Packed Toronto meeting discusses action plans for environmental justice

by John Riddell

On July evenings, most people in Toronto are just trying to find ways to escape the heat and humidity. Nevertheless, on Monday July 30, attendance at a meeting on Contested Futures: Tar Sands and Environmental Justice greatly exceeded the organizers’ expectations.

Over 150 people filled the room for the opening session – many had to sit on tables or stand – to hear from two indigenous leaders of environmental justice actions in Ontario and two delegates to the People’s Summit Rio+20. Participants then took part in seven simultaneous workshops on plans for future action.

The meeting was initiated by the Greater Toronto Workers Assembly (International Solidarity Committee) and Toronto Bolivia Solidarity; another twenty groups endorsed and helped build the event.

A final plenary session heard action proposals from the workshops, including:

  • “Surrender a bit of space” from our varied personal projects in order to promote concerted action.
  • Link resistance against corporate environmental criminals in Canada with solidarity with peoples of the Global South the resisting the crimes of the very same companies overseas.
  • Link environmental issues into a common agenda.
  • Learn from the strengths of Quebec’s militant student movement, which has built on decades of direct democracy, mass assemblies, and large street actions.
  • Adopt the indigenous perspective of defending Mother Earth and link up with actions to protect aboriginal land rights.
  • Oppose Enbridge’s “Line Nine” plan to pipe tar-sands bitumen across Ontario, across indigenous land.
  • Plan a March to Sarnia– the petrochemical pollution capital of Ontario– to rally opposition to the tar-sands Line Nine project.

An organizing meeting will discuss how to move forward with these proposals.

Tar sands pipeline in Ontario

Ron Plain, an environmental policy analyst and anti-pollution activist from the Aamjiwnaang environmental group near Sarnia, told the opening session how the city’s petrochemical industry has transformed it into “the most polluted point in North America.”

Plain described this pollution’s toll among chemical plan workers. “My dad worked at Dow and died prematurely,” he said. “So did his entire shift – and the other shift too. And this is just three hours from Toronto.”

Pollution’s impact on health is so severe that his First Nation now experiences two female births for every male, Plain said. Experts from the world around have studied and reported on this calamitous development, which has now cropped up in other locations. Meanwhile, Sarnia pollution continues unchecked.

“We’re the canaries in the coal mine,” Plain said. “If you can’t reproduce, you disappear. This is the first sign of human extinction.”

Plain appealed to the meeting participants to help stop the processing of tar-sands products through Sarnia. The Canadian government menaces the world with its irresponsible tar-sands development projects. Referring to a recent Canadian government report slandering the environmental justice movement as a terrorist threat, Plain said, “Harper says that because threaten the very foundations of what he has built.”

Threatening the land with biosolids

John Henhawk, an activist and land defender from the Six Nations of the Grand River, spoke of his people’s historic constitution, the Great Law of Peace, adopted by the Haudenosaunee (Six Nations) almost 1,000 years ago. In its spirit, he said, his people seek peace and mutual respect among all inhabitants.

Henhawk helped build a very successful March for Peace, Respect, and Friendship on April 28, 2012, in Caledonia, Ontario. He recalled how Six Nations activists acted there six years ago to reclaim indigenous land threatened by irresponsible development. The indigenous action aroused strong opposition by some pro-development forces, and the issue remains unresolved. In the April 28 march, almost 1,000 marchers sought to defend indigenous land claims and land stewardship along the Grand River in a spirit of “finding a new path, one of healing,” Henhawk said.

Six Nations activists were recently invited to help build resistance to a dangerous project in Dundalk, 150 kilometres north of Caledonia along the Grand River. A site only 350 metres from a school – and close to the river itself – was chosen for processing Toronto “biosolids” – a public relations term for treated human waste.Dundalkresidents invited in Six Nations environmental activists to help build resistance to the project.

At a recent protest in Dundalk. “We were invited to lead the march,” flying the Six Nations flags, Henhawk said.

“There was a young boy carrying a Canadian flag who came up to the front and wanted to march with us. Some thought the flag didn’t belong there and he should drop back. But we said no, bring the Canadian flag and a proud Canadian into the Haudenosaunee contingent. That’s how Turtle Island [North America] was in the past, respectful and welcoming to everyone.”

Six Nations land defenders seek to exercise stewardship over all land within 10 kilometres of Grand River, a strip granted them by the British crown in 1784. Enbridge’s “Line Nine” pipeline cuts right through the strip.

Solidarity North and South

Raul Burbano, reporting on the June 2012 Rio People’s Summit in Brazil, described a march against the mining multinational Vale Inco, which brought together miners from Inco’s Sudbury, Ontario, operations and peasant activists protesting Vale Inco’s mines in several countries of the Global South. “They chanted ‘Our struggle is your struggle,’ and that was the theme of our activities,” he said.

“Québécois students in Rio joined with Brazilian students, who are struggling to keep education free, in a protest at the hotel where [Quebec premier] Jean Charest was staying,” Burbano added.

“We planned a global day to stop environmentally destructive ‘fracking’ to extract oil and gas, to be held September 22. And on August 1 we are holding a continental day of protest against extractive industries.” Seventy organizations are taking part, with actions planned in thirty cities, including Toronto, across the hemisphere. “Most of the organizing was done in Rio,” Burbano said.

“We face interlocking crises – climate, jobs, education. We’re looking toward a new, communitarian value system. As [Bolivian social activist] Pablo Solón commented, the different social movements will connect together through the struggle.”

Bryan Dale, a Rio People’sSummitdelegate from the Toronto Council of Canadians, dissected the “Green Economy” project pushed at the official governmental Rio+20 conference. “It’s just a way for market-based mechanisms to move forward. Such schemes have been tested in Europe and have not worked.

Dale contrasted to this the themes advanced in Rio by La Via Campesina, the farmers’ International whose English-Canadian affiliate is the National Farmers Union:

  • System change not climate change.
  • Environmental justice.
  • Food sovereignty.
  • Democratization of energy systems.
  • Defense of the commons.

“Socialism is the only way to save the planet. It can’t be done under capitalism,” Dale said. “But socialism needs to be broken down and explained. We must show just how socialism can be different.”

Posted in Canada & Quebec, Meetings, Movement Building

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