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Colorado-Based Water Protector Faces Trial, Shares Wisdom

Above Photo: Indigenous leaders and their water-protector allies protest the Canadian oil-and-gas-transport company Enbridge, who are expanding the controversial Line 3 pipeline. Michael Nigro/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images.

The fight to stop the Enbridge Line 3 oil pipeline may be over, but the struggle still offers lessons for future water protectors.

“Mom, I can’t stop thinking about it. I’m going there.”

When Mylene Vialard followed her 21-year-old daughter across the US to join the thousands of the resistance by Water Protectors led by Indigenous women at Enbridge’s Line 3 pipeline, her aim was clear: to help make change, not just for the Indigenous people whose treaty rights, lifeways, and bodies have been violated, but for everyone. What she didn’t know was how much the experience would change her.

That was two years ago. Today, up to 760,000 barrels of tar sands oil (bitumen), a particularly resource-intensive and harmful form of crude petroleum, gush from Alberta to Wisconsin through the completed pipeline, and the Boulder-based activist is one of several activists around the US who face felony charges in northern Minnesota’s Aitkin County. Vialard’s trial is the week of August 28.

Asked why she refused to take a plea bargain, Vialard answered with a defiant smile. It’s because on the day she was arrested, she was not in the wrong: “I don’t feel guilty. I feel that Enbridge should feel guilty.” Vialard explained that had she taken a plea deal, the problem would have remained: “I know my charges are pretty high. But it’s admitting guilt.” Instead she focused on “recentering the conversation about the true nature of what’s wrong, the fact that Enbridge has been digging under 200 bodies of water. They have pipelines going under the headwaters of the Mississippi. We know that pipelines leak.” Just as Vialard’s daughter played a role in the decision to join the fight, she is also part of her mother’s inspiration for standing trial: “We all need to stand up against this. Because I have a child, you know? I want her future to be better than this. That’s simple.”

In fact, Enbridge’s pipelines have leaked many times. The Line 3 oil spill in 1991 at Grand Rapids, Minnesota, remains the largest inland oil spill in US history. What’s more, the deforestation and greenhouse gas emissions associated with Line 3 — and the other numerous projects like it — are centrally implicated in intensifying climate change. Then there’s the impact of industrial encroachment on Indigenous communities — particularly women, who experience violence at twice the rate of other American women, in most cases at the hands of non-Indigenous men.

Although Water Protectors have many reasons to grieve the completion of Line 3, they also celebrate the movement’s success, calculated in hours and days the construction was delayed, the bright light shed on the corporate and government  oil infrastructure, skills gained, and relationships built. Resistance took many unforgettable forms, from legal support, donations, puppetry, student die-ins, and international protests, to expertly coordinated direct action such as protesters locking themselves to construction equipment. Spending weeks, months, even years camping and surviving collectively in Minnesota’s bitter cold winters and sweltering summers is an achievement in itself.

When it comes to lessons learned during her several weeks at Line 3, Vialard (aka Ocean), a seasoned activist who focused on Indigenous studies as a master’s student in France, could write a book. “I’ve been working in racial justice for many years. I’ve been learning and learning and learning, but then experiencing it is yet one more level of learning.”  Vialard’s years of community organizing include her work as a core member of Boulder SURJ (B-SURJ, Showing Up for Racial Justice), particularly in recent years since the murder of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis. This fall Vialard’s work on B-SURJ’s upcoming racial justice film series will enrich the Boulder community, though she may be incarcerated at that time. However, living in a community with Water Protectors of all ages, from all over, most of whom did not share her white, cisgender, and middle-class privilege, taught Vialard new levels of meaning for the frequently used term “solidarity.” For her, solidarity means “love and care. I learned that the model that we have of how to be in the world is not necessarily the best model. I knew that, but I didn’t know the alternative, necessarily. Any action starts with solidarity, and care, and trust, and love… when you build trust, when you come with trust, when you come with the idea that we are all in this together, there’s a lot more joy, for one, and there’s a lot more integrity to everything you do.”

Solidarity among Water Protectors at Line 3 involved much more than emotions. Vialard saw strangers providing for one another on a fundamental material level. “If someone needs something and asks for it, there’s always someone coming up with it and bringing it and just figuring out a way to support that person.” Vialard added, “safety is key.” Beyond establishing networks of material mutual aid, solidarity among Water Protectors was based on a shared experience of embodied risk: “We’re there in solidarity with Indigenous people who are fighting the fight, who had been fighting the fight for centuries. We are there in solidarity with them, we are putting our bodies on the line in solidarity with them. And Indigenous people talk about being one with the earth, one with the elements, and one with every other human on this planet. That guides the actions that we take.”

