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Embassy Magazine: Aboriginals take anti-tar sands protests to Europe

September 3, 2009

Published September 2, 2009

Frustrated that the Canadian and Alberta governments are ignoring the disastrous environmental and health effects of tar sands development, a delegation of Aboriginal Canadians have taken their protests to London.

Hoping to spark a Europe-wide backlash against the “corporate evildoers and climate criminals” operating in the tar sands, five Aboriginal activists attended London’s Climate Camp, perhaps the largest gathering of environmental activists in Europe. At the least they are hoping they can turn British public opinion against BP and other UK interests in Alberta’s oil patch.

“We’re looking to help jumpstart some of the efforts that are already underway here in the United Kingdom to target tar sands profiteers,” said Clayton Thomas-Muller, a First Nations activist with the Indigenous Environmental Network, by phone last week.

“There’s a lot of shock and awe, a lot of disbelief that a country such as Canada that really profiles itself on the international scene as a leader in human rights would be sacrificing entire communities at the alter of irresponsible economic and environmental policies.”

George Poitras is a former chief of the Mikisew Cree First Nation who hails from Fort Chipewyan, a native community located about 220 kilometres down the Athabasca River from major tar sands projects. He says his community is deeply concerned by the pace and environmental impacts of the tar sands development, and wants an immediate moratorium on any new tar sands projects.

Mr. Poitras said his community depends on the Athabasca River for drinking water, transportation and wild food such as fish, duck, geese, muskrat, moose and beaver. And while the lifestyle in Fort Chipewyan has changed little in recent years, the community’s health has taken an alarming turn for the worse.

“We’re currently observing many, many health issues,” Mr. Poitras said in a phone call from London. “In worst cases we’re facing confirmed escalated levels of cancers—and very rare types of cancer—in the last few years, and we suspect much is attributed to development of tar sands and the contaminations of the water, the fish and the wildlife we consume.”

In 2006, a doctor in Fort Chipewyan named John O’Connor warned of a link between the dangerously high levels of carcinogens in the river, and rare forms of human cancers in the community. The doctor was charged with several counts of misconduct by Alberta Health and Wellness and Health Canada. Among the charges was “raising undue alarm in the community.”

Dr. O’Connor, and the community, were vindicated by a February 2009 report by the Alberta Cancer Board that found higher than expected rates of biliary tract, lymphatic and soft tissue cancers.

Mr. Poitras says his community feels neglected by the federal government, which is responsible for Aboriginal health, and ignored by the Alberta government, which he charges is intent on developing the tar sands at breakneck speeds despite their protests.

Jess Worth is a British journalist who helped organize both the Climate Camp, which attracted as many as 3,000 activists, and the Canadian delegation’s visit. Ms. Worth said she hopes the Canadian delegation plants the seeds of a campaign of activism that will sweep first the UK, then continental Europe.

“We hope that will have two effects,” she said. “Firstly that it will put pressure on these companies who have just been merrily destroying Alberta and polluting the lands and the waters and the food…. Secondly, we’re hoping that Canada will notice this issue has made it across the Atlantic, and that people in the UK are starting to judge Canada.”

Ms. Moss said many Brits and Europeans think of Canada as being rather environmentally friendly, but that may soon change.

“Canada is one of the biggest climate criminals in the world, is one of the biggest holdouts to a good deal at [the UN Climate Change Conferwnce] in Copenhagen in December, and is pursuing the biggest and most destructive fossil fuels projects on the face of the planet today,” she said. “And I think Canada’s reputation is going to take a bit of a battering once the British and the European publics hear abut this.”

The main target of this action is BP, formerly known as British Petroleum, which has partnered with Canada’s Husky Energy for a major oil sands project. The Sunrise Thermal Project, which will use steam to extract bitumen, is not yet on line.

Adam Sparks, a spokesman for BP’s Canadian operations, would not comment on the protests being mounted against his company. Mr. Sparks stressed that the Sunrise project was not yet operational, and said it will not use any water from the Atahbasca River. Instead, he said, all the water would come from deep aquifers unfit for human consumption, and 90 per cent of the water would be recycled.

Ms. Moss said she hopes the protests will make BP reconsider its involvement in the oil sands,

“It’s almost like they are dipping their toe in the tar sands and deciding whether they want to throw themselves into it,” she said. “And we are saying no, you mustn’t, that’s going in totally they wrong direction—you still have a choice.”

Also singled out for criticism are three UK banks which rank among the top 15 largest investors in the tar sands: Barclay’s, HSBC, and the Royal Bank of Scotland.

European Public ‘Receptive’

Andrew Nikiforuk is one of Canada’s leading experts on the tar sands, having authored Tar Sands: Dirty Oil and the future of a Continent. He said he thinks the Aboriginal protestors will catch significant attention, especially since the British public is one of the most climate conscious in the world.

“It will have an impact,” he said. “Certainly Europeans are much more receptive to arguments about climate change, the need for reducing consumption, and proper environmental protections as well as respectful treatment of First Nations. I think all of those issues will resonate with folks in England.”

Mr. Nikiforuk said calling out the companies and banks is probably the right approach.

“Tar sands are probably most vulnerable when one starts to examine the risks for investors,” he said. “There are extreme carbon liabilities in all of these projects and that comes with a huge reputational risk, and Europe is probably the soft point.”

BP in particular, he said, has a vulnerable flank.

“BP reversed its position on the tar sands to make substantial investments in the Sunrise project,” Mr. Nikiforuk said. “The company, which billed itself as going ‘Beyond Petroleum,’ completely reversed direction by investing in the tar sands.”

An experienced activist, Mr. Thomas-Muller said Aboriginals have learned that, faced with intransigent Canadian governments, it is a good strategy to appeal to the Europeans. He cites as an example the battle waged between the James Bay Cree and the Quebec government in the 1970s over a massive hydroelectric project that threatened Cree communities, their lands, and their way of life. Native activists were getting nowhere, he said, until they took their campaign abroad.

“It wasn’t until the European Community got aware of the issues, mobilized on the issue, and started to shame Canada that the campaign gained a lot of traction and they were able to shut down the proposals to dam up all the rivers in the region,” he said, noting that the final La Grande Project is 10 times smaller than originally envisioned.

NDP Foreign Affairs critic Paul Dewar wished the delegation well in its campaign, and said it never would have come to this had the government been more responsive to the concerns of oil sands-afflicted communities.

“They don’t obviously feel they’re being heard here in Canada,” he said. “I think it underlines the need for a Canadian response—not just to ignore people, and that’s what’s happened to date, particularly the health care concerns of First Nations in Fort Chipewyan.”

http://www.embassymag.ca/page/view/aboriginal_anti_tarsands-9-2-2009
jdavis@embassymag.ca10124_269937815656_675690656_8762902_7880338_s

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One Comment leave one →
  1. October 1, 2009 6:01 am

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