By Valerie Lannon
“Canada’s tar sands, deposits of sand saturated with bitumen, contain twice the amount of carbon dioxide emitted by global oil use in our entire history. If we were to fully exploit this new oil source, and continue to burn our conventional oil, gas and coal supplies…sea levels would rise and destroy coastal cities. Global temperatures would become intolerable. Twenty to 50 percent of the planet’s species would be driven to extinction. Civilization would be at risk.”
This warning, from climate scientist James Hansen, is not just a future nightmare. The tar sands have been polluting and poisoning nearby Indigenous communities for years. In addition, the industry’s work conditions—especially lengthy overtime and travel from workers’ home communities—lead to addictions, family breakdown and, in some cases, violence against local Indigenous women and girls.
The state and social democracy
The state plays the central role in propping up the tar sands and its pipelines, for economic growth and to help fuel the Canadian and US militaries. The federal Conservative government that ruled from 2006 to 2016 aggressively promoted the tar sands and sparked a broad climate justice movement, so the incoming Liberal government campaigned on signing the Paris climate and respecting Indigenous communities. But when Indigenous communities, environmentalists and municipalities united against the TransMountain pipeline and the company refused to go ahead with the project, the Liberal government bought the pipeline for nearly $5 billion—with further billions to be spent on construction. Justin Trudeau summarized the capitalist logic: “no country would find 173 billion barrels of oil in the ground and leave them there.”
But it is not only the twin parties of Canadian capitalism, the Conservatives and the Liberals, who have supported climate destruction. Canada’s social democratic party, the NDP, has provincial governments in Alberta and British Columbia, and both have actively promoted pipelines. Alberta’s Premier Rachel Notley has ardently defended tar sands, and British Columbia’s Premier Horgan is opening up the northern part of the province for the massive Coastal GasLink project—which would take fracked gas via pipeline to the west coast. When the Wet’suwet’en people refused to allow the pipeline to cross their territory, the BC government allowed the Royal Canadian Mounted Police to invade the territory to enforce an injunction to allow the pipeline company through.
The only political party to oppose fossil fuel development and support Indigenous sovereignty is Quebec Solidaire, a left-wing political party that emerged from Quebec’s powerful social movements—from the anti-globalization movement of 2001, the women’s movement, and the Quebec student strike of 2012—and has ten members in Quebec’s national assembly.
Indigenous sovereignty and solidarity
Indigenous peoples have led the climate justice movement, challenging tar sands at its source and throughout the territories crossed by pipelines. Many First Nations across Turtle Island (the term that many Indigenous peoples use for North America) have signed the Treaty Alliance Against Tar Sands Expansion.
There have been major victories: the cancellation of the Northern Gateway pipeline (taking tar sands to the west coast); the cancellation of the Energy East pipeline (taking tar sands to the east coast); the delay of the Keystone XL pipeline (taking tar sands south through the US); and the delay of the TransMountain pipeline described above. Other pipelines have proceeded in spite of opposition, like Enbridge’s Line 3 (taking tar sands through central Canada and the US), and Line 9 (taking tar sands to the east coast).
While defending their territories, Indigenous activists have formed important alliances with environmentalists, municipalities and some trade unions. Canada’s largest union, UNIFOR, along with BC teachers and the BC Government Employees Union signed a solidarity accord with the Save the Fraser (River) Declaration created by First Nations, which successfully led the fight against the Northern Gateway pipeline. The statement reads: “We, the undersigned, say to our First Nations brothers and sisters, and to the world, that we are prepared to stand with you to protect the land, the water and our communities from the Enbridge pipelines and tankers project and similar projects to transport tar sands oil.”
But much more is needed for rank and file workers to consistently support Indigenous sovereignty and the fight for climate justice, and this requires connecting the climate justice movement to the working class in its totality—Indigenous and non-Indigenous, high-carbon and low-carbon. Tens of thousands of workers travel to the tar sands in search of jobs and higher wages that they can’t find in their home communities. But with the decline in oil prices more than 40,000 workers lost their jobs, and the same governments that bailed out oil companies have done nothing for unemployed workers.
In 2015 activists from Indigenous, labour, environmental and social justice communities came together to launch the Leap Manifesto. This calls for respect for Indigenous rights and support for workers across the carbon spectrum, ensuring no one is left behind in the fight for a fossil-free future. This has helped inspire new conversations about a “Green New Deal” on both sides of the colonial border.
The fight for a just transition must respect Indigenous control over their territories and ensure fossil sector workers can transition to climate jobs. Joining the Million Climate Jobs campaigns from the UK to South Africa, Canada’s Green Economy Network has outlined the potential for hundreds of thousands of jobs in sustainable energy creation, mass transit manufacturing and operations, and building retrofits—not to mention the clean-up of thousands of disused oil wells and toxic tailings ponds.
In addition, we need to think of just transitions for the millions employed in socially necessary, already existing low-carbon jobs such as recycling workers, early childhood workers, personal care workers and others in the health and education sectors. Improving the wages and conditions of these jobs, disproportionately done by women and racialized people, adds another dimension to climate justice. As Naomi Klein explained, “Turning low-paying low-carbon jobs into higher-paying jobs is itself a climate solution and should be recognized as such.” Indigenous communities, high-carbon workers and low-carbon workers face a common enemy in the huge corporations that exploit them, and the colonial and capitalist state that represses them. Uniting the working class to support Indigenous communities and fight for climate justice is the key challenge facing the movement today. Only achieving the dream of Indigenous sovereignty and a just transition can end the nightmare of capitalism’s climate chaos.