Will oilsands tar Winter Games?
The Edmonton Journal
Tuesday, August 19
Canadian officials surveying the Beijing Olympics must be paying special attention to the myriad protests and criticisms -- some overdrawn and overwrought -- that have dogged China before and during the Games. If they are wise, our observers should fight the temptation to feel smugly superior.
Learning from the mistakes of the Chinese leadership would be far more appropriate. For better or worse, the global focus attending the Olympics provides an irresistible platform for anyone with a grievance against the host country. And while Canada has considerable bragging rights compared with China in the areas of free speech, democracy, religious freedom and other fundamental liberties, we are not without our shiny spots.
One of the most threadbare is the perceived -- and real -- environmental baggage associated with Alberta's oilsands, like it or not. The degree to which industry, provincial and federal governments move to address this will no longer be only a hot-button domestic issue, but increasingly, a potential global flashpoint of major proportions. In fact, the oilsands, co-mingled with native affairs, may well represent Canada's most important non-military challenge in history, stretching well beyond the realm of mere public relations. Nothing short of our essential self-image is at stake. Most of the time, sad to say, much of the world isn't much interested in what goes on here. For a brief moment, two years hence, that will change. Big time.
Imagine how Sunday's joint declaration by aboriginal leaders at a water conference in Fort Chipewyan would play internationally if something like it caught the spotlight of Olympic coverage in 2010. Conference leaders called for a moratorium on oilsands project approvals until government and industry can assess the damage caused by development and discover strategies for redress. As Athabaskan Chipewyan Chief Allen Adam put it: "Our message is plain and clear. We have to slow down industry to let us catch up. If we continue to let industry and government behave the way they've been behaving for the last 40 years, there will be no turning back because it will be the total destruction of the land."
Those are strong words and certainly open to charges of over-the-top posturing. And yet all the feel-good Alberta government and industry advertising campaigns can't ignore disturbing reports guaranteed to catch international notice.
Who among us would like to be faced with the situation Chief Adam and his people confront, amid suspicions that oilsands tailings ponds are polluting the Athabasca River, poisoning fish and affecting community health?
What are we to make of charges by that region's former physician, who has logged a disproportionate number of rare cancers in the community? And that governments have systematically resisted repeated pleas for independent baseline health tests?
Other worrying signals not likely to inspire confidence materialized last week. Along with two native bands, the Pembina Institute, the Toxics Watch Society of Alberta and the Fort McMurray Environmental Association have officially withdrawn from the Cumulative Environmental Management Association. CEMA, set up by government and industry eight years ago, is meant to be the premier stakeholder group studying the cumulative effect of oilsands development. The departing organizations cited a stacked industry deck on the board and lack of provincial government leadership that has created institutional paralysis in their view.
And let it be said that these criticisms -- fair or not -- are not coming from fringe groups, but respected watchdogs. In leaving, the Pembina Institute called for a CEMA restructuring that would include full participation from government decision-making agencies.
On the surface at least, that sort of recommendation seems to make perfect sense. Glib, defensive denials are just not good enough anymore. We need answers -- not only for the primary missions of public accountability and environmental stewardship at home, but also to meet the hard questions on oilsands development that are increasingly building internationally. They are sure to erupt if substantively ignored when we welcome the world to Vancouver in 2010.
We still have the time improve our oilsands story. Do we have the will?
© The Edmonton Journal 2008