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Environmentalism in Alberta?

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Issue: 48 Section: Environment Geography: West Alberta Topics: social movements, tar sands

October 30, 2007

Environmentalism in Alberta?

Activists say communities are beginning to stand up to tar sands

by Samantha Power

"Stop the tar sands man" and other demonstrators appeared outside a stampede breakfast hosted by Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach. Activists say Albertans are increasingly concerned about the environmental impact of oil development.

In Alberta it's easy to forget what political change looks like. Still, in a province coated with deep blue Tory promises of a stable economic future, the paint is beginning to wear thin. In three consecutive consultations Albertans have clearly stated that they desire government intervention, whether it's to create housing, to slow the pace of growth or to increase the royalties collected from tar sands extraction.

Following his 1992 election victory, Premier Ralph Klein declared the province 'open for business,' and Albertans, fearful of growing debt, accepted a vision of stable growth after years of economic depression. As natural resources were opened up to massive exploitation, however, the result has been an overheated economy, and a crumbling infrastructure unable to handle the influx of workers and families.

Today, Albertans are beginning to stir. Leila Darwish, Associate Prairie Chapter Director of the Sierra Club, sees change afoot. "In Alberta, for the first time in a long time we've been hearing more and more from impacted communities that the government they've supported no longer supports their interests. As an environmental movement we have to be ready to act on that."

"For years and years environmental activists and scientists have been raising the problems of all these issues and for years they have just been completely ignored. The community has lost a lot of that sense of success about moving that environmental agenda forward," says Bill Moore-Kilgannon, Executive Director of Public Interest Alberta. But as a long-time Alberta activist, Moore-Kilgannon believes the environmental message is finally getting through. "We're now hearing sentiments saying, yes we produce oil here, but ultimately we are living here and we want to have clean water."

After ten years in the environmental movement, Darwish says it's about mobilizing communities. "There has been a lot of negotiating with government. It's one thing to sit at the table if you have power and a big stick, but if you don't have any power you can't negotiate."

With recent threats of nuclear power stations in the communities of Whitecourt and Peace River, local activist movements are growing. The Tipping Point project in Whitecourt is composed of parents and concerned community members--exactly the composition growing movements need to see. They're not alone. The Sierra Club is in these communities providing training and information on political action. Holding workshops for activists and public forums for the larger community, Darwish says the Sierra Club is attempting to put power back in the people's hands. "We need to be mobilizing communities and people," says Darwish, "as a movement not just reaching out to join us on our big campaign, but to help people in a local fight and empower them to step it up in their own communities."

Valerie Langer, a campaigner with BC ForestEthics' Great Bear Rainforest campaign, thinks Albertans are on the right path. "The population of Alberta is in the right place, they're getting angry and getting wise in how their land is given away to corporate interests." Working to save the Great Bear Rainforest in British Columbia, a campaign that was ultimately won, Langer credits Greenpeace's success to boycotts against buyers of paper products. "The market is a very powerful tool and if you can shift the buying habits you question whether it's worthwhile for the company to invest," says Langer.

The marketplace is just one pressure point. Great Bear Rainforest campaigners used many tactics. In addition to international attention from Greenpeace, local activists, students and Haida elders stood together in defense of Clayquot Sound, blocking logging and defending the last 13 intact watersheds--an action that ultimately resulted in over 900 arrests. Clayquot Sound and the Great Bear Rainforest campaign was about aboriginal land rights and resource management.

These issues are familiar to anti-tar sands campaigners.

With years of environmental negotiating falling on deaf government ears and recent public consultations falling by the wayside, civil disobedience might be Alberta's last resort in ending a devastating project. "Direct action has always had a role in social change because it's had the role of shocking and bringing to light oppression ideas that haven't been named," says Jorge Sousa, an educational policy professor with the University of Alberta and a specialist in community governance models. He believes all tactics need to be engaged to create public debate. And new tactics are finally showing up.

With the tar sands defeating Canada's ability to meet its Kyoto targets and carbon emissions estimated to increase to 80 million tonnes, the world is finally taking notice. Alberta's traditionally conservative political environment might be shocked into action by tactics of organizations like Greenpeace, an environmental group known for its radical or militant direct action, which has recently opened a new office in Alberta.

Darwish's hopes remain with the people. "We have a government that thinks people are pretty complacent and can get away with doing whatever they need to do and we need to show that people are willing to fight, and to fight hard."

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The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.

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