Last Sunday I joined hundreds of Unitarian Universalists and tens of thousands of other concerned citizens at the largest ever gathering in the United States on climate change: the Forward on Climate Rally. One of the major demands of the day was urging President Obama to not approve the proposed Keystone XL pipeline.
Before the estimated 40,000 participants encircled the White House, we heard a number of inspiring speakers, including Bill McKibben of 350.org, Michael Brune of the Sierra Club, Chief Jacqueline Thomas of Saik’uz First Nation, and Crystal Lameman of the Beaver Lake Cree First Nation.
Many oppose the pipeline because of the threat that extracting all that oil presents to the climate. Others oppose it because of the threat of a major spill from the pipeline and the potential for increased air pollution from refineries processing the tar sands in impoverished communities. While I share these concerns, my principal focus is the effect approving the pipeline will have on the First Nations people whose health and way of life are currently at risk from the impacts of tar sands development. If the pipeline is approved, the rate and extent of extracting oil from the tar sands will increase dramatically. Already people living downstream and downwind are suffering from an increase in rare forms of cancer. Fish in the Athabasca River are often visibly deformed and unsafe to eat.
Mikisew Cree First Nation leaders believe that water pollution from tar sands development may be linked to an increased incidence of cancers found in the population of Fort Chipewyan located directly downstream from the most intensive tar sands development. In 2006, these concerns were brought into the public eye when Dr. John O’Connor, who serves small First Nations communities in the regions where the are sands are extracted, reported a high number of cases of unusual cancers, particularly a rare form of bile duct cancer called cholangiocarcinoma. Despite these and other alarming findings, the Canadian government continues to deny these illnesses are a result of extracting oil from the tar sands. Concerns have also been raised that the amount of water being withdrawn from the Athabasca river system will threaten fish populations and the health of the Peace-Athabasca Delta.
In the face of this denial, First Nation leaders have been forced to turn to the courts to assert their constitutionally protected rights. According to Chief Allan Adam of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation: “The federal government is neglecting its environmental responsibilities and ignoring our concerns. When the government fails to engage with First Nations about our concerns, and fails to respect our rights, these things have nowhere to go but the courts.”
It is because of these concerns that I am standing on the side of love with First Nations people in Canada, and adding my voice to theirs in opposition to the proposed Keystone XL pipeline. While the rally might be over, our work continues. Learn more about our work on environmental justice here.
This post was written by Rev. Craig C. Roshaven, Witness Ministries Director at the Unitarian Universalist Association.