Matt Price and Allan Adam
Thursday, February 21, 2008
Canadians are becoming familiar with the scale of destruction in the tarsands, something that First Nations of the region have known for some time now.
And people around the world are learning why our country has taken such an obstructionist role on global warming. Canada and the Bush administration stand alone against the rest of the world because with the tarsands we are housing the single most destructive project anywhere on Earth, and the Americans are getting the oil.
But who exactly is letting this destruction happen? Most Canadians assume we have environmental laws that should stop such damage and that the people we elect to office are generally on top of things.
So, who is allowing toxic tailings ponds so large that they can be seen from space with the naked eye? Engineers don’t know what to do with these misnamed “ponds” which are already leaking into the groundwater.
Who is letting increasing amounts of acid rain from the tarsands fall on neighbouring Saskatchewan, and sanctioning an explosion in the release of dangerous volatile organic compounds in the area?
Who is letting First Nations downriver and downwind from the tarsands live in fear of what poisons are in the fish and game that their ancestors have lived on for generations? And who has been persecuting their family doctor, who raised the alarm about abnormal disease rates there?
And finally, who is letting the tarsands hold Canadians hostage in their desire to tackle global warming?
The tarsands are not only Canada’s fastest growing source of greenhouse gas emissions, but also the reason we don’t have hard caps on major polluters in this country, unlike other industrialized nations.
The old answer is that it is all Alberta’s fault. But that isn’t true.
Since non-native people came here it has been clear that the federal government has responsibility for the first peoples of this country. Some treaties guaranteeing traditional rights to live off the land, like the one in the Athabasca region where the tarsands are, were signed with the federal government before Alberta even existed.
The federal government also shares responsibility on the environment with the provinces, and must lead on issues that cross provincial borders.
There is a clear federal responsibility for fisheries and the protection of fish habitat — including clean rivers — in the Fisheries Act. It is the federal government that is supposed to regulate dangerous chemicals under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act.
And, due to the international nature of the problem, it is clearly up to the federal government to take leadership on global warming. Provinces can and do fill the leadership vacuum on global warming, but ultimately it is the government of Canada that must join together with other countries in reducing emissions at levels in accordance with the best science.
Despite all these federal responsibilities, so far politicians in Ottawa have been missing in action on the tarsands. Partly this reflects the legacy of the National Energy Program, with Alberta flogging memories of the backlash to this program to chase the federal government out of the oil patch.
Yet, while Alberta claimed the victim label then, today it is a lack of federal leadership that is creating victims.
Affected First Nations are losing the very foundation of their culture – their connection to the land and water. Non-native people too will forever be at risk from the emerging toxic hotspot that could one day cover an area the size of Florida and spew pollution across the Canadian prairies and north.
And all Canadians, indeed all people everywhere, are victims of tarsands greed when our federal politicians refuse to enact the courageous policies necessary to truly fight global warming, all because they prefer to let the tarsands grow. And remember that the tarsands have only just begun to grow. If the Bush administration has its way, the tarsands will be five times bigger in short order. The toxic toll and impact to our climate will be staggering.
The wanton destruction from the tarsands should be more than enough of a scandal to drive change in Ottawa. Technology exists to clean up the tarsands, whether it is dry tailings or carbon capture and sequestration, but the government is not making the industry use it. With oil now flirting with $100 a barrel, the oil companies can afford to clean up, but they won’t do so voluntarily.
First Nations downriver from the tarsands learned to live respectfully with the riches of Athabasca before colonization began.
Now that new riches have been found there, it is time for the non-native peoples of Canada to learn respect for the region, and indeed for the very climate that sustains us all.
Matt Price is a program manager at Environmental Defence. Allan Adam is chief of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation.