Support journalism that lights the way through the climate crisis

Goal: $100k

When I first heard of the treesit, I imagined something easily accessible and low to the ground. How wrong I was.

On the night I began treesitting, I followed Amanda Hehner’s finger as she pointed up towards the canopy. In the moonlight, I saw a silhouetted structure wedged between three maple trees. Crates and mirrors hung from its underbelly. Timothée Govare later explained these were meant to slow anyone trying to dismantle the treesit.

After a moment of silence, Amanda looked up towards the tree and let out a cry: “YEE-OOO!”

Somewhere from the top of the treesit a rope unravelled and bounced, dangling about five feet short of the ground. Amanda walked over and tugged on it. “It used to be longer. Security cut it.”

She pulled carabiners from her bag and tossed me a climbing harness.

“You’ve climbed before, right?” she asked.

I thought back to the rock-climbing birthday parties I’d attended when I was eight. I had no idea what I was doing. But it was the middle of the night, my family had no idea where I was, and right in front of me was the apex of environmental resistance. I wasn’t turning back now.

Dr. Tim Takaro started the Trans Mountain protest treesit, which continued for about a year. Photo by Ian Harland

Tim Takaro and treesitting history

The treesit began with Dr. Tim Takaro, a professor of health sciences at Simon Fraser University. He received his bachelor’s degree from Yale, has 91 peer-reviewed publications, and at the time of writing this, is serving a month-long sentence for blocking the TMX pipeline expansion.

When I first heard of the treesit, I imagined something easily accessible and low to the ground. How wrong I was. 

“[The treesit] was a result of getting to the end of my rope on all of the government-sponsored processes around the pipeline review,” he explains. “That started in 2014. We put out a report. It was about the public health effects of the pipeline, and we were told in no uncertain terms that we could not discuss the health effects of the pipeline related to climate change. Right off the bat, the process of review was rigged.”

In August 2018, when the Federal Court of Appeal reversed the pipeline's approval pending a better environmental review and consultation with First Nations people, Takaro and his team released another report describing the dangers to marine life and potential oil spill hazards. The National Energy Board once again refused to allow the researchers to discuss climate change in their findings.

Frustrated, Takaro chose civil resistance. On Aug. 3, 2020, he climbed a tree in Burnaby, B.C., on the route of the TMX pipeline.

A group of community volunteers quickly assembled around him, providing Takaro with food and security. They called themselves Protect the Planet, Stop TMX.

Building Eagle

At the very beginning, Takaro was camping out in the trees on a tiny portaledge. It didn’t take long for Timothée to read about the occupation in a newspaper and reach out. He offered to build Takaro a bigger, better treesit that would be much more comfortable to stay in.

Takaro recalls, “I didn’t think it was possible, then Timothée quickly convinced me that it was. Two months later, it was done.”

Once completed, the treehouse was dubbed “Eagle.” It was a masterpiece. Four walls, a big roof and six windows made out of tempered recycled shower doors. It had a bed, a heater, a latch door and a sawdust toilet, held up by 11 cross-beams.

On Dec. 9, 2020 — the day Eagle was ready for full-time occupation — disaster struck. Massive blue fences had been erected around the treehouse by TMX. Timothée tried to sneak in, grab a hidden cache of climbing gear and scale the tree, but he was arrested mid-attempt. Once the activists were cleared, arbourists were hired to climb up and take apart the treehouse.

“It was so funny,” Amanda recalled. “The treehouse was way too high and way too sketchy. They couldn’t get up.”

Eventually, TMX built scaffolding to surround the treehouse and Eagle was pulled apart.

The next treehouse was called Hummingbird. It was built quickly and modestly by comparison. Timothée and Amanda did the majority of the work, hauling wood and supplies onto the site in the middle of the night during pouring rain. Amanda later described the rapid construction period as “the craziest night of her life.”

Hummingbird consisted of a large deck covered by a wooden roof and tarp. Inside was a small tent for shelter, a storage area filled with food bins, a camping stove and a pillow with a grizzly bear on it that came with a warning. “The woman who brought it has COVID, so don’t touch it.” Below the main platform was a large net. The net was the first thing put in place by Timothée to aid with later construction.

