When our elders speak, we should listen. And one elder, 71-year-old Terry Christenson, is doing his speaking from a hammock attached to a platform 100 feet in the air at the top of a giant cottonwood tree in Burnaby, British Columbia. He’s hoping at least one person hears what he has to say — Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
The government of Canada has announced that it will rule on the fate of the Trans Mountain Pipeline expansion project by June 18, 2019. But, Christenson is not waiting until then. The so-called “Protesting Grandpa,” has scaled the giant cottonwood tree and is disrupting operations at Westridge Marine Terminal, the western terminus of the pipeline.
On April 29, at approximately 4 a.m., Christenson cut through a portion of the fence that surrounds the marine terminal and climbed a hundred feet up a cottonwood tree and set up a mid-air camp to protest the pipeline project. Twenty-six hours later, on the morning of April 30, he was still hanging up there.
“I’m doing okay, getting through the night wasn’t easy, not being able to move much,” he told Earth Island Journal over the phone. “I was getting chilled a bit.”
Christenson explained that he climbed the tree timber-jack style with a lanyard rope wrapped around the tree that he would flip up higher and higher. He used spurs on his boots to climb. “It’s a very big tree with a large diameter, so I had a special rope,” he explained. “I made my way up in about an hour and a half.”
He chose this particular tree because it is the tallest on the property and has an eagle deterrent at the top, which he says he subsequently removed at the request of local Indigenous people who oppose the pipeline as well. He’s hoping that his tree sit will draw attention to his message regarding the devastating impacts of climate change that will only get worse with the Trans Mountain project and the expansion of the Alberta tar sands.
“I’m up here for my grandchildren,” he said. “They’ll be feeling the impact much more than me at my age, and their children of course.”
The Trans Mountain expansion project would increase the capacity of an existing Kinder Morgan pipeline to allow it to transport 890,000 barrels of crude oil from the Alberta tar sands 610 miles from Strathcona County to an export terminal in Burnaby, on the west coast of British Columbia and on to overseas markets.
Last year, the Canadian government bought the pipeline from American energy infrastructure company Kinder Morgan for $4.5 billion in an attempt to add a level of certainty to the controversial project that would result in a massive expansion of the Alberta tar sands.
Work on the project was suspended in August 2018 after the Canadian Federal Court of Appeal overturned its approval. As a result, the federal government was forced to add an additional environmental review as well as further consultation with Indigenous communities along the pipeline’s route. Currently, the project is awaiting completion of the National Energy Board’s Reconsideration Report and the Phase III consultations with Indigenous communities.
Although Christenson says he’d be surprised if Trans Mountain doesn’t get final approval, his message will remain the same either way.
“What I’m basically saying is, we are still here, still fighting and we need to stop building dirty pipelines,” says Christenson. “We’ve been on the path to clean energy, and you know, we need to keep focusing on diversifying the economy and educating people as to the new paradigm in energy — solar, wind, and geothermal. I’m not saying we shouldn’t have pipelines, but we should not be expanding in the twenty-first century.”
Christenson is an Ontario-based musician (he was once nominated for a Juno Award, Canada’s annual music awards), a climber and a member of the environmental group Greenpeace. In 2013, he protested as part of the Arctic 30 in Russian territory (Prirazlomnaya platform). Last spring, he was arrested following a similar tree sit in Burnaby as part of a week of action organized by the environmental group Protect the Inlet. He has been dubbed the “Protesting Grandpa” because he has two grandchildren, an 11-year-old grandson and a nine-year-old granddaughter.
“Obviously they don’t know the full scope of what I’m fighting against, but you know, they’re proud of me,” he says. “We have a beautiful place up on Georgian Bay (in Ontario). They live in the city, but they love it up there. For them, the natural environment is a big part of their growing up. So on the surface, they understand it and support me, which I’m very happy about.”
Christenson isn’t the only senior citizen risking jail time in defense of Mother Nature. According to an article in the Toronto Star, one-third of the more than 200 people arrested protesting Trans Mountain are over the age of 60.
“When you're older you can remember when times were different,” Christenson said. “When I was 21, 50 years ago, weather was reasonably easy to predict and now it’s a crapshoot. Old people are definitely more aware of that.”
To other seniors who might be inspired to put their own bodies on the line, Christenson gives his resounding approval. “Do it with zest,” he said. “We all, as older people, really care about young people and the future. I think we can set a good example, and maybe that will make the difference.”
(A Gofundme campaign has been set up to help with Christenson’s legal expenses.)