Environmental justice in Canada: A labour union call to action, and evidence from the UN Special Rapporteur

  “We will not rest, we will not stop: Building for better in a post-pandemic recovery” appeared in the Labour Day issue of Our Times magazine, written by Yolanda McClean and Christopher Wilson, executive officers of the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists (CBTU). Set in the context of the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement, the article states: “The calls to intensify the struggle against Canada’s police violence, economic apartheid and environmental racism are resounding.  …Anti-Indigenous, anti-Black and systemic racism extend beyond our political structures to our education and healthcare systems, to our corporations, workplaces, communities and, yes, to our labour movement.  (On this point, the authors refer to “Dear White Sisters & Brothers,” an Open Letter by unionist Carol Wall which appeared in the Summer 2020 issue of Our Times).

Wilson and McClean call upon the labour movement, stating: “A labour vision for a post-pandemic recovery must confront structural racial inequalities and advocate for the inclusion of BIPOC communities — economically, politically and socially.”   As positive examples, the article cites the Ontario Federation of Labour, which joined with the CBTU in a joint statement in July, stating: “As allies, we must act now and support the call to defund the police”. Wilson and McClean also highlight the CBTU’s “Green Is Not White” Environmental Racism research project, and its associated webinar “What Can Unions Do to Stop Environmental Racism?” , produced by the CBTU, the Asian Canadian Labour Alliance, and York University’s Adapting Canadian Work and Workplaces to Respond to Climate Change (ACW).   

UN Special Rapporteur reviews toxic chemicals in Canada and concludes: Environmental injustice persists in Canada

The UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and Toxics, Mr. Baskut Tuncak, officially visited Canada in May/June 2019, and presented his resulting Report to the United Nations Human Rights Council in early September 2020. The report states clearly that “Environmental injustice persists in Canada. A significant proportion of the population in Canada experience racial discrimination, with Indigenous, and racialized people, the most widely considered to experience discriminatory treatment.” The report focused on the extractive industries (defined as “mining of metals and oil sands”) in Canada and abroad – noting that over 50% of the world’s multinational mining companies are based in Canada. The report also discusses oil and gas pipelines, and chemical industries (including pesticides in agriculture). After documenting many specific examples, the Rapporteur concludes with recommendations for legislative and regulatory changes.

Excerpted highlights from the Report of the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and Toxics :

“….Contamination from extractive industries, including the massive tailing ponds in Alberta, and the possibility of seeping into local water supplies, is of concern.

… despite compliance with the Fisheries Act, 76% of metal mines have confirmed effects on fish, fish habitat or both. Among these mines, 92% confirmed at least one effect of a magnitude that may be indicative of a higher risk to the environment.

….The health risks posed to Indigenous peoples by the multibillion-dollar oil sands industry are another example of concerns. Fort McMurray, Fort MacKay and Fort Chipewyan (Fort Chip) paint a disturbing picture of health impacts of the oil sands (i.e. tar sands) that were not properly investigated for years, despite increasing evidence of health impacts on local communities.

 … the situation of the Aamjiwnaang First Nation in Sarnia is profoundly unsettling. Deeply connected with their land, residents on the reservation invaded by industry as far back as the 1940s are now surrounded on three sides by over 60 industrial facilities that create the physiological and mental stress among community members …It is one of the most polluted places in Canada, dubbed “chemical valley.” ….   

…Workers are unquestionably vulnerable regarding their unique and elevated risks to chemical exposures. In Canada, occupational diseases and disabilities due to such exposures pose a major challenge to fulfilment of workers’ rights. Recent estimates show over 2.9 million workers are exposed to carcinogens and other hazardous substances at work, which is a gross underestimation.. ”  

Fewer jobs will be needed in Alberta’s oil sands according to Parkland report

parkland futureofalbertasoilsands_coverThe latest of several reports by the Parkland Institute and Corporate Mapping Project  was released on March 10:  The Future of Alberta’s Oil Sands Industry : More Production, Less Capital, Fewer Jobs .  Author Ian Hussey  argues that a managed decline of the industry is needed, and that it is now in its mature phase – with  53,119 jobs lost between 2014 through 2019.  With this maturity comes fewer construction projects, and technological change is driving down operational employment. Although most people are aware of the adoption of driverless trucks, Hussey also discusses  horizontal multi-well drilling pads; supervisory control and data acquisition, remote monitoring, and information technology and analytics; and replicated designs and modularization.   In sum,

“Despite the growth in production, fewer and fewer employees are needed. In 2019, overall productivity per employee in Canada’s oil and gas industry was 47% higher than in 2011, and productivity in the oil sands was 72% higher in 2019 than 2011. This indicates that the jobs that have been lost in recent years are likely not coming back. Production is at an all-time high and has increased 23% since 2014, while jobs have declined by 23% since 2014.”

The report also profiles the “ Big Five” oil and gas companies operating in Alberta:  Suncor Energy, Canadian Natural Resources Limited (CNRL), Imperial Oil, Cenovus Energy, and Husky Energy – providing statistics on their production, reserves,  profits and shareholder returns, and capital spending.

