On Thursday and Friday, the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada (MISC) will host “Petrocultures 2014: Oil, Energy and Canada’s Future” as their annual conference. McGill’s page on the event promises that the conference will be an opportunity to discuss “how oil and energy shape our national identity,” and will include such questions as “Is ours a petro-economy? Can we afford our way of life?” and “How safe is our oil? From Lac-Mégantic to Fort McMurray, questions of oil safety are front and centre. Who can we trust to ensure the safety of our oil?”
QPIRG-McGill, in writing this letter, wishes to unequivocally denounce Petrocultures 2014, and the MISC in its capacity as host. Under the fig-leaf of a ‘balanced debate’ on oil-based economies, Petrocultures legitimizes a mode of socio-economic organization that is having already-devastating effects on communities and ecosystems. The positing of ‘petrocultures’ as an interesting topic concerning our “national identity” erases the ongoing colonialism involved in Canadian resource extraction. No less importantly, the inaccessible price of the conference is another way to exclude the voices of those most affected by climate change.
The fact that in Montreal, a university can host a conference about fossil fuel extraction that lacks any focus on global warming is telling of how insulated most of its participants are from the real impacts of climate change.
Though denied by some of the invited speakers, the fact remains that fossil fuel extraction, pipelines and the like are major contributors to global climate change. Importantly, the impacts of global warming will not be evenly spread around the world. Ecosystems that are in the worst position to adapt to climate change are located in areas of the world that are being most devastated by the global capitalist economy. Climate-change related deaths are already estimated at five million per year, mainly concentrated in the Global South. Environmental disasters, such as Typhoon Haiyan which killed thousands of people in the Philippines this past November, are only the tip of the iceberg. Climate change’s ecological, political, and social effects will only be exacerbated as time goes on.
The fact that in Montreal, a university can host a conference about fossil fuel extraction that lacks any focus on global warming is telling of how insulated most of its participants are from the real impacts of climate change. Wealthy, non-Indigenous Canadians are far removed from the worst ravages of climate change, and it is only from this standpoint that MISC is able to propose such a distanced and disinterested conference that is seriously out of touch with what is, in fact, a question of life or death for so many.
Furthermore, to focus on how oil has affected Canada’s “national identity” masks that both “Canada” and its oil industry are predicated on an ongoing history of attempted genocide and assimilation of Indigenous peoples, as well as the destruction of their territories. We cannot honestly discuss the impact of oil extraction and processing projects without recognizing that these projects have always involved obliterating not only tenets of free, prior, and informed consent but also any commitment to Indigenous sovereignty. The effects of these projects on the health of Indigenous peoples, and the surrounding lands, waters, and ecosystems are so severe that they are clearly part and parcel of the genocidal, settler colonial project.
Petrocultures gives the false appearance of presenting many sides of current environmental debates.
In this context, the question “Is ours a petroculture?” is unlikely to address the realities of the First Peoples of these territories, and the fact that the only Indigenous representation at the conference will be there to discuss the question “Who owns our oil?” seems like a mockery.
Petrocultures gives the false appearance of presenting many sides of current environmental debates. In fact, the conference represents minor variations from one side: that of the tar sands industry. Petrocultures participants will hear from the former chair of the Oil Sands Community Alliance. They will hear Satya Das promote the idea that we should simply make the tar sands a bit “greener.” They will hear from so-called environmental groups like ForestEthics, who have no structural accountability or transparency to actual environmental movements or First Nations, but who instead receive 80 per cent of their funding from foundations such as Pew Charitable Trusts, which has deep ties to the oil industry. Furthermore, Petrocultures participants will also hear from white-supremacist journalist Ezra Levant, advocate for the criminalization of people of colour and Indigenous communities and whose tar sands advocacy group, Ethical Oil, recently coined the Twitter hashtag “#IndianIgnorant.”
Finally, the $100-150 non-student price of conference registration severely limits those who can actually participate. Those who can afford this fee are not likely to be on the front lines of resisting oil extraction and processing, nor are they likely to be among those most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.
For all of these reasons, QPIRG-McGill denounces the Petrocultures conference. In doing so, we wish to state our solidarity with Indigenous communities resisting neo-colonial extraction projects on and around their territory, and with all others who are impacted by climate change and environmental destruction resulting from our continued use of fossil fuels.
QPIRG-McGill Board of Directors 2013-2014