Racism in the Tar Sands: exploiting foreign workers and poisoning indigenous people

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By Macdonald Stainsby

The giant corporations that are determined to exploit the Alberta tar sands face a major problem — a serious shortage of local labour to do the actual work. So the Canadian and Albertan governments have a plan, ideal in their eyes, to solve the crunch.

Currently, employers desperate to find needed hands, backs and minds for the vast production targets of the “Gigaproject” are flying workers from the Maritimes from their homes for shift stretches and then back again, but that effort faces limits in terms of workers available. Nary a day goes without a business page article somewhere in Alberta bemoaning the lack of workers. Many of the Newfoundlanders who would have come out this way in the past will now work in Newfoundland premier Dany Williams’ new off shore oil and gas ventures, using skills learned in Fort McMurray, Alberta.

Besides, flying around people within Canada and luring them in with the promise of vast wages is not the best business decision, is it? Why not use the real labour shortage for the simply un-real goals of the tar sands to make unbelievable profits sending mock oil to the United States, mock oil that is leaving behind already one of the greatest environmental crimes in history.

The solution — the Alberta Federation of Labour reports that in 2006, for the first time, more people under came to Alberta under Temporary Foreign Worker (TFW) programs than as landed immigrants.

As of late January 2008, the program had expanded from 12 to 33 available positions, mostly in construction and trades, that were “ready” for hiring in this fashion.

What is a temporary foreign worker? In a word — disposable. They are brought in by employer, and at any time the employer can send them back to their country of origin — most commonly Mexico, the Philippines and China. The ones who work deep in the tar sands (most notably at the Canadian Natural Resources Limited [CNRL] Horizon plant) are kept under lock and key, away from the unions that have some members working in the tar pits and upgrading facilities.

We do not know what these TFWs are being paid, nor much about their working conditions. We do, however know that those conditions have already begun killing people: last year two workers sent over from China were crushed when a container fell over on them due to poor construction and rushed conditions. Nameless to the world, the two men were sent home to China after a quick meeting between the Chinese consul general from Calgary and CNRL executives.

No harm, no foul seems to be the message — neither CNRL nor the People’s Republic official had a public word of anything other than passing regret.

These men and women, moved around as products to be used by giant energy corporations, do not have the right or means to apply for landed status in Canada, let alone for citizenship. They are rightless and economically desperate.

The program has come under heat in recent months for acting as the TFW equivalent of Snakeheads, demanding outlandish and illegal fees from prospective workers in the global South in exchange for helping them find placement.

TFWs are being used to undermine unions, bring down costs, escalate production, decimate basic human rights levels and assign an entirely new category of worker to the workforce, driving down both safety and union rights across the country. Escalating racism in hyper fashion will suit the Canadian state quite nicely, both in terms of population control and divided resistance. With the Security and Prosperity Partnership [SPP] slowly being hammered out, efforts to take this modern slave pool to new heights are gathering new momentum.

As well, under the Trade, Investment and Labour Mobility Agreement [TILMA] between Alberta and BC, what happens in Fort McMurray also happens in Vancouver. TFW’s are “helping” to construct much of infrastructure for the Olympics being held in 2010. With the 2010 Games being opposed in as colonial programs in the westernmost province, so too should the tar sands see opposition in Alberta and Saskatchewan.

The Panama Canal killed thousands of workers who toiled to make the canal flow for shipping commercially across a continent where Christopher Columbus of Spain ran aground centuries before, setting into motion a colonial genocide continuing today. In Alberta and B.C. today, the same kind of sacrificial workforce is being established, using the very same racist weapon that characterized the entire colonial period in North America.

This time, the goal is to establish a racialised under-class of sub-workers to carry out major projects, a workforce that will employ tens of thousands of human beings to create the most Dr. Stangelovian ecological nightmare imaginable. This same constructed racism targets those whose lands are being dug out, flipped over, spun around and dumped back in toxic form.

The often timid Alberta Fed has this to say about the whole process:

“Alberta unions oppose racism in all of its forms — both overt and structural. We have and will continue to speak out against any attempts to demean, demonize or discriminate against any identifiable group.…

“We believe the labour movement has a responsibility to defend these workers. We believe they deserve the same rights as any Canadian worker. In particular, we believe they should have the right to a fair wages and a safe workplace, the right to join a union, and the right to remain in Canada and apply to become citizens – independent of the wishes of the employer that brought them here.”

In the last year, the community of Fort Chipewyan has finally been able to scrape its way into a small corners of public consciousness. Their 1200-person hamlet is. downstream from the seven operating tar sands plants, Rates of cancers and other disorders for the Cree and Dene population of Fort Chipewyan are statistically off the charts.

The racism that has been able to ignore their plight for over a decade of pleas is now unable to tell us the names of Chinese men exterminated in the same hyperdrive to get mock oil from the ground, and send it south. The racism directed against TFWs and the racism against indigenous people are closely interlinked — so too must the fight to shut down the tar sands interlink in non-patronizing solidarity, across national lines, whether the originate in nation states or Treaty 8.

The temporary foreign worker program is a capitalist’s dream come true, but our mobilized response has the possibility to be their worst nightmare.

Writer and activist Macdonald Stainsby is coordinator of oilsandstruth.org


  • A very nasty business.
    What would you suggest we do–who are outside of Alberta? Someone we can write to?

  • Good to know that you can think/write about something other than Kevin Annett.