Alberta’s government continues to prop up oil and gas industry with new Blueprint for Jobs, penalties for protesters

As Teck Mines and other  private sector investors rush away from oil and gas investment in Alberta and the price of oil collapses, the Alberta Legislature resumed on February 24, with a  Budget  and a new economic plan: A Blueprint for Jobs: Getting Alberta Back to Work . The Blueprint is built on five pillars: “Supporting businesses; Freeing job creators from senseless red tape; Building infrastructure; Developing skills; Selling Alberta to the world.”  Announced in a March 2 press release as the first step  in the Blueprint:  a $100 million loan to the Orphan Well Association,  promising to generate up to 500 direct and indirect jobs by financing reclamation of abandoned mining sites. The press release also promises  a future “suite” of announcements “covering the entire lifecycle of wells from start to finish”.   As The Narwhal  reports in  “Alberta loans industry-funded association $100 million to ‘increase the pace’ oftes orphan well cleanup (March 2),  this latest loan follows a 2017 loan of $235 million , as the industry-levies which fund the Orphan Wells Association fail to keep pace with the environmental mess left behind by bankrupt mining companies.

The Alberta Federation of Labour  released a statement in response to the Alberta Budget ,  “Kenney’s Budget breaks promises, delivers opposite of what Albertans voted for last year” . The AFL charges that the budget will result in more than 1,400 job cuts, especially in education (244 jobs lost), agriculture (277 jobs lost), and community and social services (136 jobs lost). Further, “Today’s budget increases the deficit by $1 billion because of this government’s short-sighted overreliance on resource revenues, while cutting billions in revenue from corporations.” A similar sentiment appeared from an opposite corner:  an Opinion piece in the mainstream Toronto Globe and Mail states: “The cost of Mr. Kenney’s inaction on economic diversification will be high. Alberta has the advantage of being home to many skilled clean-tech and renewable-energy workers already, but the speed at which the world is innovating in that area means that a lagging Alberta will result in the emigration of some of our best and brightest entrepreneurs.”

Updated:  

The Alberta Federation of Labour released another statement on March 16 , condemning the Budget proposal as an “  ideological budget that does not fit the times”.  Further, it is  “no longer worth the paper it’s written on. The revenue side of the budget is in tatters because oil is now trading nearly $30 per barrel less than projected” , and because of the Covid-19 crisis, the planned cuts to health care “will hurt, not help our province.”   The AFL is demanding that the Budget be scrapped, but the CBC reported on March 16, “Alberta government plans to accelerate budget process, add $500M to health spending” , reporting that the government dramatically curtailed study and debate , and on March 17, CBC reported “Alberta legislature approves $57-billion budget in race against COVID-19 spread”.

For those concerned about the erosion of the democratic process under the threat of the pandemic, this is a worrying sign.

And not the first worrisome sign in Alberta:  the first order of business in the new Session was  Bill 1, The Critical Infrastructure Defence Act , introduced by Premier Kenney. As described in a National Observer article here  , the Bill  proposes to discourage citizen protest by making it easier for police to intervene in blockades, and proposes individual fines for protesters of up to $10,000 for a first offence, and up to $25,000 for each subsequent day a blockade or protest remained in place. The Alberta Federation of Labour released a statement on March 6 calling on the government to withdraw the Bill immediately, stating that the justification (ie protection of rail lines) is misleading, and “The legislation is clearly designed to stop or discourage all collective action that goes against the UCP agenda, including potential labour or worker action.”

 

 

Newly-elected government in Canada outlines its climate priorities; faces first major test in the Frontier mine decision

Canada’s minority government is back in session after the October 2019 election, launched by the Speech from the Throne on December 5.  The Throne Speech traditionally is used to outline government priorities, and signals that Justin Trudeau and his Liberal party will try to stay in power by balancing the demands of the oil and gas proponents in Alberta against the environmental concerns of the rest of the country. The Toronto Star parsed the speech in “What does it mean? The Throne Speech Interpreted “.

On the issue of climate change, here are the actual words of the Throne Speech:

“In this election, Parliamentarians received a mandate from the people of Canada which Ministers will carry out. It is a mandate to fight climate change, strengthen the middle class, walk the road of reconciliation, keep Canadians safe and healthy, and position Canada for success in an uncertain world.”… A clear majority of Canadians voted for ambitious climate action now. And that is what the Government will deliver. It will continue to protect the environment and preserve Canada’s natural legacy. And it will do so in a way that grows the economy and makes life more affordable.

The Government will set a target to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050. This goal is ambitious, but necessary – for both environmental protection and economic growth.

The Government will continue to lead in ensuring a price on pollution everywhere in this country, working with partners to further reduce emissions.

The Government will also:

help to make energy efficient homes more affordable, and introduce measures to build clean, efficient, and affordable communities;

make it easier for people to choose zero-emission vehicles;

work to make clean, affordable power available in every Canadian community;

work with businesses to make Canada the best place to start and grow a clean technology company; and

provide help for people displaced by climate-related disasters.

