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Canaries in the tar-sand mines

by Kimlee Wong, Prevent Cancer Now Board Member

Historically, indigenous land issues have been ignored or criticized by most non-indigenous people and their governments in Canada. Recently, however, many Canadians have been standing in solidarity with their indigenous sisters and brothers.

Maybe it was watching elders being jailed for standing up for their people and the land. Pictures of old people getting arrested aren’t the kind of photo opportunity that generates compassion for the police, or for Canadian governments.

Or could it be that non-indigenous people have discovered they could be next? That for property owners in Ontario, for example, the Mining Act means that anyone can invade their land to stake a claim – and there is nothing they can do about it. (Read Gloria and Frank Morrison’s Ordeal: CLICK HERE)

Suddenly non-indigenous people have taken notice and realized that the rights indigenous peoples across Canada have been standing up for are basic human rights for all:

  •  the right to safe, clean air, water and soil;
  •  the right to a secure home;
  •  the right to a spiritual life, which for indigenous peoples is synonymous with an intimate relationship with the Earth, and dependent on access to sacred places.

Indigenous places of solace, ceremony and communion are dismissed, denied and destroyed because indigenous peoples have not erected walls to enclose their sacred places.

Today, one of the many pressures on indigenous communities, is the massive Alberta Tar Sands project. The Canadian government is ignoring the huge social, environmental and health costs of the tar sands to all Canadians.

For his efforts to expose alarming cancer rates in the downstream community of Fort Chipewyan – confirming what indigenous people have been reporting for years – Dr. John O’Connor is being attacked by the very federal department, Health Canada, that is responsible for keeping us safe. CBC Television’s 2007 Sunday documentary, A Town’s Toxic Questions, is well worth watching (CLICK HERE)

Although this environmental atrocity is happening in Northern Alberta, it affects all Canadians. The policies and repercussions of the decisions made in Alberta will impact our ability to respond to the environmental changes we are currently experiencing. For example, the massive amounts of fresh water consumed by tar sand production will decrease the amount available for human and ecological supports downstream; destruction of complex forest ecosystems decreases the habitat available for forest species and reduces our ability as a country to absorb greenhouse gases; pipelines will require habitat destruction across Saskatchewan and Manitoba, and risk aquifer contamination; increased numbers of super tankers along the coast of British Columbia will adversely impact marine life.

Indigenous peoples are standing up for their basic human rights and their children’s future. In doing so, they are protecting the Earth and the future for non-indigenous children as well. When your children and grandchildren ask, “Where were you and what did you do?” what will your answer be?

Some facts on the Tar Sands:

  • The Tar Sands, which underlie approximately 150,000 square kilometres of pristine Boreal Forest (an area the size of Florida!), are one of the biggest social and ecological challenges facing Canada and North America, fuelling climate change, destroying pristine boreal forest, and drying up important river systems.
  • Production requires polluting 2 to 5 barrels of fresh water to produce 1 barrel of oil.
  • Fresh water is turned into toxic tailing ponds. Tar Sands operations are licensed to divert 349 million cubic metres of water per year from the Athabasca River – twice the amount of water used by the City of Calgary. At least 90% of this water ends up in toxic tailings ponds, which already cover more than 50 square kilometers and can be seen from space.
  • Industry’s own data reveals that waste from the tar sands increases cancer causing pollutants in downstream water. Indigenous people living downstream are now suffering many serious adverse health effects, including elevated cancer rates.
  • Tar Sands oil produces three times more greenhouse gas emissions than a conventional barrel of oil.
  • The Tar Sands are the single fastest growing source of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in Canada and will constitute roughly 50% of the increase in overall Canadian GHG emissions between 1990 and 2012.

For more information on the Alberta tar sands project, see:

  • Pembina Institute is a leading authority on the Tar Sands. The institute advances sustainable energy solutions through innovative research, education, consulting and advocacy. CLICK HERE
  • Environmental Defense’s report, Canada’s Toxic Tar Sands: The Most Destructive Project on Earth, highlights the environmental and human health effects of the tar sands, and what the federal government should do.CLICK HERE
  • Indigenous Environmental Network: CLICK HERE
  • Scenes from the Tar Wars (Mother Jones, May 2008): CLICK HERE
  • Polaris Institute’s Tar Sands Watch: CLICK HERE
  • The Sierra Club of Canada’s web site, Tar Sands Time Out: CLICK HERE