Oil Sands Truth: Shut Down the Tar Sands

Protests in Britain target Canada's tar sands

Protests in Britain target Canada's oilsands
Updated Sat. Sep. 5 2009
Ian Munroe, CTV.ca News

A handful of First Nations activists returned home last week after grabbing national headlines in England for protesting Alberta's oilsands developments.

They had travelled to a London suburb as part of a week-long gathering of several thousand environmental campaigners, dubbed the Climate Camp.

Among other concerns, the First Nations group hoped to pressure British Petroleum to halt plans for an oilsands extraction project in northern Alberta.

British Petroleum began a joint venture with Husky Energy, a Canadian firm, in 2007. Production is scheduled to begin in 2012 and reach 200,000 barrels per day by 2020.

"It's kind of a situation where they've bought the house but they haven't decided whether or not to move in," Clayton Thomas-Muller, a campaigner with the Indigenous Environmental Network who made the trip, told CTV.ca by phone from Ottawa.

Clayton-Muller's organization advocates for indigenous communities across Canada and the U.S. that come into contact with oilsands infrastructure such as pipelines and refineries.

He hoped the visit would "spark a movement, if you will, in the United Kingdom around Canada's tar sands," he said. "By the end, it became the primary issue."

The "camp" culminated in a series of protests on Tuesday. Organizers targeted a range of British companies that they say are contributing to global warming through their work in fossil fuels.

More than 100 protesters blockaded Royal Bank of Scotland's headquarters. Seven people in the crowd reportedly glued their hands to the building's windows, police said.

"We went on a sort of tar sands tour of central London," said Jess Worth, one of the Climate Camp organizers.

Protesters also stopped in front of the Canadian embassy in Trafalgar Square and sang a bastardized version of "Blame Canada," a 1999 Oscar-nominated song from the U.S. film "South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut."

"That went down quite well," Worth said. "It was very funny."

"What we were pointing out is that Canada is now, because of the tar sands, one of the biggest climate criminals in the world."

Local media outlets picked up on the protests' Canadian bent. The Guargian newspaper published a scathing opinion piece by George Poitras, a former chief of the Mikisew Cree in northern Alberta, after he arrived in London.

"My people are dying, and we believe British companies are responsible," Poitras wrote. "UK oil companies like BP, and banks like RBS, are extracting the dirtiest form of oil from our traditional lands, and we fear it is killing us."

Poitras said the community he's from, Fort Chipewan, Alta., is suffering from abnormally high rates of rare cancers and other diseases. He suspects it's because of the oilsands, which lie 250 kilometres away. About 100 of the community's 1,200 residents have died since 2000, he said.

As less expensive, conventional reserves decline, production from the oilsands developments is expected to triple by 2020. The region contains an estimated 315 billion barrels of oil.

There are three major lawsuits currently underway in Canada due to concerns over how the growing oilsands developments may be affecting nearby First Nations communities, Thomas-Muller said.

One of the cases is underwritten by a British financial institution. In July, Co-operative Financial Services donated $94,000 to help another aboriginal community in northern Alberta sue the provincial and federal governments.

The lawsuit revolves around treaty rights, and the impact that oilsands extraction is having on the lands used by the Beaver Lake Cree Nation. It could take years to hear a decision on the case, and may cost millions of dollars.

Meanwhile, Thomas-Muller is planning a return trip to the U.K. in November to lecture at universities near London, as well as in Scotland and Ireland.

He said he hopes that Canada's oilsands will become a central issue for British environmental campaigners, in the lead up to a meeting in Copenhagen, Denmark, in December.

That's when governments from around the world will try to negotiate an agreement to replace the Kyoto Protocol, which expires in 2012.


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