculptures. Geologic (2014) fuses the formation of a rock with the sheen of oil. Gold flecks are scattered over the surface of the sculpture, causing it to shimmer in the space. The triangulation of economic justice, land claims, and environmental concerns are woven together in a net of colonialist issues. Acknowledging the relationship between Empire and ecology is one that has not always been attended to in Western literature and academia, though Aboriginal storytellers like Eden Robinson, and Aboriginal activists like Winona LaDuke, have been acutely aware of it for some time. In the anthology Postcolonial Ecologies, the editors note “an ecological frame is vital to understanding how geography has been and still is radically altered by colonialism, including resource use, stewardship, and sovereignty-issues that have been crucial to independence movements” [4]. Domination of the land, nature, and ecosystems have been strategic of colonialist enterprises throughout time. In light of this, there is a growing concern that “to deny colonial and environmental histories as mutually constitutive misses the central role the exploitation of natural resources plays in any imperial project” [5]. So, what does the exploitation of resources today tell us about the state of land rights in British Columbia? How is resource exploitation changing? How is the debate on fossil fuels altered by shifting political climates and economic flux? And how does oil participate in morphing colonialist policies?  

Rivers, Fish and Oil
Installation view
Photo courtesy of Ruth Beer

While rivers and streams flow naturally in-line with the force of gravity, “fossil fuels require pressure to be forced down a pipeline, while political and financial forces determine the route along which it is transported” [6]. The financial forces that are shaping resource development in Canada are indicative of neocolonial forms of globalization. And while capitalism in the general sense drives this process, some social justice groups such as Platform (London-based), have more narrowly defined the process as “carbon colonialism”. Indisputably, “our modern civilization was created and is maintained by large, incessant flows of fossil energies” [7]. Veiled in the rhetoric of “energy security,” oil extraction today plays an enormous role in the constitution of nationality and often acts as leverage for the justification of mass displacement [8]. The opacity of this rhetoric is paralleled by the lack of transparency in the pipeline development process. Complaints lodged by affected communities in British Columbia and Alberta regarding a lack of comprehensive emergency response plans and environmental impact reports are indicative of the shifting power dynamics at play in resource development in Canada. Terre Satterfield, Leslie Robertson, Nancy Turner, and Anton Pitts’ critical evaluation of the seriously flawed cultural impact research conducted by Enbridge Northern Gateway officials was published in the article, “Being Gitka’a’ata: A Baseline Report on Gitka’a’ata Way of Life, a Statement of Cultural Impacts Posed by the Northern Gateway Pipeline, and a Critique of the ENGP Assessment Regarding Cultural Impacts”. Even after 180 days of public hearings [9], Enbridge was unable to produce a well-researched assessment of the cultural ramifications of the proposal. Overall, Satterfield’s critique of the Enbridge report concludes the pipeline would, “result in significant adverse individual harms and potentially irreparable cumulative harm to Gitga’at culture” [10]. In the critique, ENGP’s cultural impact report was deemed inadequate as the corporation’s shallow definition of culture included only two categories: “language retention” and “participation in hunting/fishing/gathering”. In their report, Enbridge makes note of the fact that Aboriginal Traditional Knowledge (ATK) and consumption of country foods also make up these cultural metrics, but because they could not find measurable data for this, they simply excluded these categories from the impact assessment [11]. This is in spite of the fact that “the Tsimshian (including the Gitga’at) cultural world has been well researched and documented for more than a century” [12]. The critique of ENGP’s cultural impact assessment in “Being Gitka’a’ata” is a dense 128 pages of cultural “data” Enbridge emphatically chose to ignore. Here, the scope of laissez-faire is presented in an expanded sense; laziness. To the extent that “Nations become what they produce” [13], to whom, or perhaps more appropriately, to what, will Canada remain accountable to? How is autonomy and self-determination made possible in the context of carbon colonialism?

