An Indian Summer for the tar sands

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Wet'suwet'en Nation protest against Enbridge pipelines in May, 2010. Photo: Ben Powless

It has been an abnormally hot summer. Climate change has been breaking record temperatures, and even oil companies haven't been able to beat the heat.

From British Colombia to Quebec, the United States to the United Kingdom, a movement is ever expanding to hold oil companies and oily politicians' feet to the fire and stop the association of tar sands with runaway and rampant destruction.

Earlier this year, far away from the prying eyes of the media, government offices, or corporate headquarters, in the middle of mosquito country, members of the Wer'suwet'en First Nation in British Colombia established a camp. Their territory lies along the path of proposed pipelines which Enbridge (and a number of other oil companies) want to build to pipe crude oil to Kitimat, where it could be loaded onto tankers and shipped across the ocean.

The camp was a physical and cultural rejection of that plan, set up in May to allow one of the hereditary chiefs to permanently reside there. To inaugurate the camp, the Nation held a five-day gathering, inviting members of nearby communities, the Indigenous Environmental Network, the Council of Canadians, and other allied groups and individuals to come connect with the land, and to share strategies and tactics to protect it.

Incidentally, a number of participants, including this author, got much closer to the land than expected, when a traditional war canoe capsized going down the river, and many of us spent the cold night outdoors before meeting up with a search-and-rescue team the next morning. On the bright side, this helped us become a lot closer, and deepened our respect for the land and waters.

As Mel Bazil, of the Lhe Lin Lïyin community group behind organizing the camp explains, "The Action Camp was devised to draw in more of our clans' membership to learn of peaceful means to protect their lands and waters, and to unite nations in their opposition to the tar sands giga-project. Last year, we issued Enbridge a warning they were trespassing on our territory. At this year's camp, we issued them a Feather Warning, which traditionally meant they could be killed if they came back onto the land. We are ready and willing to do whatever it takes to keep our lands and waters healthy for our descendents yet to come."

The camp was followed with a rally in nearby Smithers, where many people supported the First Nation's opposition to the proposed pipeline. Over a month later, hundreds rallied in Prince George and Vancouver, opposing Enbridge's application to the Joint Panel Review process meant to allow or deny their permit.

The same day, in Ottawa, a crowd gathered in front of Parliament Hill on the arrival of Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi from the U.S., who was to meet with tar sands promoting politicians and executives. The crowd called for her to reject the proposed Keystone pipeline and tar sands expansion generally.

In August, many Wet'suwet'en community members later made the long trip to Fort McMurray, ground zero of tar sands expansion, for the first-ever Healing Walk held there. The event was also the first of its kind in Fort McMurray to oppose tar sands development, a significant point in the history of this movement. Over 150 people took part in the 13-km trek through the heart of Canada's largest industrial experiment, calling for healing of the land, water, skies, and animals.

Many who spoke highlighted the impacts that the tar sands have had in polluting the region, including a loss of wildlife and severe health impacts in the communities near the developments. They also brought up the need to have their communities speak up and be heard.

George Poitras, a former chief of the Mikisew Cree First Nation was quoted as saying, "We have lived here for thousands of years. We rely on the land -- our lives are intrinsically linked to the land. We are one and the same. It is very frustrating to see the unprecedented pace of development with little to no consideration of the land, as we call it, our mother earth -- it gives us life."

Further east, a large delegation from tar sands impacted communities made their way to protests at the G20 in Toronto, where they were prominent speakers on the day of action for environmental justice. Other community members were featured participants at the Detroit-based U.S. Social Forum, where over 30,000 social movement leaders gathered.  

In August, hundreds of activists established a 16-day Climate Camp just outside Montreal, in the community of Dunham. One of the organizers, Cam Fenton, explains that, "The camp was set up to support and expand local resistance against the construction of a pumping station in Montreal. At the camp we also started a pledge of resistance campaign, which is a community oriented pledge to engage in direct action to shut down the construction of this project should it ever be built." The town's mayor came and spoke out against the pumping station, a key infrastructure piece in the Trailbreaker pipeline to bring tar sands oil to the eastern seaboard in Maine.

About the same time, two young women from northern B.C. made the trip to the U.K. Climate Camp, where hundreds of activists gathered outside the headquarters of the Royal Bank of Scotland, targeting it as one of the main financiers of tar sands companies like BP.

Expressing solidarity and support for the efforts of First Nations and others in Canada, the activists were successful in blocking work at the headquarters and another administrative office that day. The action and camp represents a growing sentiment in the U.K. and other parts of Europe that this single project is the most environmentally damaging project on the planet.

A short month later, another Climate Camp was established at the same time as the World Energy Congress came to Montreal, an event that takes place every three years. The tar sands again were the central target in actions outside the Congress' doors.

One of the most surprising effects of all this ramped-up resistance? The oil companies have noticed, and they're scared. In fact, some of the leading opposition comes not just from grassroots towns and cities in the United States, but all the ways to the offices of a number of congressmen and congresswomen.

Last year, the president of the Canadian Association of Oil Producers announced that it was too risky to depend solely on the U.S. as the main buyer, since American environmental laws are in many respects more progressive than Canadian laws. This is the main impetus behind the search for new markets, and the rush to build new pipelines to get the oil to Asia. The protests are working.

This year, TransCanada Pipelines is trying to push through a pipeline from Alberta to Texas, but needs federal U.S. approval. They've already pissed off Nebraska landowners and politicians by threatening to absorb their land under eminent domain if they didn't sell it. Farmers, rural residents and Native communities have led much of the opposition to the pipelines going through their lands. Another setback came from the Environmental Protection Agency called for more time to review the application, an implicit acknowledgement of the environmental risks and damages. Clayton Thomas-Muller of the Indigenous Environmental Network has noticed a real rise in opposition to the tar sands recently, and not just in North America. "What we're really seeing is the escalation of opposition, with mass movements and mass protests, by those who understand we have to stop this right here, right now. Because if we don't, it's only going to spread across the planet. If you think Natives have it bad in Canada, just imagine what it'll be like for Natives of the Congo, Madagascar, Siberia, or the Amazon, all places where tar sands have been found, and who will be looking to Canada for lessons."

About the expanding opposition to the tar sands, Bazil comments, "We're really happy to see the growing expansion from cities and communities around the world. We are especially grateful for all the strong shows of solidarity we have received from people as far away as Toronto, Quebec, the U.S. and Europe. Even James Cameron!" -- referring to an upcoming visit planned by the Avatar director to the region, to see a live version of "Pandora" for himself.  

Fenton agrees, and sees the future of environmental work in Canada in "supporting struggles by communities directly impacted by these kind of projects, localizing the resistance, while steadily targeting the heart of the tar sands infrastructure in Alberta."

Future "Climate Camps" are already planned for Ottawa and Edmonton. What started out as a hot summer for the future of the tar sands might only be heating up.

Photos from the Healing Walk can be seen here.

Photos from the Wet'suwet'en Action Camp can be seen here.

Photos from the Parliament Hill Nancy Pelosi Action can be seen here.

Photos from the Quebec Climate Camp can be seen here.

Photos from the G20 Environmental Justice Day can be seen here.

Ben Powless is a Mohawk from Six Nations in Ontario, and is currently studying Human Rights Indigenous and Environmental Studies at Carleton University in Ottawa. He has been involved with the Canadian Youth Climate Coalition, the Indigenous Environmental Network, sits on the board of the National Council for the Canadian Environmental Network, and is on the Youth Advisory Group to the Canadian Commission for UNESCO. Powless also blogs for rabble.ca.

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