The first night I ascended the tree, Amanda and Timothée were waiting for me at the top. They showed me how to detach from the climbing rope and clip myself into safety lines strung around the treesit.

Then Timothée tossed down a couple sleeping bags and the three of us sat together in the net listening to the woosh of the Trans-Canada highway and relishing the feeling of being so high up. I didn’t feel scared, I felt held. I was at the forefront of change, surrounded by people who cared as deeply as I did.

“My dad told me to be careful about getting arrested. That it can damage job prospects.” Timothée said.

“I don’t want a job, I want to be here doing this. I want to be doing something meaningful.”

I was hooked. The only thing I wanted to know was when I would be coming up next.

First night

Amanda and Timothée urged me to start slowly, staying in the tree one night at a time. Timothée told me about former newbies who got dehydrated or anxious after staying in the tree too long and needed to be swapped out on short notice. In order for the treesit to run smoothly, it was better if everyone could hold their own.

I was eager to begin, but still a bit nervous about logistics. Luckily, I wasn’t alone. Amanda escorted me on my first few journeys. She showed me where to park my car to avoid security, what trees to hide behind while I put on my harness, how to use an ascender and how to climb high enough so security couldn’t catch me.

Timothée taught me the basics of living in the tree. I remember on my first night he showed me how to boil water on a gas stove — a skill I hadn’t used since outdoor school. I recoiled as flames shot up from the little burner, licking the edges of the tarp.

“Do we have a fire extinguisher up here?”

“No,” said Timothée, methodically turning down the burner. “But we should get one.” (We did.)

That night, once Timothée left me alone in the tree, I pulled on three pairs of socks and crawled inside three bags, each cocooned inside the other. I carefully unclipped one of my slacklines and threaded it through an unzipped section of my sleeping bag, and then the other. I fell asleep to the sound of the hollow hiss of the highway and the feeling of the tree shaking in sync with the rattle of the railway.

Life in the treehouse

Within a few weeks of getting involved, I got into the habit of never fully unpacking. I kept a camping bag with a Therm-a-Rest and two sleeping bags tucked away in a closet, ready to book it to Burnaby at a moment’s notice. A roster of treesitters was taking turns spending 24 to 72 hours in the tree, balancing activism with work and other commitments.

During the day, I would read, write or make TikTok videos. Since I spent most of the day stationary, I’d forget to eat. Heating up food, water and washing dishes became a necessary routine. So did going to the bathroom. Urine could be collected in an empty container and dumped off the side of the treehouse. I improvised a toilet with doggy bags and a yogurt container. Everyone packed out their own waste when they left the tree. About twice a day, a volunteer would make their way through the woods with a bag of food and supplies for me to hoist up. Security allowed them to pass by. Around 5 p.m., security left and I could relax.

In the summer, Timothée built a wooden deck we could lie on. I spent many happy hours listening to the gentle flow of the Brunette River and watching sunlight mingle with maple leaves. Before I got involved, I thought spending time on a planned pipeline site would fill me with dread. Funnily enough, the opposite occurred. I found my climate anxiety diminished when I was at the forefront of the fight for justice.

When darkness fell and it was time for someone else to take over, I’d ready my bags and wait until I heard my replacement approach. I’d drop one rope for their supplies and another for them to climb. When the next treesitter was safe, I'd rappel onto the forest floor.

Initially, we approached the treesit by passing under a bridge and walking along the edge of the highway. TMX grew aware of our routes and blocked them off, so we engineered alternatives. The most used and most dangerous was to simply sprint across the highway.

Once TMX security staff figured out the protesters' route, they had to make a risky crossing over the highway to their treesit. Photo by Ian Harland

Tick-tack-toe with TMX security

Each morning in the treesit was the same. I’d wake up, unzip my tent and spot a security guard watching me from about 30 metres away. I’d wave at them, and sometimes they’d wave back.

Occasionally, the fight against TMX was a game, where activists and industry each took turns throwing down a card. TMX marked trees for felling. Environmentalists spotted hummingbird nests in them, which granted the trees legal protection. TMX workers staked out new pipeline routes. Protesters followed, tearing through the underbrush to rip the stakes marking the new routes. TMX security blocked a safe passage. Activists found workarounds. Despite all this, the relationship between protesters and TMX staff was relatively peaceful. My quarrel wasn’t with the people who were paid to stare at us all day, it was with duplicitous governments and executive decision-makers.

