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May 14, 2012

The Freedom Train: Canadian First Nations Ride to Stop Tar Sands

Yinka in Edmonton

Drums and prayer songs, dances and garden-grown gifts greet riders on the Freedom Train wherever they stop on their journey across Canada. The riders represent the Yinka Dene Alliance and other First Nations groups who want the crude oil transporter Enbridge to hear their message: Our people have declared your tar sands pipeline project illegal. We have banned you from our land. We have rejected your hollow promises of jobs and profits. Respect our existence or expect our resistance.

The alliance fears, though, that the Canadian government will ignore First Nations law and help Enbridge push the project through. The riders, indigenous women and men aged 15 to 72, set off from their traditional territories near the Pacific coast bound for Toronto's financial district, thousands of miles away. The journey is part of the years-long movement of resistance to Enbridge's proposed "Northern Gateway Pipeline" that would transport tar sands oil from Alberta to British Columbia's Pacific coast, where it would be loaded onto huge tankers that then must navigate precarious and stunningly pristine waterways on the way to market. 

Yinka Train at Saskatoon

In Toronto, the Freedom Train riders will lead a rally as Enbridge convenes its annual shareholders meeting. This will put Enbridge on notice that the First Nations have banned the Northern Gateway Pipeline from their land, in accordance with First Nations law, and that the company should not attempt legislative acrobatics to push the project forward.

The Freedom Train was inspired by two First Nations struggles that are now at key turning points: the effort to assert the right of self-government, and the effort to avoid environmental disasters on First Nations lands. The alliance is especially concerned about the Northern Gateway pipeline project because it would transport tar sands oil, which is especially corrosive and much more likely to cause a spill than conventional crude. It is also far more hazardous to human health, contains far higher levels of heavy metals, and is far more difficult to clean up when it does spill. These facts were undeniably confirmed after repeated spills in the United States, including the Kalamazoo disaster of 2010 and the Yellowstone River spill of 2011.

As one of the most destructive energy projects on earth, Alberta's sprawling tar sands developments are in themselves a major inspiration for the Freedom Train. Rare cancers are exploding in local First Nations populations, along with other illnesses. Meanwhile, tar sands mining is devastating huge swaths of the largest intact forest ecosystem on earth: the Canadian boreal forest. Strip mines have created over 65 square miles of tailings ponds alone. These lakes of toxic tar sands industrial waste drown thousands of birds every year when they land on the water -- only to become covered in sludge. 

The area has also seen a decline in endangered caribou herds due to tar sands mining expansion, but the solution offered by the Albertan government hasn't been to curtail the industry’s expansion.  Instead, the government has culled more than 500 wolves -- poisoning them, or shooting them from helicopters. Tar sands oil has frightening global consequences, too. It produces 20 percent more climate change pollution than conventional crude, and has become the fastest growing source of climate change pollution in North America.

Yinka Train photo

Two out of three British Columbians support the Freedom Train, and yet the alliance has received no word from Enbridge that the project will be scuttled. That’s why the Freedom Train rolls on. “We can’t sit by and watch as our relatives in northern Alberta are harmed by even more unmanaged tar sands development which these pipelines will allow,” said Chief Jackie Thomas of Saik’uz First Nation. “This isn’t just about us. We are part of an unbroken wall of opposition from more than 130 First Nations from the Pacific Coast to the Arctic Ocean who are saying we will not allow these pipelines to be built.  We will use every lawful means at our disposal to guarantee it. There’s no way around us.”

This kind of opposition is precisely why the tar sands industry is working so hard to build pipelines through the United States. Canadian communities have rejected tar sands pipelines as too dangerous and too irresponsible. The industry is counting on Americans to put up less resistance, and to buy the notion that these pipelines – like Keystone in the Midwest and Trailbreaker in New England – are worth the risk.  Tar sands pipelines jeopardize local communities, the global climate, the boreal forest, and First Nations groups who are fighting for their land, their law, and their lives.  To stand in solidarity with the Freedom Train, visit http://freedomtrain2012.com/ .  Then help us resist the tar sands industry in the United States at www.sierraclub.org/tarsands.

Images courtesy Freedom Train.

-- Richard Brown, Sierra Club's Beyond Oil Campaign


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