Canada’s Dirty Secret not so Secret Anymore

Smokestacks spew emissions from tar sands processing (S. Jocz)© Western Canada Wilderness Committee

Canada is receiving heavy international scrutiny at COP15 for its mining of tar sands—a sand and clay mixture containing a small percentage of a type of petroleum called bitumen, which can be converted into conventional oil—in the province of Alberta. Activists are calling attention not just to the environmental toll of this fossil fuel extraction, but also to its impact on indigenous people in the region.

Last Wednesday, in an event organized by Climate Action Network Canada, about 50 young Canadian activists rallied at the COP15 summit for a moratorium on the tar sands work, both for its environmental and human rights impacts. According to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), one of the event coordinators, Daniel T’seleie, said he believes the tar sands development infringes on aboriginal treaty rights. “There has been a distinct lack of proper consultation with the First Nations in the tar sands area, such as the Mikisew Cree,” T’seleie said, referring to the Mikisew Cree First Nation in northern Alberta.

And Thursday, a coalition of North American indigenous groups held a protest at the U.S. embassy in Copenhagen, urging President Obama to stop "the war on native peoples and lands waged [in the U.S. and Canada] by the U.S. energy industry." (This, shortly before Obama was to receive his Nobel Peace prize.) As reported by Amy Goodman of Democracy Now!, speakers at the protest included Clayton Thomas-Muller of the Canadian-based Indigenous Tar Sands Campaign. Thomas-Muller criticized President Obama for what he termed the hypocrisy of accepting the Nobel Peace Prize while "calling out 30,000 U.S. troops to continue to go into Afghanistan and oppress peoples in the Middle East." He continued, "The administration continues to oppress indigenous peoples and racialize communities in the U.S. and in Canada through their energy and climate policies. So we"re here in Copenhagen at the United Nations international climate negotiations to call out [the U.S. and Canadian governments] in their ridiculous and oppressive energy policies and to say we want a just and clean future, a new economic paradigm that doesn"t sacrifice our communities at the altar of irresponsible policies for the economic benefit of the select few who pull the political strings."

Kristen O"Neill reported for E in June 2009 that Canada is considered the second nation in world oil reserves, after Saudi Arabia, based on their supply of tar sands. "It sounds like an appealing energy solution to some, but the environmental costs of extracting oil from Alberta"s tar sand would exact a heavy toll," wrote O"Neill. " The extraction, separation and conversion process from sand to oil requires huge amounts of energy and water, is brutally destructive to Canada"s forests, and releases massive stores of greenhouse gases and particle pollution into the atmosphere (three to five times that of conventional oil)."

In calling for a tar sands moratorium, said the CBC, the demonstrators stressed that "Canada needs to reclaim its reputation as a clean, green country with progressive environmental policies."