There were light moments. Once my friend and photographer Ian Harland spent a night with me in the tree. During the day, we initiated a game of tick-tack-toe with a security guard by lowering a piece of paper and a pen in a bucket. The guard would approach, make his mark and then spin on his heel as if to say, “I saw nothing.” After 20 minutes of intense play, the game ended in a tie.

The contracted security workers were the most relaxed, often passing us things that we’d dropped or chatting with us. I’ve witnessed TMX security shout that they were going for a coffee run and would ask if I wanted anything. However, Timothee warned, “I wouldn’t drink that.”

I felt a strange sense of camaraderie with TMX employees. More experienced activists warned against my cheery outlook.

TMX protesters shared some fun moments with security personnel, even once raising and lowering a game of tick-tack-toe. Photo by Ian Harland

One night, I arrived at the base of Hummingbird and called Timothée so I could get the rope. He sounded anxious and stressed on the other end of the line.

“Emily. There’s security right behind you.”

I turned around, and saw only darkness.

“No, there isn’t Timothée. Drop the rope.”

Suddenly, a light flashed behind me. I turned around and sure enough, there were two security guards; an older man holding two flashlights and a young man clutching a camcorder.

“Don’t you touch her!” Timothée yelled.

“We’re not going to touch her, Timothée.” The older guard spoke to Timothée like he was talking to a wild animal.

I took note the security guard knew Timothée’s name. It was one of the creepy, if not strangely endearing, things TMX employees did: find out everything there was to know about us and then drop menacing hints to let us know exactly how much they knew.

The first time it happened to me was on a rainy day in spring 2021, Some friends and I were protesting outside a worksite. A male TMX employee approached me and smiled: “Hello, Emily.”

Timothée called it an “intimidation technique.” Being naive, I never felt intimidated. In other places in the world, being an environmental activist meant you could get killed. In Canada, the worst that could happen was jail time. The stakes felt a bit lower. TMX employees taking photos of me or reciting my name when they had no right to know it thrilled me. It meant they knew who I was, what we were doing had an impact, and maybe I could change their mind.

On that rainy spring day, the male TMX worker who knew my name talked to us at length, saying he wasn’t sure the pipeline was going to be built. Essentially, he said, he was on our side. “Why aren’t there more of you out here? Our generation has blown it. It’s up to you guys to make it right.”

I’ve always looked for the good in people we were fighting against. Years later, the sheer amount of stories I heard began to generate a healthy layer of caution next to my compassion. One of our activists was followed home at night by security. Years of anti-TMX research have been wiped from hard drives. Immigrant activists face deportation. Indigenous activists face harassment and persecution.

But during that night in the woods, I wasn’t thinking about what I would come to know as “security culture.” The fact that no TMX employee had caught an ascent on camera was secondary. I just really wanted to be back in the tree with my friends and activists whom I admired more than anything.

“Timothée,” I urged. “I want to come up.”

I caught the rope, feeling the eyes of the two men behind me. Then I turned around and asked them: “Have you ever been to Cirque du Soleil, gentlemen?” The older guard laughed. I clipped myself in. “It’s kind of like this.”

With the two flashlights on me and a camera, it kind of was.

Emily Kelsall is a writer and activist from Squamish territory. Emily loves being outdoors, creating comedy, and she hopes you have nice day.

You can read Part 1 of Emily's treesit experience here.

Keep reading

I would like to see the Observer do a bit more research into the reasons behind the TMX pipeline project. When started by Harper, the goal appeared to be to get Alberta crude to Chinese and other Asian markets (with Alberta being landlocked, it sells at a steep discount to US refineries). Around the same time as this project was first started, the FIPA deal with China was signed by Harper. I had heard a rumour that part of the reason for continuing this project, given that frankly, the North American market can easily absorb all of this crude and the Chinese are now buying Russian oil at a discount, was the obligations Harper signed away in the FIPA deal. Everyone has been quite tight-lipped about that deal. Some investigation there would be VERY illuminating as the CPC in the last election tried to portray the LPC as pro-China, but FIPA was a Harper creation.