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Tar sands rife with environmental racism

First Nation community downstream from tar sands experience abnormally high rates of rare cancers

Hundreds of students, professors, and concerned citizens flocked to Leacock 26 on Friday evening to hear how crude oil extraction in northern Alberta affects Montreal and North America at “Tar Sands: Stopping the flow of destruction.”

The event was headlined by key-note speaker Mike Mercredi, resident of the Cree and Dene community of Fort Chipewyan, Alberta – one of the areas most heavily damaged by the tar sands flow and Albertan oil extraction. It also featured speeches by Clayton Thomas-Muller of the Indigenous Environmental Network (IEN), Macdonald Stainsby of, and Montreal-based journalist and writer Maya Rolbin-Ghanie.

“Tar Sands” began with a short preview of the film H²O, followed by a song by Thomas-Muller before his speech. He first described his work with IEN in Canada and the U.S., and then went into the issue of tar sands from a continental perspective, and the obligation to resist tar sand extraction.

“Tar sands is not just a problem in northern Alberta. It impacts the Arctic Ocean, the Gulf of Mexico, the Pacific Ocean, and the Atlantic Ocean,” said Thomas-Muller. “People see it as a great monster, with a body and tentacles spreading across the continent.”

The complications associated with tar sand extraction include the use of four barrels of ground water per production of a single barel of crude oil, and the production of five times more greenhouse gas than the regular extraction process, according to Greenpeace Canada. Extraction will also require cutting through the 4.3 million hectares of Boreal forest, under which the tar sands currently sit in Canada – and Greenpeace doubts that the area will be successfuly rehabilitated afterwards.

Thomas-Muller, a native of a Cree community in northern Manitoba, also noted the social impacts of tar sand extraction when he raised the issue of “environmental racism.” He noted that First Nations peoples and communities are often the most heavily affected by oil refineries, and their contamination of their surrounding environment.

“The reality is, some of us are carrying a greater burden. Some of us are less privileged,” he said.

Stainsby then followed with a short speech about how the current economic recession was affecting large oil companies. He noted how companies cut costs by laying off local workers and hiring temporary foreign workers, who work for far less than the minimum wage.

“The system is trying desperately to save itself,” said Stainsby, who pointed out, like many of the other speakers, the importance of all North Americans to rally against large oil companies.

“People often see it as 1,200 people versus the most powerful energy corporations in the world, when actually it could be the entire communities of North America versus just a board of white men in suits,” he said.

Rolbin-Ghaine then spoke briefly about the local impact of the tar sands issue, describing how the Enbridge oil company was planning to launch the “Trailbreaker” pipeline project – which entails reversing the flow of oil between Montreal and Sarnia, Ontario, bringing over 230 barrels of oil to Montreal each day.

Mercredi was the last to speak, and began by telling the story of his own tragic and intimate association with tar sands refineries near his community. Mercredi recounted how he initially worked for the Syncrude company in Fort McMurray, Alberta – near Fort Chipweyan and the main site of tar sands oil extraction – but when his uncle, and later his aunt and close friend died of a rare form of cancer, he quit his job with the company. He now works to fight the oil companies in his area.

“We were indoctrinated to believe that [oil extraction] was progress, that the world was going to benefit,” said Mercredi. “The whole time, I just sat in my truck and watched them tear up the land.”

Mercredi talked about how the tar sands have contaminated the water around Fort Chipweyan, leading to 47 cases – six in one year – of a rare form of cancer that is usually only contracted by one in 100,000. He also used the term “environmental racism” to describe the impact of tar sands, because while the ratio would be considered an epidemic in Montreal, but it is largely ignored in Fort Chipweyan.

“There is genocide happening right now in our country,” he said. “Our graveyards are getting full.”

Mercredi concluded by calling on help from Montrealers, saying that North America’s future generations will eventually be affected on the same scale as Fort Chipweyan, unless steps are taken to stop the extraction of tar sands oil and develop alternative energy sources.

“The monster is now affecting you. All refineries bring is displacement, death, and destruction. They don’t help the economy or bring good jobs,” he said. “We have to make choices for the people yet to come, if they get here.”