Oil Sands Truth: Shut Down the Tar Sands



Scott Harris / scott@vueweekly.com

So much has been written, opined, investigated and studied about the oil sands that one could almost be forgiven for believing that the primary product being produced in northern Alberta is not bitumen, but statistics and reports.

With studies on everything from royalty rates to worker shortages and statistics on emissions, barrels per day and required pipeline capacity, it’s easy to miss the fact that at the heart of it all are people whose lives are being fundamentally altered as a result of oil sands development.

Moving beyond all the reports and statistics is the goal of the Everyone’s Downstream: Tar Sands Realities and Resistance conference being held Nov 24 and 25 at the University of Alberta.

“The conference is primarily designed to put a human face on the tar sands,” explained Macdonald Stainsby, the coordinator of Oil Sands Truth, the group behind the event. “We hear about statistics, carbon dioxide emissions, barrels of water used for oil and so forth, but very rarely do we construct our analysis or our discussion of these things so there’s a human face on it at the end of the day.”

Stainsby argued that many of the social problems facing the province—from the housing crisis to the worker shortage—can be traced to rampant oil sands development, but few Albertans understand just how far those impacts extend or who it is that is most affected.

“With the infrastructure to make the largest industrial project in the history of humanity real, [the impacts of the tar sands are] going to stretch to the Pacific, the Arctic, the Atlantic Oceans and the Gulf of Mexico.”

This planned continental oil sands infrastructure, Stainsby said, includes not just the massive developments in northern Alberta, but pipelines stretching from the oil sands to terminals on the BC coast to deliver oil to supertankers destined for Asian markets, the long-planned Mackenzie Valley Pipeline to bring Beaufort Sea natural gas south and still more pipelines to transport oil to satiate the market south of the border.

In the path of much of this development are Indigenous communities, who, according to conference co-organizer Aaron Chubb, are too often ignored in policy debates by industry, government and even mainstream environmental organizations.

Clayton Thomas-Muller, the tar sands organizer with the Indigenous Environmental Network, an organization that links some 250 Indigenous communities, organizations and individuals in North America working on environmental justice issues, says that it’s critical that members of impacted communities be front and centre in policy debates on the oil sands and climate change.

It’s a message he’ll be bringing to the conference.

“For us at Indigenous Environmental Network, we’ve been working with these communities under the premise that our people speak for ourselves on these issues and our people have the capacity and they are the experts on what is best for them and on how to protect and preserve the sacred fire of our traditions.”
He pointed to First Nation and Métis communities downstream on the Athabasca River, who are seeing “insane cancer rates” and other health impacts, as facing double jeopardy.

“On top of all the things that are happening with climate change, we have Native communities that are living on the front lines of industrial development like the tar sands that are doubly impacted,” Thomas-Muller said. “Not only are they feeling the changes in our climate and going through the cultural, social, spiritual economic and political ramifications of climate change, but they’re also getting impacted in terms of an inextricable link between human and ecological health.”

Allan Adam is the Chief of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, one of the communities downstream from the oil sands. He said that his people have experienced firsthand the impacts of industrial development on the Athabasca River.

“What kind of impacts? The reduction of water, low levels throughout the delta. Substantial amounts of unknown chemicals flowing into the river—where it’s coming from we don’t know yet. Health effects that are happening with the community members.”

He said the Athabasca Delta, which was once one of the largest and richest deltas in the world, is “no longer a freshwater delta anymore, all it is is grass hay growing all over the place. And it’s having a change in vegetation that waterfowl feed on, so it’s having a drastic effect.”

Adam said that while he thinks there is a growing knowledge amongst industry that their activities are having consequences downstream, little will change for his community without more people in the province listening to their concerns and joining with them in pushing for changes.

“Are we really going to be able to stop industry from developing at this point and stage? Don’t get me wrong here, but I don’t think that’s going to happen,” he said. “You know that for a fact and I know that for a fact. Maybe with public pressure there will be a slowdown but from no pressure at all I think they got the green light to go and develop as much as possible.”

Development driven by the oil sands without sufficient input by affected communities is a familiar story for the Carrier Sekani First Nations in the central interior of BC.

“What’s going on now is the huge increase in the production of the oil sands is making some significant pressures to get the oil to markets and to get condensate, the thinner, to the oil sands,” explained Tara Marsden, the special projects director of pipelines with the Carrier Sekani Tribal Council, which represents eight First Nations in BC. “So the territories of the Carrier Sekani lie in between the Gateway, as they call it, to Asia and other parts of the world and the oil sands.”

Two proposed pipelines, the Enbridge Gateway Pipeline—which has been delayed following the pull-out of PetroChina as a partner in the project—and the Pembina Pipeline, would cut through First Nations territories, raising significant concerns amongst Indigenous communities in the area.

“Roughly one-third of that pipeline would go through Carrier Sekani territory, it would cross about 600 to 700 rivers or streams in the territories and a lot of those are obviously fish-bearing. And salmon, which is a critical species for the First Nations here, would be impacted through construction and potential spills.”

Such concerns came out in the Aboriginal Interest and Use Study conducted by the council, which also looked at the experience with pipeline projects of other First Nations communities in Alberta and the North West Territories.

Marsden said that the communities the CSTC speaks for don’t feel that they have been sufficiently consulted during the federal review process on the pipelines, and are insisting on a process that would give communities real authority in decisions about pipelines through their territories.

“We’re not going to participate in the government review process and be stakeholders or tokens,” she said. “They want their own review where communities have a real chance to investigate the impacts for themselves and have a real say in the end. And until that happens we have no choice but to take somewhat of an opposition position.”

Clayton Thomas-Muller said he hopes the conference will help people in urban areas, who are disconnected from the direct impacts seen in Indigenous communities, to look more closely at the human consequences of both the oil sands and climate change.

“It’s a human rights issue, it’s a fundamental human rights issue that is happening. And what I’ll be talking about on this panel, what I think many of the speakers will be talking about, is that Canada thinks it’s okay to sacrifice one portion of its population based on race or class for the benefit of another segment of the population.”

Thomas-Muller is excited about the potential the conference has to change the attitudes and approaches of mainstream environmental organizations, which often fail to involve the First Nation communities they presume to speak for.

“I think the [environmental] community is being challenged to be more accountable on how it does work and I think it has a lot of things to change in its organizational and organizing culture,” he said.

“Fundamentally, environmental issues are human rights issues to First Nation people and therefore those people need to be making decisions and speaking for themselves on these critical environmental justice issues, like what’s happening in the tar sands and what’s happening in relation to climate change in this country. In other words, more visibility to the people that are going through the problem rather than having some white, middle-class academic speak on behalf of Native people.”

And, he stressed, affected communities simply can’t wait any longer for the kind of meaningful action on these issues that would come from a position rooted in solidarity with those bearing the brunt of the impacts.

“Climate change is the civil rights issue of my generation. And in that context, failure to act on issues like the tar sands is like committing a passive act of violence against future generations. So we gotta get together, we gotta act and we gotta do it the right way.” V

Sat, Nov 24 & Sun, Nov 25 (9 am - 5 pm)
Everyone's Downstream:
Tar Sands Realities and Resistance
U of A Campus
$10 / By Donation

Oilsandstruth.org is not associated with any other web site or organization. Please contact us regarding the use of any materials on this site.

Tar Sands Photo Albums by Project

Discussion Points on a Moratorium

User login


Syndicate content