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Toronto pipeline fight links local and global issues

April 11, 2013

By John Riddell. “Our campaign against Line 9 is an essential element of the global effort to save the climate,” Ian Angus told 150 participants in the “No Tar Sands in Toronto!” meeting held April 7 in the city’s East End.

Line 9 is a 37-year-old pipeline that oil industry giant Enbridge Corp. wants to modify to carry tar sands oil across Toronto. If this is done, Toronto could face toxic spills like the one on March 29 that devastated a subdivision in Mayflower, Arkansas.

Such spills are not rare, Sabrina Bowman of Environmental Defense told the meeting. “That week alone saw pipeline spills in Arkansas and Texas, plus railroad spills in Minnesota and White River, plus an explosion and leak in Fort McMurray, Alberta. There are 800 spills a year in Alberta alone,” she said.

But as several speakers pointed out, the harm caused by tar sands pipeline malfunctions is dwarfed by the devastation when they work as planned. “If Line 9 goes through and never leaks,” warned Ron Plain of Aamjiwnaang First Nation, pollution caused by extracting the tar sands “will still kill citizens in Northern Alberta.”

Canada – energy superpower?

Tar sands pipeline rupture, Michigan

Tar sands pipeline rupture in Michigan, 2010

Yet the stakes are even greater, explained Angus, editor of Climate and Capitalism. The Harper government has declared its goal of making Canada an “energy superpower” by extracting tar sands, the dirtiest oil on earth. The tar sands pipelines are needed to get the product to market. Meanwhile, Canada has been repeatedly singled out by world environmentalists “as the country doing the most to delay, stall, and otherwise disrupt efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions,” Angus said.

The entire world will pay the price for the Harper government’s tar sands obsession: “ruined lands, poisoned rivers, millions upon millions of deaths.”

Ron Plain gave front-line testimony on this devastation. Aamjiwnaang, situated right beside Sarnia’s forest of oil refineries, is already suffering from an oil pollution disaster, living in what National Geographic and the World Health Organization have termed “the most contaminated place on the continent.”

Ron began sounding the alarm about the Line 9 project four years ago. During the Idle No More movement for Indigenous sovereignty this winter, Ron joined an Idle No More blockade of a CN rail line running through Aamjiwnaang, which had been set up by other members of his community. They named him as their spokesman.

Attempt to criminalize dissent

The Aamjiwnaang blockade proceeded peacefully and was ultimately taken down by agreement with local authorities. Although Ron was not involved in setting up the blockade and had no authority to remove it, he has been vindictively singled out for prosecution by CN Rail (the worst polluter in Sarnia, Ron says) for alleged contempt of court. The judge has warned – before hearing evidence – that Ron faces $200,000 in costs. Penalties could include indefinite detention.

Ron Plain is the only Idle No More activist facing legal charges.

“This is a clear attempt to criminalize dissent” and a threat to us all, Raul Burbano of Common Frontiers told the April 7 meeting.

Ron also spoke to an audience of 100 at a similar gathering the next day in the West End Junction community. Participants at the two events donated almost $2,500 toward Ron’s legal expenses.

Many in both meetings slammed the Harper government for making it all but impossible for residents to have a voice in the National Energy Board (NEB) hearings on Line 9. Merely to submit a letter, one must first fill out a complex ten-page form, preferably backed up with resume and statement of credentials, and this must then be accepted by NEB officials. The NEB almost never blocks an oil industry application.

People power against big bucks

“We will not stop Line 9 through the NEB alone,” said Sabrina Bowman. “It’s people coming together in rooms like these; that is what will do it.”

Addressing the West End meeting, Keith Stewart of Greenpeace called the Line 9 and other tar sands pipeline battles a clear case of “people power against big bucks.” Funds being poured into destructive tar sands expansion should go to developing renewable energy, he said. “We don’t need the oil.”

Right now the pipeline conflict “is a draw,” Stewart said, “but we’re going for a win. And without the pipelines, they can’t expand the tar sands. So we’re protecting the Indigenous people of Alberta and the people of the world.”

There was an excitement in these two meetings that cannot easily be conveyed in a written account. They represented something new, a move outside the central university district where the Toronto Left usually meets and organizes.

Ron Plain put it simply: “It’s great to be in the East End. Downtown it’s always the same people. This is a new area with new faces; it fuels me.”

Street-level organizing

The meetings were built in a new way. Sidewalk literature tables were set up as a focus for discussion and leaflet distribution. Articles were placed in community newspapers. Committee representatives were invited into church services to discuss with the congregation. Neighbourhood organizations and elected officials were asked to help.

Sidewalk tabling sparked discussion. Enbridge has been trying to slip it through on the quiet, so most passers-by had never heard of Line 9. A small minority were vociferously in favour of tar sands extraction. “It’s the only hope Canada’s got,” said one. “We need the jobs,” said another. “Against the tar sands? You must love Iran and the Palestinians,” said another, picking up on Harper’s anti-Muslim “ethical oil” pitch.

But many were shocked to learn of Enbridge’s plans and stopped to add their names to a petition or sign up for further information.

Web-based social networking helped a lot, but it was more traditional types of contact that broke into new areas.

Supporters took many unplanned initiatives. An avid fisherman went to a gathering of fly-fishing enthusiasts and got a very warm response. Another supporter leafleted repeatedly at farmers’ markets. Leaflets were posted, unplanned, on telephone poles and apartment bulletin boards.

By our best estimate, more than half the 150 participants at the East End meeting were new to such protests, and many told us they had heard about it from the leafleting or from friends.

Mainstream forces took note. Five elected New Democratic Party officials attended the two meetings, and a Green Party constituency official addressed the East End event.

East End Against Line 9, organizer of the event, takes part in a city-wide network of two dozen community, non-profit, faith-based, and ecological groups. Our joint efforts on the municipal level helped persuade Toronto’s fractious city council, some weeks before the community meetings, to apply to take part in the NEB hearings – a signal victory that we highlighted in our literature. Ontario’s provincial government announced April 9 that it is doing the same. The politicians are taking the measure of a significant stirring in the affected population.

The April 7-8 meetings in Toronto add to the evidence that a broad movement can be built against corporations and government around the tar sands and other climate change issues.


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