Photo: Ashely Manness and Vanessa Gray

The Northern Gateway pipeline might be dead in the water for now, but Enbridge’s Line 9 could be pumping tar sands through Ontario soon (more here and here).

Tar sands are already being refined at an estimated rate of 225,000 barrels/day in Sarnia, Ontario’s chemical valley, termed the most polluted place on earth by the National Geographic Society. For local First Nations, Enbridge continues a pattern of ignoring, marginalizing, and tokenizing community concerns. In the history of ‘Canada’ this is nothing new and neither is the action communities are taking to protect their lands. 

Originally termed the ‘Trail Breaker’ project, the Line 9 reversal was scrapped after substantive community resistance in the municipality of Dunham, Quebec and in the U.S. northeast. Using Orwellian language, Enbridge tabled the project due to a “lack of commercial support.”

No proper consultation with First Nations

In September 2011, Trail Breaker was revived as ‘Line 9 Reversal Phase 1’ and community outreach events began, characterized by rhetorical presentations to town councils. To date, First Nation communities have not been properly consulted and community meetings by Enbridge have not been held on reservations.

Enbridge claims Line 9 has ‘no significant impact to Aboriginal communities’ in its internal assessment, though Line 9 run is literally across the street from Amjiwnaang First Nation and runs directly through the Haldimand Tract. Indeed, the Haudenosaunee Development InstituteAamijiwnaang First Nation and Onieda Nation all submitted concerns to Enbridge and the National Energy Board (NEB) about the project. 

On July 27, 2012 the NEB approved Phase 1 of the Line 9 reversal almost two years to the date after the infamous Enbridge Kalamazoo spill of 20,000 barrels of tar sands dilbit in Michigan. Forebodingly, Enbridge spilled 1000 barrels in Wisconsin the same day as Line 9’s approval.  

Between 1999 and 2010 Enbridge had 804 spills that dumped 161,000 barrels of oil onto lands and into water. Residents of Kalamazoo have documented how Enbridge has failed to clean up the 2010 spill, leaving the ecosystem devastated and communities concerned about their health. Tellingly, in July 2012 Enbridge walked out of a ‘community outreach’ event in London, Ontario when Haudenosaunee land defenders and allies demanded Enbridge acknowledge community concerns about Line 9 (see video’s here and here).

Environmental racism

In tar sands politics, there has been a callous disregard for local concerns and blatant environmental racism demonstrated by governments and corporations. Additionally, tar sands dilbit has proven destructive to aging pipeline infrastructure and refineries. In May 2011, 28,000 barrels of tar sands crude spilt near Little Buffalo in the Lubicon Cree’s traditional territory. Clean up efforts have been questionable as community members have identified areas in the region still massively contaminated by oil.

Indeed, during the past two decades of oil and gas development in Alberta, $6 billion has been pirated from Lubicon lands, though community households have no running water. Canada has been condemned three times by the United Nations for its treatment of the Lubicon Cree people.

An incident earlier this summer in Berkley, California further proved dilbit is incompatible with aging infrastructure. On August 6, 2012, a Chevron refinery processing dilbit blew up and local workers and community residents paid the price with hospital bills and housing value collapses. For years, the community had documented increased accident rates at the Chevron facility, located in a predominantly poor and black neighborhood. The parallels with Amjiwnaang First Nation in Sarnia are apparent (more here and here). 

At ground zero Alberta, communities continue to be poisoned but also to resist further tar sands encroachment. Elders and community activists throughout Alberta have reported extreme ecological change and cancer epidemics (see videos here and here). Alberta Health has confirmed cancer increases of 30 per cent in Fort Chipewyan, though to date Harper will not fund a health study or respect First Nations sovereignty by acknowledging the shocking change tar sands has brought to traditional lands.

Tar sands activism building momentum 

Instead, Harper has effectively cut off all funding for health and environmental studies in an effort to silence voices on the front lines of tar sands development. However, the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation has taken Shell to court to demand the company fulfill its obligations to the community around health and education. Additionally, the Beaver Lake Cree have ‘won’ the right for their case to be heard against the government of Alberta, which cites over 20,000 separate Treaty violations as well as a decline of 74 per cent for caribou populations. When members of the Athabasca Tribal Council similarly expressed concerns about wildlife impact from tar sands, the Alberta government responded with a barbaric and unnecessary wolf-culling program

Community leaders and activists have told these stories to international media, and momentum on tar sands activism has been substantive. Texans are blockading the Keystone XL and the Northern Gateway is being blocked through the political will of over 110 First Nations and a collective memory of land theft and homeland destruction.

In August 2012, the Third Annual Tar Sands Healing Walk was held and youth from both Six Nations and Amjiwnaang First Nation were there to share stories with communities from Alberta and B.C., as well as witness tar sands destruction first hand. In Ontario, communities are mobilizing around Line 9 through a network of communities including the April 28th Coalition and Indigenous Environmental Network, amongst others. 

At the local level, Line 9 represents an important struggle for Indigenous and non-Indigenous action. Enbridge has largely ignored the fact that Line 9 crosses the Haldimand Tract and that changing the contents from light crude to tar sands crude is extremely dangerous. According to the 1701 Treaty, most of Line 9 passes through Six Nations lands. Six Nations has taken important stands to protect their lands both historically and in the recent past.

Six Nations’ struggle in Caledonia, at Dump Site 41 and in Dundalk has built an important network of allies throughout southern Ontario and effectively stopped each project in its tracks. In Amjiwnaang First Nation, a lawsuit put froth by EcoJustice and community members targets the Ontario government’s approval of a Suncor tar sands smoke stack which has been knowingly operating at above acceptable human health limits. Aamijiwnaang has 63 chemical refineries within 50 km of the community. Community-monitoring has reported that 40 per cent of the population required inhalers to breath and 39 per cent of women had experienced miscarriages. It is one of the most blatant cases of environmental racism in North America. 

In global geopolitics, Line 9 represents access to European and U.S. northeast markets as well as an ideological displacement of ‘foreign’ oil in southern Ontario/Quebec.  Despite rhetoric about ‘ethical oil’ from the far right government, the tar sands are a war-time project. Canada is still occupying Afghanistan and profiteering from oil market destabilization; Bush and Blair were both just declared war criminals by Nobel Peace winning intellectual Desmond Tutu.

Indeed, Canada has long participated in oil pirating and the U.S. war machine and Conservative/Liberal elites have negotiated the terms. Pratt’s 1976 The Tar Sands: Syncrude and the politics of oil documents far right narratives of the need for war in the Middle East, ‘free trade,’ and U.S. tar sands markets (read: military bases) as necessary ingredients for ‘economically viable’ tar sands production. Pratt also documents the impact on local First Nations and highlights community calls for environmental monitoring. It was not until 2011 that monitoring stations in Alberta began testing for tar sands toxins and Harper cut their funding this year. 

Those in finance, politics and oil profiteering should take notice — the math is out on tar sands and it’s apparent: both government and industry will sacrifice communities in the name of ‘economics’ and ‘capitalism.’

Amjiwnaang, Six Nations, Fort Chipewyan, Lubicon, and other Indigenous communities are trapped in an apartheid system that is literally killing their communities with pollution and poverty.

However, in the age of austerity, global revolt, and increased consciousness of the impact of capitalism on oppressed people, the same old dog and pony show is not gonna fly this time around.

Ontario’s tar sands battle is here and communities are mobilizing. 


Dave Vasey is an environmental justice activist living in Toronto, Ontario. Dave was born and raised in Walkerton, Ontario, but then moved to cities for school and became part of the rural brain drain. 

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