Jody Williams: Into the oil sands

Day 1 (Oct. 8, 2012):

Delegation members arrive throughout the day and our first meeting is dinner with Mayor Melissa Blake here at our hotel in Ft. McMurray, Alberta, home to the oil companies that have been exploiting the tar sands for decades.  Suncor, which we will be touring on Oct 9, has been here for more than 40 years.  The mayor is young, energetic and talks with the speed of a machine gun.

She confines her remarks to the needs of the community in the face of the extremely rapid growth in the area over the past decade. Definitely a challenge. She talks about environmental efforts such as banning plastic bags in grocery stores.  She talks about transitioning to other energy sources before the oil sands run out – in about 100 years.  She expresses concern for “the environment” but does not talk about the impact of oil extraction in the tar sands on the immediate environment nor does she talk about the impact of tar sands oil extraction on the global environment, on climate change.  She wonders, jokingly, why people always “pick on” the oil sands.


Day 2 (Oct. 9, 2012)

Our Morning:  We had an overview by Melina Laboucan-Massimo of Greenpeace.  We hear that the tar sands are about the size of England and Wales combined or of Florida.  They deforest Boreal forests, the lungs of the plant.  The forests are the world’s largest terrestrial carbon sink.

The mines are huge – their footprints compare with those of cities.  Some of the machinery used to dig the mines is three stories tall.   The “tailing ponds” which contain contaminated water used in the process of extracting the oil from the tar sands.  The water in the ponds contains many toxins, including mercury and lead.

She noted that some $14 billion has been taken out of the tar sands while her family still lives without running water.  Discussion doesn’t change things on the ground.  “Consultation” with First Nations doesn’t mean a thing.  Oil companies don’t care what the people say, think or want.  Daily, tar sands use enough natural gas in the processing of the tar sands to heat six million homes.  There are increased health problems – respiratory problems, cancers.

She says that last year her community suffered through one of the biggest oil spills in Alberta’s history.  Plains Midstream, a company out of Texas, had an incident resulting in 4.5 million liters of oil contaminating the land.  Information about the spill was not made available to the community for five days.  She calls what is happening because of the tar sands “cultural and environmental genocide.”

Later, that afternoon, we take a bus to Ft. Mckay and meet with dozens of First Nations women at the Community Health Center.  These are some of the words we hear:

*  My sister was a chief years ago and she talked a lot about the environment.  We’ve been fighting with the industry and the government for years and getting nowhere.  We can’t use the water from the river.  We can’t fish.  We can’t hunt.  There are “no trespassing signs” on our traditional lands.  Our children have breathing problems.  Everything has been taken away from us by greed.  What are we gaining, anyway, as Native people?

*  There is no willingness of the government to investigate the impact on health of the tar sands.

*  I was attacked by my family members for speaking out at Moose Lake.  All is gone – our languages, our songs, our drums – our way of life.  A lot of us don’t have voices.  A lot of us are afraid to speak.  I have five grandchildren and I cannot teach them to live off the land.  We need more people to step up and protect our culture.  How much more do we have to fight?

*  I am a counselor here.  People are grieving the loss of culture.  People are hurting, sick and can’t sleep.  People self-medicate with alcohol and drugs.  Last year we had 17 attempted suicides and one that was “successful”.  Last year we had five months of bottled water brought into the community because of the toxins in the water.  People are still afraid of the water.

*  The voices of the youth are not heard.  I believe people can take a stand.  I’m scared for the future when the elders are gone.

*  We honestly didn’t have a choice about accepting the tar sands.  I feel that people are just enduring.  It’s either poverty or working in the tar stands.  When the government decides to bring in a new company, why don’t they look at the cumulative impact of the tar sands and not just the impact of that one company?

*  I was born here and I will be buried here.  In the past years, I’ve lost 7 people, including my mother and my father to cancer.  Myself and my sister were just diagnosed with cancer.  For me, it is the second time.  My daughter will be 21 this month and all she has seen is people dying around here.  The industry wants to say it is all bullshit.  They want to give us money to shut us up.  They can give us a million dollars and I will tell them to shove it…It won’t give us back what we’ve lost.  The industry ask us every six months for input; they never come back to answer our questions.

*  Divide and conquer.  That’s what they do.  Some family members don’t even talk to each other.  I think it is up to us women to bring about change…..

(To be continued…)