Rivers, Fish and Oil
Installation view
Photo courtesy of Ruth Beer

The Gulf of Georgia Cannery is an eerily quiet host for the complicated and nuanced reflection on oil extraction in Rivers, Fish and Oil. The stationary production lines speak to how major changes in industry can happen in the brief span of 70 years. Trading Routes’ artwork refers predominantly to fishing, to oolichan, to salmon. Inseparable from marine qualities of the artwork is the way refined material substances (from copper to aluminum) and their varying cultural associations affect these ecosystems. While the artwork in the exhibition is diverse and based in a practice of multimedia, sound unites the exhibition thematically. Alongside the maritime soundscape of Sound Post, the interviews and conversations in the video Northern Voices (2014-2015) become a quasi-narration of the space. Artists, activists and teachers present their perspectives on the changing landscape. Their voices make palpable the diversity of the concerns and motivations behind the pipeline, the myriad types of actions that have been taken in response to the proposals, and the multivalent nature of knowledge. Context and consequence are woven together through narrative. It seems the foundation of the Trading Routes research and creation project is a respect for holistic and inclusive strategies of meaning-making. Sound, dialogue and oral practices are the material basis of much of Trading Routes’ work, but to the extent that it is a catalyst for listening. Ecosystems, much like sound, are sensitive and responsive to their surroundings. Who is being addressed, who is speaking, and who is excluded, is just as important as what is said.

Rivers, Fish and Oil reminds us that future possibilities of oil need not be future possibilities for oil. Greasy trails have not always been forged through devastating ecological practices. Oil has not always been an agent that human subjects have been placed in the service of. To begin to envision the future, “dismantling energy colonialism and replacing it with energy solidarity means doing more than building new energy models grounded in justice, democracy and sustainability” [14]. Simply adding justice or sustainability as if it were a bonus feature to re-modelled energy frameworks is not enough; this leaves the status quo of capitalism, nationalism and colonialism in-tact. We should be reconsidering the future possibilities of energy, and looking to different paradigms of ecological existence. This “more,” in Canada specifically, is more attention to Indigenous rights and Indigenous knowledge. This “more” is the incorporation of more speakers. The floorboards of the Gulf of Georgia Cannery groan, and perhaps we should listen to the creaks.



[1] MacDonald, Alistair and Paul Vieira. “Canada’s Own Pipeline Problem.” The Wall Street Journal, April 19 2015. http://www.wsj.com/articles/canadas-own-oil-pipeline-problem-1429479110.

[2] Soper-Jones, Ella. “The Fate of the Oolichan: Prospects of the Eco-Cultural Restoration in Eden Robinson’s Monkey Beach.Journal of Commonwealth Literature, accessed via SAGE Publications, 2009, 27.

[3] Ibid., 24.

[4] DeLoughrey, Elizabeth, and George B. Handley. “Introduction.” Postcolonial Ecologies: Literatures of the Environment. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011, 24.

[5] Ibid., 10.

[6] Platform. “Energy Beyond Neoliberalism,” accessed 2015, 10. https://www.lwbooks.co.uk/journals/soundings/pdfs/Manifesto_energy_beyond_neoliberalism.pdf.

[7] Smil, Vaclcav. “Two Sides of a Barrel.” Beneath a Petroliferous Moon. Ed. Jen Budney. Saskatoon: Mendel Art Gallery, 2013, 15.

[8] Platform. “Energy Beyond Neoliberalism,” accessed 2015, 17. https://www.lwbooks.co.uk/journals/soundings/pdfs/Manifesto_energy_beyond_neoliberalism.pdf.

[9] “Enbridge Northern Gateway Joint Review Panel.” National Energy Board, Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency, accessed May 2015. http://gatewaypanel.review-examen.gc.ca/clf-nsi/dcmnt/rcmndtnsrprt/rcmndtnsrprtvlm1-eng.html#s22.

[10] Satterfield, Terre, Leslie Robertson, Nancy Turner and Anton Pits. “Being Gitka’a’ata: A Baseline Report on Gitka’a’ata Way of Life, a Statement of Cultural Impacts Posed by the Northern Gateway Pipeline, and a Critique of the ENGP Assessment Regarding Cultural Impacts,” 2015, 4. https://docs.neb-one.gc.ca/ll-eng/llisapi.dll/fetch/2000/90464/90552/384192/620327/624910/697575/777619/D71-7-7_-_Gitga_at_First_Nation_-_Gitga_at_ENGP_Cultural_Impacts_Report_FINAL_-_A2K4X3.pdf?nodeid=777707&vernum=-2.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Nikiforuk, Andrew. Tar Sands: Dirty Oil and the Future of a Continent. Vancouver: Greystone Books Ltd., 2010, 1.

[14] Platform, 18.

Caitlin Chaisson is a writer and visual artist based in Vancouver, BC. Her exhibition reviews have been regularly featured in Decoy Magazine (Vancouver), her prose poetry has been published in the anthology Modern Mind (University of Brighton 2012), and she was one of eight writers to participate in Mariano Pensotti’s piece Sometimes I think I can see you at the PuSH International Performing Arts Festival (Vancouver 2013). She is currently pursuing a Master of Applied Arts degree at Emily Carr University of Art and Design.