Canada: Packed meeting discusses environmental justice plans

August 3, 2012

On July evenings, most people in Toronto are just trying to find ways to escape the heat and humidity. On July 30, more 150 people filled the room for a meeting on Contested Futures: Tar Sands and Environmental Justice.

Many had to sit on tables or stand to hear from two indigenous leaders of environmental justice actions in Ontario and two delegates to the People’s Summit Rio +20.

The meeting was initiated by the Greater Toronto Workers Assembly (International Solidarity Committee) and Toronto Bolivia Solidarity; a further 20 groups endorsed and helped build the event.

An organising meeting will discuss how to move forward with these proposals.

Ron Plain, an environmental policy analyst and anti-pollution activist from the Aamjiwnaang environmental group near Sarnia, told the opening session how the city’s petrochemical industry has transformed it into “the most polluted point in North America”.

Plain described this pollution’s toll among chemical plant workers. “My dad worked at Dow and died prematurely,” he said. “So did his entire shift ― and the other shift too. And this is just three hours from Toronto.”

The impact on health is so severe that his First Nation now experiences two female births for every male, Plain said. Experts from around the world have studied and reported on this calamitous development, which has now cropped up in other locations.

Meanwhile, Sarnia pollution continues unchecked. “We’re the canaries in the coal mine,” Plain said. “If you can’t reproduce, you disappear. This is the first sign of human extinction.”

Plain appealed to the meeting participants to help stop the processing of tar-sands products through Sarnia.

Referring to a recent Canadian government report slandering the environmental justice movement as a terrorist threat, Plain said: “Harper says that because threaten the very foundations of what he has built.”

John Henhawk, an activist and land defender from the Six Nations of the Grand River, spoke of his people’s historic constitution, the Great Law of Peace, adopted by the Haudenosaunee (Six Nations) almost 1000 years ago. In its spirit, he said, his people seek peace and mutual respect among all inhabitants.

Henhawk helped build a successful March for Peace, Respect, and Friendship on April 28, in Caledonia, Ontario. On the day, almost 1000 marchers sought to defend indigenous land claims and land stewardship along the Grand River in a spirit of “finding a new path, one of healing”, Henhawk said.

Six Nations activists were recently invited by residents in Dundalk, 150 kilometres north of Caledonia along the Grand River, to help build resistance to a dangerous project in the area.

A site only 350 metres from a school and close to the river was chosen for processing Toronto "biosolids". Biosolids is a public relations term for treated human waste.

Six Nations land defenders seek to exercise stewardship over all land within 10 kilometres of Grand River, a strip granted them by the British crown in 1784. Enbridge’s “Line Nine” pipeline cuts right through the strip.

Raul Burbano, reporting on the June Rio People’s Summit in Brazil, described a march against the mining multinational Vale Inco. It brought together miners from Inco’s Sudbury, Ontario, operations and peasant activists protesting against Vale Inco’s mines in several countries of the Global South.

“They chanted ‘Our struggle is your struggle,’ and that was the theme of our activities,” he said.

“Quebecois students in Rio joined with Brazilian students, who are struggling to keep education free, in a protest at the hotel where [Quebec premier] Jean Charest was staying.

“We planned a global day to stop environmentally destructive ‘fracking’ to extract oil and gas, to be held September 22. And on August 1 we are holding a continental day of protest against extractive industries.”

Seventy groups are taking part, with actions planned in 30 cities, including Toronto, across the hemisphere. “Most of the organising was done in Rio,” Burbano said.

We face interlocking crises climate, jobs, education. We're looking towards a new, communitarian value system.

“As [Bolivian activist] Pablo Solon commented, the different social movements will connect together through the struggle.”

Bryan Dale, a Rio People’s Summit delegate from the Toronto Council of Canadians, dissected the “Green Economy” project pushed at the official governmental Rio+20 conference. “It’s just a way for market-based mechanisms to move forward. Such schemes have been tested in Europe and have not worked.”

Dale contrasted to this the themes advanced in Rio by La Via Campesina, the farmers’ International whose English-Canadian affiliate is the National Farmers Union:

* System change not climate change.

* Environmental justice.

* Food sovereignty.

* Democratisation of energy systems.

* Defence of the commons.

“Socialism is the only way to save the planet. It can’t be done under capitalism,” Dale said.

“But socialism needs to be broken down and explained. We must show just how socialism can be different.”

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