Taking on the Tar Sands

Student Societies

My inspiration

While at a protest outside RBS in April 2010, a member of the Rain Forest Action Network and Native Canadian, Ariel Deranger, spokeabout how the Tar Sands were affecting the lives of many First Nation communities, and it was this personal story that really moved me. This was why, when given the chance, I applied to go to Alberta, Canada with People and Planet – to hear personal stories so I could help put a humanitarian angle on the Tar Sands campaign, rather than it being about square kilometres and tonnes of carbon.

All I knew about the Tar Sands originally, was that the oil extraction was the size of England and Wales and that you could see the toxic tailings ponds from the moon. I also kept repeating the phrase ‘it’s the most destructive industry on the planet’ which was getting monotonous, and I needed to find out more about how this was actually affecting people on a daily basis instead of reverting to a wide and predictable angle. I felt the need to understand the complexity of what’s at stake and to have had communication with those I was representing

The trip

With just one weekend of getting to know each other we set off to stay with the Beaver Lake Cree Nation, who lived in close proximity to the Tar Sands in Northern Alberta; eight students, two People and Planet staff, two independent documentary makers (all relative strangers at this point) and Colin Baines, a staff member from the Co-operative Bank.

On arriving in Edmonton there were a few things we found difficult to digest other than the airplane food:

  1. There were a hockey team called The Oilers.
  2. The cars were huge and no one was walking, even short distances that could be walked easily.
  3. Our driver, a First Nation Canadian, worked as security for an oil company as, he explained, all the jobs in the area were linked to the oil industry.

Throughout the trip there was a great contrast between the low moments and the high. We would spend some days driving through the extraction sites, having to be constantly aware of security and making sure the tapes were safe – a few interviews were shot and we would hurry away, usually sleeping in the trucks once the adrenaline wore off and the exhaustion kicked in. The Tar Sands were even more disgusting than I imagined – I stepped outside to take a photograph and was caught off guard by the smell and the fumes and the sound of sonic booms piercing the air. These noises that sounded like gun cracks were meant to deter birds from landing on the tailings ponds and dying instantly.

We also spent some days getting to know the Beaver Lake Cree Community and getting involved in their annual Powwow, a cultural festival of dance and celebration. We were introduced as their environmental managers and included in their grand entry ceremony which was a huge privilege. It was here that we made connections with community members and began to learn more about how the oil industry was affecting their community. We heard many personal accounts of how the animals, traditionally hunted, were contaminated and becoming extinct and how the water sources are being polluted by toxic chemicals.

On the final day in Canada we staged a protest outside the Alberta Environment Agency in Edmonton. We had been told by Suncor representatives that there were regulations given to them by the Alberta Environment, so they were being corporately responsible. We were angered by this response, and felt that the Environment Agency must be blind to allow so much contamination of their country. Our banner read “Alberta, Don’t turn a Blind Eye to the Tar Sands” and had banners and information about four different issues; contaminated fish, poisoned water, caribou extinction and runaway climate change.

Thoughts after the trip

The trip, although upsetting, was a incredibly beneficial to the Tar Sands campaign in many ways.

We learned that some of the Native people feel like they have become ‘economic hostages’ to the Oil Industry, so having us there would have been encouraging for the Community in their Legal Case against the oil companies and governments undermining of their Indigenous Treaty Rights. As this stance is often the most difficult one to take.

Furthermore, we have come up with a Tar Sands Free campaign in which we will be lobbying universities to remove all their financial investments from the Tar Sands. OneWorld society, the St Andrews People and Planet branch, will be lobbying the University to swap from the Royal Bank of Scotland (who have given $7.5 billion to oil companies working in the area to date) to a more ethical bank. The eight of us that went on the trip will also be doing a number of speaker events at Universities around the country – and will also be speaking at Shared Planet, when we are going to be hosting some of the Beaver Lake Cree Youth in the UK to allow them the opportunity to get their voices heard and so we can combine campaign strategies.

If you would like to hear more about my experiences in Alberta, or ask any questions about the campaign then feel free to email oneworldsoc@st-andrews.ac.uk. We have regular meetings, film screenings and campaign planning too which we would love you to join.  We are currently having weekly Tar Sands Campaign meetings on Mondays at 5pm in the Mansfield Scheillion room so please come along to that if you can.

Watch out for Taking on Tarmageddon, which is the documentary made while we were in Alberta, coming out early 2012!

 

Useful links

My mission statement: http://www.smk.org.uk/environment-2011/

Tar Sands Free website: http://peopleandplanet.org/tarsands

Campaign Facebook page: http://www.facebook.com/pages/People-Planets-Beaver-Lake-Tar-Sands-Youth-Solidarity-Exchange/209567545750060?ref=ts

OneWorld Facebook page: http://www.facebook.com/groups/35775563516/

Shared Planet: http://peopleandplanet.org/shared-planet-2011

Taking on Tarmageddon short films:http://vimeo.com/tarmageddon

 


 

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alistair.macleod
Ali is project manager of Transition University of St Andrews.