Tar Sands – Environmental Boondoggle or Community Killer?
A new report from Canada’s federal Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development on the environmental impacts of tar sands developments sounds pretty “damning,” according to a friend of mine. Damning or not, I told him, it will do little to change the policies or practices of the existing governments and power structures that not only allow but encourage megaprojects like the tar sands to destroy the earth and everything that lives here.
But after visiting the government website and reading the press releases, I realize the report’s watered down and hesitant language does nothing to communicate the real impacts of tar sands development on people and the land.
“When there are several development projects in the same region, it’s important to understand their combined impacts on the environment and how to minimize them,” according to a press release on the report. “The government’s own scientists have acknowledge that impacts on water quantity and quality, fish and fish habitat, land, air and wildlife are not fully known,” it goes on to say.
Not only does this rhetoric do nothing to force positive change, it creates a sense of uncertainty, obfuscates the real issues and may actually hinder the work of people with a real understanding of the impacts.
I’m not an “environmentalist,” and here’s why; by focusing on the environment we take the focus off of people. Language, like that used the aforementioned press release, creates the illusion that tar sands development only impact plants and wildlife that exist independently of human communities; that the only things dying are a few birds, and that we aren’t even sure if they died because of the toxic tar sands tailings they landed in.
My friend from Fort Chipewyan, a Treaty 8 community downstream from tar sands developments, seems to have a better grasp on the impacts than every politician and bureaucrat in the country combined, and he can summarize it in two words; “cultural genocide.”
Tar sands development harms communities and cultures. Tar sands development is a massive infringement on the basic human rights of thousands of people (maybe more, depending on your point of view).
If I were to enter your house and dump massive amounts of toxic, carcinogenic waste everywhere, polluting the food in your fridge and poisoning your children, would you consider this an “environmental” issue. Well, the environment in which you live (your house) has been polluted (possibly by me, but prove it in court, and bring your baseline data that proves the contaminants are not natural), so I guess it is an environmental issue.
Indigenous peoples, like First Nations in Fort Chipewyan and other downstream communities, live on the land. Food is hunted and gathered, water is drunk straight from rivers and lakes. In this context, pollution in the so-called “environment” has a direct effect on peoples’ ability to live.
I don’t want to put words in their mouths, but I would imagine that the residents of Fort Chipewyan are not “environmentalists” either. They are fighting for their basic human rights, like the right to food, water and to practice their culture on the land where their people have lived for millennia.
Alcoholics are often told that the first step in their recovery process is to admit they have a problem. I’ll give that same advice to governments in Canada; admit that the tar sands are a problem, that they are violating Treaty and human rights. This will be the first step in ensuring a better future for all of us.