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A collective conscience: Why I'm in Lima for COP 20

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On April 20, 2010 I learned that money does not have a conscience. That day, British Petroleum's Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded 66 miles off the shore of Louisiana and transformed the waters of the Gulf of Mexico into a thousand fires. In the hours and days that followed, the flames licked the sky and took 11 human lives with them into the waves.

When the Deepwater Horizon spill happened, I was thousands of miles away studying abroad in Europe. When I saw the images flash across my computer screen, my heart sank into my stomach and my feet went numb. I had never even visited the Gulf of Mexico, but the image of smoke vomiting into the sky and water glistening with the thick, mucous-like sheen of oil haunted me. Shortly after, news reports claimed that the spill had surpassed the size of the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster. I had grown up hearing about it, this event that seemed to have affected a whole generation before me and I knew that this spill would be the spill that defined my generation, this was our spill.

Within days of the explosion, media began to release photos of the aquatic life that had once called the Gulf of Mexico home: the wet-black pelicans, greasy and heavy with the weight of the oil on their feathers, tiny crabs and immense turtles washed up on the shore like fossils along the beach. The wildlife in the photos I saw looked so desperate and confused, as if asking what is this? I asked myself, what have we done?

Then came the stories from the frontline workers and cities and towns along the coast. Communities on the coast of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida, as well as clean-up workers from the spill, began reporting unusual symptoms like nosebleeds, difficulty breathing, and throat irritation. When they sought medical help they were told that they had unusually high concentrations of chemicals in their bloodstreams.

Meanwhile, British Petroleum CEO Tony Hayward became the official spokesperson for the Deepwater Horizon spill and he spoke to us through the TV screen, reassuring us that the oil spouting out of the rig was negligible in comparison to the vastness of the ocean. We would later learn that 4.9 million barrels of oil spilled into the ocean that year.

Four years after the spill that devastated an entire ecosystem and poisoned hundreds of coastal communities, the Wall Street Journal reported just last week that Big Oil is back in the Gulf. Exxon, Hess, Chevron, Royal Dutch Shell and even BP, who is apparently suffering from short-term memory loss, are expected to drill again by 2015.

It didn't take me long to realize that this was not an isolated incident; in fact, it is a global epidemic, and now that I have moved to Alberta, it has hit home. Earlier this year, one of the nation's largest oil companies, Canadian Natural Resources Ltd (CNRL) was forced to admit publicly that there were a series of "never-ending spills" on one of their sites near Cold Lake. "Never-ending" -- that was their language.

Even as I set out to work on this blog, another 60,000 litres of crude spilled into northern Alberta muskeg, an essential and complex piece of wetland ecosystems unique to the boreal forest.

Yet even something as innocuous as the creation of an independent regulatory body is met with disdain in Alberta. With treaty rights being violated across the province and the country and members of frontline communities being diagnosed with rare illnesses, never-before-seen symptoms, and terminal cancers at rates many times that of the general population, one has to ask: how do we let this go on?

The industry has never and will never effectively regulate itself. Instead, we will continue to see disaster after disaster compounded by payoffs and a return to business as usual. To a certain degree, I understand: money doesn't have a conscience and if these companies are in the business of making money then simple deduction tells you that they don't have a conscience either; but our government should. Our government should be in the business of upholding the rights of its people.

While the CNRLs and BPs of the world turn a profit, whole traditions and ways of life are being decimated. Drinking water is being contaminated, moose that are hunted and prepared for slaughter are found to be full of cancerous tumours, fish populations are dying mysteriously by the thousands and caribou herds that once flourished on the open plains are all but disappeared. And this is in Alberta alone.

In Canada, First Nations, Inuit, and Metis peoples are disproportionately affected by the extraction industry. Here and around the globe, Indigenous and racialized people and those living in poverty are undoubtedly bearing the brunt of the effects of climate change. In spite of this or perhaps because of it, they are fighting back. It is their fierce resistance that gives me hope. I want to take time to acknowledge the frontline communities around the world that are standing up for their right to a safe environment for themselves, their families, and their future. We owe it not only to ourselves but also to them to stand beside them in their fight for justice and truth, because before we know it, it will be the privileged few on whose doors climate change will be knocking, and there won't be a way out.

Indigenous-led resistance in this country and around the globe inspires me. The only way to defend our collective right to safe water and a healthy environment is to honour the treaties that Canada was founded on -- an agreement between nations -- how quickly the Canadian government has forgotten. I am now here at COP 20 in Lima because on April 20, 2010, I learned once and for all that companies do not have a conscience. I am here in Lima to remind the Canadian government that somewhere along the way, they seem to have lost theirs too.

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