|This is a picture of Syncrude's base mine. The yellow structures are the bases of pyramids made of sulphur - it is not economical for Syncrude to sell the sulphur so it stockpiles it instead. Behind that is the tailings pond, held in by what is recognized as the largest dam in the world. The extraction plant is just to the right of this photograph and most of the mine is to the left. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)|
|Photograph of the Athabasca Tar Sands in Alberta, c. 1900-1930 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)|
|This map shows the extent of the oil sands in Alberta, Canada. The three oil sand deposits are known as the Athabasca Oil Sands, the Cold Lake Oil Sands, and the Peace River Oil Sands. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)|
I have seldom heard a large cinema audience more silent than at the Cinema Politica Concordia screening last night towards the end of The Good Neighbour, a one-hour documentary in which Norwegian filmmaker Astrid Schau-Larsen investigates the tale of the Alberta tar sands. As is inevitable I suppose she produced an horrendous account of how Canada is boxing on with this suicidal project, that has catapulted Canada among the top carbon polluters in the world, and that seems guaranteed, almost, to ensure that the world will lose its fight to diminish the pace of global climate change.
It was as if this Canadian audience, confronted with what is being done in their name, was stunned into complete silence and awe before the immense scale of the work being done around Fort McMurray, and the awful likely consequences as the project is doubled in size, then tripled, then quadrupled, as the present plans suggest it will be, over the next few years.
Produced in English by a Norwegian film company called Sideways Film, this documentary zeroed in on the parlous state of the indigenous people of the region, whose lands have been seized by the oil companies (with the complicity of the Alberta government) and who have had to watch helplessly as gazillions of dollars worth of oil has been siphoned off from under their noses, and they have received, if I may use an expression from my New Zealand childhood, buggar all.
As explained in the company web site this film shows a young Norwegian woman, Julie Strand Offerdal, who has tried to get answers from Statoil, a company partly owned by the Norwegian government, in Oslo and anywhere else she could contact them, and finally, in desperation, decides to undertake a journey in a truck that she fuels with discarded vegetable oil, in the hope of getting her answers by simply seeing the project herself. It was never too clear to me why she undertook to use in her truck discarded oils that have been used to fry chips, but it was apparently for some symbolic reason, such as that she didn’t want to increase her carbon footprint by making the journey.
That is the sort of phony punctiliousness that is so often expected of environmentalists, the typical example being when a bunch of environmentalists drive up in cars to a meeting designed to solve the carbon imprint on the Earth, and, their discussion over, drive away again.
It always seems to me this kind of criticism is misplaced. How else are people expected to get to a meeting, any meeting, without expending some carbon-based fuel? That is the nature of modern life and although it is laudable to try to limit one’s carbon footprint, to use the modish expression, the fact is, even environmentalists are caught in the practices of the modern world, whether they like it or not. Such stunts as Ms. Offerdal pulled are more likely to be used by anti-environmentalists as proof of how naïve and misplaced are the priorities of those who are trying to save the earth. A simple fact is that the solution to the problem is more likely to come from people meeting to discuss it at whatever cost in carbon emissions, than if it was decided not to hold the meeting because it would add to our carbon emissions. Give us a break, fellas!
Anyway, Julie was a nice young woman, and I suppose she did give some inspiration to certain enthusiasts by proving you don’t need oil to travel around in trucks. But let’s leave that aside for the moment. She contacted representatives of the indigenous people who eloquently told her of the depredations, even by Statoil, a company that prides itself on being environmentally and socially progressive and using sustainable methods.
She contrasted Norway’s happy experience as an oil-producing nation, because the oil was mined at sea, and Norwegians, except for a few who worked on the rigs, never saw any of its bad effects. Julie, arrived in Alberta, stood helplessly looking at the huge destruction wrought on the landscape and said forlornly, “I have never seen anything like this. I could never have imagined anything like this.”
She said as a result of the oil-revenues, and the wise use made of them in Norway, the country had free education, and every other facility known to human beings in their search for a good life. Whereas, the indigenous people of Alberta, where the Norwegian company gets at least part of its income from, had been deprived to a large extent of their drinking water, had lost their original hunting way of life because the oil activity had driven away the animals, and mostly lived in trailers or shacks as the money was shovelled out of their lands into the pockets of absentee businessmen. This film is what documentary film is meant to be for: a weapon in the battle for societal change.
It was even more effective because it followed another 48-minute film, called Women;Climate;Change made by women in four continents, detailing the work being done by women to improve the environment they are living in. Many of these women were impressive, both in stature and in personality, but of especial interest to me were two spokeswomen for the indigenous people of Canada. The one who was given the most screen time by director Liz Miler, was Jasmine Thomas of the Saik’uz First Nation, part of the Carrier-Sekani Tribal Council, which is not far from Vanderhoof along the northern road across BC that leads to Smithers and on to Terrace and Prince Rupert. This young woman was extraordinarily eloquent as she described the position her people have taken to be leaders among the defenders of the Canadian land, and when she mentioned the proposed pipeline that Enbridge is trying to force through to the BC coast to carry the tar sands gluck, she said simply, “We will never agree to that.” She said something like 150 territories occupied by indigenous people lie along the proposed route, and her statement was expressed with such undemonstrative conviction that I do not doubt their resolve. I have been in that community during my many trips across BC north over the years. I remember leafing through a family’s photo album there, and being amazed at how many members of the family had died prematurely, how many of them had suffered imprisonment, how many of them were ill. And I know how they have suffered in that part of Canada from being deprived of their lands by the provincial government long ago when they allowed Alcan to build their smelter in Kitimat. The native people were simply ignored in that whole process, and they haven’t forgotten it.
This young woman referred back to her grandmother also called Jasmine Thomas, who was expert in indigenous herbal knowledge, which she had passed on through her family to today’s Jasmine Thomas, and it was beautiful and moving to see the old lady as she sat in her canoe while her grand-daughter paid such a wholly felt tribute to her wisdom and generosity.
The second Canadian woman of note was, I believe, unnamed. But in a very brief statement, this indigenous middle-aged woman described how she had been taught by her elders how much people depended on the Earth, how generously the Earth had nurtured them, and how having learned these things, she had always realized that we have a duty to look after this entity that had so wonderfully looked after us. This was one of the most succinct and moving descriptions of this well-known indigenous mantra that I have ever seen.
The second film referred back to the first film when the young Norwegian woman, in commentary, said the native people were told that these pipelines should be approved because they had nothing to do with the oil sands, just as the roads now criss-crossing the landscape had nothing to do with the oil installations, and just as how the coastal terminals had nothing to do with the pipelines that would feed them. Ms Thomas said: “We will never agree to this pipeline being built through our land.”
And that is good enough for me. I believe them and thank them for it.