Vialard learned that solidarity is also about sharing knowledge and experience while connecting across differences: “What was amazing is that people were from very young to very old and everything in between, and everybody was learning from each other. So I think that was really beautiful, like how much I learned from 20-year-olds, and how much I learned about from grandmas who were in their 80s and willing to sit for a whole day to protest and to support the fight. And stories. Stories were amazing, just conversations around the fire, just people from all walks of life.I got to meet really amazing people. It was very powerful in terms of human experience.”

Vialard’s exploration of solidarity was also excruciatingly difficult at times. When asked to describe a hard lesson that she wouldn’t mind discussing publicly, Vialard wrinkled her brow and laughed “Do I want to talk about this? It’s interesting because for me, it was one of the hardest places I’ve been in. Definitely, being a white body in a mostly Indigenous and Black and Brown, Two Spirit, trans environment—being a white, older, cisgender woman—was really interesting to me. And really hard, too, because I noticed what my body represents to certain people, and the harm that the way I look brings, the traumas that it might bring to people. So being aware of that and not being able to do very much about it, except keep showing up, with awareness.”

On one occasion, Vialard was called out, anonymously yet publicly, “for something that some people think was totally banal. But intent and impact really hit home, you know? That was the hardest part. I had people in the group I was with who were like, ‘Yeah, you did a shitty thing, and I’m gonna walk with you through it.’ That role-modeling from a 20-year-old, for example, was just the most amazing. I can’t learn this in a book!” Beaming, Vialard expresses gratitude for all she experienced while resisting Line 3. “The couple of days I spent in jail, the human pain that I was privileged to witness, and to share, and to hold, really shifted the way I look at the carceral system, the way I see punishment in this country.”

For Vialard, it’s imperative to build further action on the basis of these experiences. “Climate change is happening, and nobody’s doing anything. We have Indigenous people who are warning us, who are saying, ‘No, we’ve been taking care of this planet for centuries—forever. And we’re telling you, this is wrong.’ And we’re not listening, for profit. But at the end of the day, regardless of who you are, you’re going to be suffering from climate change.” Likewise, Maryellen Novak (aka Beena), another frontline activist who fought at Line 3, argued that “the events related to Line 3 were impactful methods for activists to communicate the terrifying ramifications that people—of every age, from all walks of life, located everywhere—experience when greenhouse gas emissions are released into our atmosphere. The injustice is when the powerful don’t listen because they live only for their lifeless profits, not people. We choose to fight for the living, for love.”

As with so many issues in our time, Vialard’s takeaways from fighting oil extraction are introductions rather than conclusions, because oil is related to every other industry, and climate is related to race, gender, class, age, disability, and more.She elaborated, “The conversation is not over. It’s happening all over the US … places like the Mountain Valley Pipeline in Virginia. It’s also Thacker Pass in Nevada. It’s also the Willow Project in Alaska. The Defend the Forest movement. It’s all linked. I’m thinking about what happened in East Palestine, right? Here in Colorado, there’s the Uinta Basin Railway that comes from Utah. And that would bring five two-mile-long trains through Denver, through Glenwood Springs. And if the derailment happens with waxy oil that’s being heated, it’s going to be a disaster, no matter where it happens.”

In Vialard’s home of Boulder County, site of the deadly Marshall Fire, residents know well how climate change can impact anyone at any time. Yet it’s difficult to argue that enough changes are being made to mitigate the ongoing danger of wildfire. Vialard emphasizes that everyone should start to take a stand when they can: “People are not aware about their power. You don’t have to get arrested. You don’t have to do something extreme. Just have the conversation, do the learning, call your representative, send a letter. Just be aware. Just hold a sign when it’s needed. Follow your heart. You know inside what needs to happen. Educate your child about it.f you talk about it at home, that’s a form of activism. It’s a form of changing the balance.”

Greg Mangan (aka Mango), another Line 3 Water Protector, pointed out how difficult it can be, and crucial it is, to start making change: “Each of us, every day, is struggling to decide how we want to show up in this world. We are all so distracted and busy. But, I think it’s important to remember that our future selves will be very critical when we judge the choices we made today.” As Vialard described, there is no shortage of opportunities: “It’s just about standing up to something that you know is wrong. Finding your voice and feeling the power of that. I think there’s a lot of power in that. And when you stand up, there’s a whole spectrum of different actions that you can do.”

Mylene Vialard is putting her body on the line once again, this time by possibly serving a prison sentence. For her, it’s on a continuum with all of her other activism: “Not taking the plea deal and going to trial is using my voice to point out where the problems are, what the issues are. And, you know, I don’t have that big of a voice, but it’s what I can do right now. The outcome of the trial is secondary to me. If we can raise the awareness and can plant seeds, it’s a victory for me.”

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