A Key Strategy to Stop the Tar Sands: International Alliance

In northern Alberta, Beaver Lake Cree Nation has stewarded the lands since time immemorial. But now, their traditional territory has become ground zero for dirty fossil fuel expansion. 

The tar sands involve both open-pit mining of bitumen, and ‘in-situ’ steam extraction to pull bitumen from deep within the Earth. Both methods cause devastating water pollution in the extraction and mining process, while the ‘sour’ crude product that results from the process is among the dirtiest forms of carbon on the planet. The tar sands are Canada’s fastest growing source of pollution and the largest industrial project on Earth. 

Beaver Lake Cree Nation is taking on the government and industry in an unprecedented legal action to stop the tar sands and protect their lands. 

International solidarity, spurred by grassroots organisers and frontline allies, catapulted the Tar Sands Trial onto the global stage. A pivotal moment of support came from the Cooperative Bank in Manchester, England who contacted Beaver Lake Cree Nation with news that the bank’s membership had determined tar sands to be the biggest global contributor to climate change and were offering funds to contribute toward the costs of the Tar Sands Trial.

For RAVEN’s “In Conversation” series via Instagram, we were joined by co-founder UK Tar Sands Network, organizer and campaigner Suzanne Dhaliwal, who has spearheaded a European coalition to stop the Tar Sands. Suzanne Dhaliwal, voted one of London’s most influential people in Environment 2018, is a key strategist and organiser in the international movement to stop the tar sands. 

In 2009, Suzanne co-founded the UK Tar Sands Network, which challenged BP and Shell investments in the Canadian tar sands in solidarity with frontline Indigenous communities, spurring the internationalisation of the fossil fuel divestment movement. She continues to serve as director and campaigner for the organisation. In 2017 she spearheaded a European coalition to challenge the insurance industry on their underwriting of highly polluting coal and tar sands projects. She is currently completing a Research Fellowship at the Centre for Research in Spatial Environmental and Cultural Politics at University of Brighton, researching the role of media and representation in climate justice organizing.

Suzanne spoke with RAVEN Communications Strategist, Maia Wikler, and shared the insights on dynamic tactics to stop the tar sands, why the international community should care and how to show up to the movement in a good way:

“If we’re gonna tackle the root causes of violence against Indigenous Peoples we have to look at mining and have a real conversation within Canada. The UK has a press that people respect so I tried to think about how we can internationalize this and work with these communities. 

In 2009 I connected with the Indigenous Environmental Network (IEN) and that’s how we created the UK Tar Sands Network. It became the European arm of IEN and from there we started to work with frontline communities. Our strategy was ‘following the money pipeline’:  who was invested in this?

Many of the treaties being violated were actually signed with the Crown, so it made sense that we needed to work in solidarity. There’s so much globally at stake: the scale of destruction is ecocidal. We know if we don’t stop the tar sands we don’t have a chance of averting climate catastrophe.

From the beginning it was a very tiny initiative, this coalition. What evolved was the commitment.  When we saw the first actions we did outside the headquarters of BP and Shell, we saw those actions went all over the press in Canada. That strategy of doing actions in the UK and the strategy of the press helps to increase the leverage and negotiating power of First Nations communities and to do that brand damage to Canada. There’s this perception that Canada is not as bad as the US but it’s really important for people to understand the slow industrial genocide against Indigenous folks continues. Canada really worked to lobby against EU climate legislation to keep the tar sands rolling and we sought to expose how Canadian trade agreements factor into the tar sands as well. 

There’s not one strategy about the tar sands; there needs to be a whole ecosystem of strategies. There are legal strategies, divestment, change lending policies around  FPIC [free, prior and informed consent]. We don’t want any projects that don’t have the free prior and informed consent of communities to be invested in. In 2012, we started looking at insurance. We did speaker tours with Eriel Deranger, Melina Loubican Massimo and we have also had to educate about the realities of colonialism. 

There has never been any cumulative impact assessments of the projects that are in the tar sands. Industry likes to say they can clean it up with carbon capture storage technology (CCS) which is unproven. You cannot clean up the tar sands with CCS: the strategies for reclamation and safety are not fit. 

We need to understand pipelines at the source, and tar sands are a major source.

The tar sands are heavy oil which uses huge amounts of water and gas. You are using caviar to make spam. We need to understand these sacrifices. The tar sands are talked about as though nobody lives there and as if it is empty land. The erasure of that land use is violence.

Industry says you have to get rid of the ‘overburden’ to get to the tar sands. Well the overburden is life. We have to understand the relationships to that land and the myths that oil has any part in an energy pathway that will take us to the future.

RAVEN: How can folks engage who might never see the tar sands but want to embody responsibility and accountability to this issue?

Before you speak on this issue take time to listen to not only the impacts but also the analysis of how we’ve gotten to this point. How is it that communities on the frontline understand the situation? How do we decolonize science and our understanding of knowledge? 

In addition to understanding the impacts: understand the relationships. The art of understanding the tar sands is understanding residential schools and trauma that is part of this story as well. There is preparation to take to be an ally. 

Then map out power and privilege, tap into your power. What are the resources you have available, do you have a way to amplify? Do you know people in the media? Do you know a politician who can put this on their radar? Do that mapping: there are so many entry points into this. Understand your role and make that commitment. Understand the myths of the tar sands, take time to think about how we can create alternative jobs and be compassionate with workers as well.

RAVEN: How can we sustain our vision and commitments to this fight because success isn’t linear and there will always be setbacks? 

“If we constantly bear witness and listen, it will keep us grounded and have a sense of accountability as well. Settle into longer-term thinking of how we can keep building relationships. 

In terms of burnout, maybe that tactic has exhausted itself or the movement spaces aren’t the right ones for you and it’s time to step back. Maybe there’s a time for meditation, reflection or going completely behind the scenes. Have a relationship with the land so you can remember what you are fighting for and trying to save. Shift from sometimes an analytical strategic mindset and to a care-based way of thinking, which keeps me motivated because I feel responsible for those spaces.”

Watch the full conversation here:

The impact of the tar sands has been particularly dire for Beaver Lake Cree Nation. Due to its profound toxic effects, tar sands development represents a failure of the Crown to uphold Treaty promises that Beaver Lake Cree should be able to to hunt, trap, fish, and gather “for as long as the sun shines, the rivers flow and the grasses grow.” Yet, 90 percent of Beaver Lake Cree territory has been scarred and polluted by numerous industrial projects. The numbers are staggering: 35,000 oil and gas sites, 21,700 kilometres of seismic lines, 4,028 kilometres of pipeline, and 948 kilometres of road – with devastating effects on wildlife populations like the caribou, and fish species.For over a decade, Beaver Lake Cree Nation have championed a  constitutional challenge over the impacts of multiple tar sands mines and other industrial development in their  territory. They are the first community to ever challenge – and be granted a trial – on the cumulative environmental, social, and cultural impacts of industrial development. You can support Beaver Lake Cree’s Tar Sands Trial  here.

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