Thursday, February 26, 2009

A Few Lessons For Michael Ignatieff

I'm a proud and active member of the Liberal Party of Canada, but I have never made any secret of the fact that I disagree with our new leader on a growing number of issues.

I guess we can add the Alberta tar sands to that list.

"This is a huge industry. It employs Canadians from coast to coast. We have oil reserves that are going to last for the whole of the 21st century. We are where we are. We've got to clean it up and we've got to make it a sustainable place to work and live, not only for the aboriginal population, but for the workers who live there," Ignatieff said.

"At the moment, it's barely environmentally sustainable, and it's barely socially sustainable. The Conservative government has done nothing about this. We need to move forward. But am I proud of this industry? You bet. It's a world leader. We just need to make it better. But I don't take lessons from the National Geographic."

He may not need any lessons from National Geographic, but he certainly needs a reality check from someone. So allow me to educate you, Mr. Ignatieff.

1) "Barely environmentally sustainable."
By what possible definition?

This is an industry that tears out thousands of acres of complex boreal forest habitat and eventually, slowly, when they get to it, replaces it with flat grassland or wetland - at a fraction of the rate at which it digs.

This is an industry that turns millions of gallons of fresh water into oily, contaminated sludge which it stores in endlessly growing 'tailings ponds' that it has only the vaguest notion of how to turn back into fresh(ish) water.

This is an industry that continues to spew out grotesque amounts of CO2 emissions that it insists will 'someday' be captured and stored, despite the fact that even the biggest boosters of CCS technology admit that what is being developed simply won't work for the tar sands.

2) "Barely socially sustainable."
Ft. McMurray is a boom town. To a lesser extent, so are Calgary and Edmonton. Boom towns by definition are the very opposite of 'socially sustainable'.

I can't help but wonder if Mr. Ignatieff has ever actually met any of these "Canadians from coast to coast" who work in the oil patch. I have. I sat next to one on a plane who was on his way home to Ontario for his monthly visit with his wife and kids. By the time he got on the Edmonton-to-Toronto red eye, he had already been on two other flights and was facing a fourth to get him back to Sudbury. He hadn't slept in over 24 hours and he was having a really hard time sleeping on the cramped and chilly WestJet flight, finally opting to lay his head on his food tray with his arm over his eyes. He moaned frequently. He looked like death.

Then there was the guy I knew who gave up his job and his home for one of those great paying jobs out in Ft. McMurray. He was back within three months, full of tales of broken promises, abusive bosses and unaffordable and unlivable housing.

Temporary workers, exploitive conditions, disrupted families, artificially inflated living costs, and health consequences that are only just now being understood. This is the social reality of the tar sands mining industry.

3) "But am I proud of this industry? You bet. It's a world leader."
A world leader in what - size? Certainly. But as a sustainable industry that benefits all Canadians and moves us forward into the future, it represents a complete and utter failure.

One proof of this failure is in the recent announcement that the province of Alberta will be running a deficit this year. How can this be? How can the "new economic centre" of Canada find itself so quickly in the red just because of a temporary drop in oil prices? Weren't they using oil revenues to build a budgetary surplus as a cushion against inevitable swings in commodity prices? Oh, right.

Just about every other country with significant energy resources has a national energy policy that to some extent involves public ownership of oil and gas companies so that their citizens have maximum control of, and enjoy maximum benefit from, their own resources.

Canada, on the other hand, has no national energy policy. Such decisions are left entirely to the provinces, and in the case of Alberta they have chosen to abdicate public stewardship of their own resources in favour of making a quick buck by renting them cheap to private corporations who are responsible to no one but their shareholders.

There is nothing to be proud of here, Mr. Ignatieff. And there are far more fundamental problems with the tar sands than their somewhat untidy appearance in the pages of an American magazine.

I think what bothers me the most about Ignatieff's comments is the knowledge that from this day forward, no Liberal MP will be able to stand in the House of Commons and object to the Conservative government's lack of action on the tar sands or the environment or energy policy without having these very comments thrown back in their faces by Harper or one of his lackeys.

I am not suggesting that Mr. Ignatieff automatically take the opposite position from the Conservatives on every single issue. That's what we have Jack Layton for. But if his intention here was to appease the citizens of Alberta and build the Liberal Party's fortunes in the west, there are better ways to go about it than becoming an apologist for the tar sands mining industry. Because the people of Alberta are getting screwed here as much as anyone - and most of them know that. They don't need apologies or defences. They need real leadership that will point the way towards responsible, sustainable, beneficial, public stewardship of their land and their resources.

Mr. Ignatieff had an opportunity this week to show that sort of leadership - to show that the Liberal Party can represent a rational middle way between shutting down the oil sands altogether and allowing corporate interests to continue their uncontrolled and destructive exploitation.

In the opinion of this Liberal, he failed.


  1. Well said, Jennifer.

    A serious mistake is being made by the Liberal leadership in supposing that certain voters in Alberta represent the political values of "the west."

    First, "the west" is a HUGE and geographically DIVERSE region.

    Second, only 33.9 percent of Alberta's electorate voted for the Cons (and 26.7, 31.6 and 27.4 percent from BC, SK and MB, respectively). British Columbians, for example, tend to be much more environmentally conscious than "the west," as represented by said voters.

  2. Great point about talking in the House.
    Its embarrassing. Its tragic.
    Back to the Greens. Need to see what they are proposing about these tar sands. I say shut 'em down NOW.
    It seems to me there is this bad habit of letting something get carried away with itself and then seeing that perhaps there needs to be some sort of regulation or change because there are a few unforseen problems being encountered and there were oversights and undersights that weren't considered when the project got going.
    We did the same thing with the automobile.

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