03/11/2012 04:30 EDT | Updated 05/10/2012 05:12 EDT

Renowned B.C. artist finds political voice of proposed Enbridge pipeline

VANCOUVER - First Nations artist Roy Henry Vickers is well known for his depictions of colourful sunsets and peaceful winter scenes but shies away from protest and politics.

Now that's changing.

Vickers, a renowned British Columbia artist and Member of the Order of Canada, is speaking out on two fronts.

The 65-year-old resident of the northcoast community of Kispiox, B.C., said he has decided to take a public stand against Enbridge Inc.'s proposal to build an oil pipeline from Alberta to Kitimat, B.C.

He has also decided to back Nathan Cullen, an NDP member of Parliament who is vying to lead the party after the death of Jack Layton.

"What comes back to me is, all right, you've learned many things in your life," said Vickers.

"It's time to start sharing those things with people around you. So people respect you as an artist. Give them what you've learned. Give it to them. Whoever will listen. Wherever."

Vickers, who has also fought a well-known, years-long battle against addiction, said his first protest took place decades ago against the chainsaws that threatened to rip through the old-growth forests of Meares Island, on Vancouver Island's west coast

But then there were years of public silence, broken only recently by his decision to protest Enbridge.

Naturally, that protest has come in the form of art.

On a simple, white shirt, Vickers has created an image of a slender red oolichan fish against a green-blue background that turns to black at the bottom, signifying Alberta oil.

The shirt carries the slogan, "Oolichan Oil Not Alberta Oil."

The proceeds from the sales of the shirts will go to the Gitxsan Unity Movement, a First Nations' organization opposed to Enbridge.

His second political stand is a print, titled "Skeena Moon," and the proceeds will go to Cullen's campaign.

Vickers said he decided to create the shirts after Gitxsan hereditary Chief Elmer Derrick signed a $7-million equity-sharing deal with Enbridge, an agreement which was later reversed by other Gitxsan hereditary chiefs.

Also a factor in the protest was the decline of oolichan in southern B.C. waters, said Vickers, and the general threat of oil.

Vickers said the traditional oolichan fishery produced oolichan oil, which for First Nations was "the highest priced commodity in the northern part of North America for thousands of years."

"Part of that for me was thinking about oil and dirty oil coming from the tar sands and them wanting to pipe it across the northwest," added Vickers.

"How ridiculous that was given the number of oil spills that there have been all over North America since oil pipelines first strung out across this country."

Vickers, who said he has never been a member of a political party, also decided to back Cullen after watching the politician dive into the frigid waters of the Skeena River and swim with protesters who wanted to protect the waterway.

Paul Stanway, Enbridge spokesman, said Vickers is entitled, like any other individual, to make his views known, and the company respects that.

"I think Enbridge would hope that, before making up their minds on this project proposal, British Columbians would take the time to look at the decade of engineering and environmental planning and research that’s gone into the Northern Gateway application," said Stanway, in an email to The Canadian Press.

He said the company believes the Northern Gateway can be built and operated safely.

"We would have absolutely no interest in pursuing a project if we did not sincerely believe that," said Stanway, noting the public review process is ongoing and will likely continue for another year or 18 months.

When it comes to the leadership campaign, Cullen said he is honoured by Vickers' support, noting artist like Vickers represent an important connection between the environment, First Nations and the artistic world.

He said in many First Nations' cultures, artistic traditions and leadership have always gone together, a connection that has been broken in the broader Canadian culture.

"So when an artist and a leader speaks like Roy Henry Vickers it means a lot both within First Nations but to that broader Canadian public," he said.

Despite the very public nature of his political protest and stand, Vickers said he's not worried about any backlash, which is just not a part of his fears.

"I could care less about any backlash," he said with a chuckle. "You know as the saying goes, 'a man's got to do what a man's got to do.' And I didn't even consider it.

"To me, my ancestors and all of the angels are there to protect me, and I have to do what I have to do, and when it comes to the truth I'm going to speak it."