The Government will also act to preserve Canada’s natural legacy, protecting 25 percent of Canada’s land and 25 percent of Canada’s oceans by 2025. Further, it will continue efforts to reduce plastic pollution, and use nature-based solutions to fight climate change – including planting two billion trees to clean the air and make our communities greener.

And while the Government takes strong action to fight climate change, it will also work just as hard to get Canadian resources to new markets, and offer unwavering support to the hardworking women and men in Canada’s natural resources sectors, many of whom have faced tough times recently.”

 

Reaction from environmentalists and Opposition party leaders appeared in the National Observer, in  “Liberals commit to carbon-pollution target of net-zero by 2050”   (Dec. 5); and in “Throne speech climate commitments dwarfed by spending on Trans Mountain” by the Dogwood Institute .

The Canadian Labour Congress reacted with this generally supportive statement:  “We need bold targets to fight climate change, we owe that to our children …. “We also owe the next generation good jobs and commitments to minimize the impact on workers. Today’s commitments move us towards a greener economy.”   In advance of the Throne Speech, the Green Economy Network, a union network of which the CLC is one member, had made  a harder-hitting statement: “The GEN is demanding that the Prime Minister make climate job creation a priority through investments in renewable energy, energy efficiency and green buildings, public transit and higher speed rail transit.”

Also in advance of the Throne Speech, a group led by the Smart Prosperity Initiative  delivered an Open Letter outlining detailed demands for clean economy initiatives. The twenty-six signatories include leaders from business, environmental advocacy groups, and the United Steelworkers and BlueGreen Canada.

One of the first major tests for the minority government, should it last that long, will be the decision required by the end of February on whether to approve the application by Teck Resources for the massive Frontier oil sands project – a $20-billion, 260,000-barrel-per-day open-pit petroleum-mining project near Fort McKay in northern Alberta. The Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency website provides official documentation, including the July 2019 Joint Review Panel Report , which includes discussion of the  economic and employment impacts of the project (beginning page 883).  Critiques of the Joint Review Panel approval were published in July by The Narwhal here  and the Pembina Institute here .

And now, as Parliament reconvenes and the COP25 meetings are underway, the Frontier mine is becoming the  litmus test of Canada’s climate change policy, as laid out in  “Trudeau will fuel the fires of our climate crisis if he approves Canada’s mega mine”, an Opinion piece by Tzeporah Berman which appeared in The Guardian on December 10.  Also on December 10, Greta Thunberg and fourteen other young people released an Open Letter to government leaders of Canada and Norway, calling on them to block any new oil and gas projects and quickly phase out existing ones. The National Observer explains in  “Greta Thunberg and other youth call on Trudeau to ditch fossil fuels” (Dec.9) .

Environmental injustice for Canada’s First Nations – updated

Syncrude_mildred_lake_plantAn overview of the state of environmental injustice in Canada appears in The Statement of United Nations Special Rapporteur on human rights and hazardous substances and wastes, issued following his visit in May/June 2019. The full report will be presented to the United Nations in Fall 2020.  The preliminary information presented in  the Statement identifies “a pervasive trend of inaction of the Canadian Government in the face of existing health threats from decades of historical and current environmental injustices and the cumulative impacts of toxic exposures by indigenous peoples. ” The Statement commented on the specific cases of the oil sands (Fort McMurray, Fort MacKay and Fort Chipewyan), Sarnia, Muskrat Falls, and mining sites such as Elk Valley.  He noted that Canada has “the second highest number of known mining accidents from 2007-2017, increasing significantly from previous years.”

The Special Rapporteur concluded: “It was clear during the course of my visit that many communities in Canada continue to be exploited by toxic exposures.  Some key concerns include: (1) the limited degree of protection of human health and ecosystems under various legislation; (2) the lack of environmental information and monitoring in areas of high risk; (3) long delays or absence of health impact assessment for affected communities; (4) the inadequate compliance with and enforcement of laws and policies; (5) systemic obstacles to access to justice, in particular for cases of health impacts due to chronic exposures; and (6) the recalcitrance to ensure that victims can realize their right to an effective remedy.   The situation of affected communities outside Canada is of equal concern in many of these regards, including the inordinate power imbalance faced by communities in low- and middle-income countries relative to Canadian corporations.”

The Special Rapporteur visited Sarnia’s “Chemical Valley” and highlighted it in his Statement. This area has been identified as a “pollution hot spot”, and the Aamjiwnaang   First Nation have long fought for redress – including a legal challenge under the Environmental Bill of Rights in 2007.  More recently, on October 9, the Toronto Star published “Whistleblower alleges province failing to protect First Nations community in ‘Chemical Valley’ from ‘dangerous’ air pollutants” , a senior engineer employed by the provincial Ministry of the Environment  alleges that ministry executives withheld technical and scientific information about sulphur dioxide impacts,  failed to properly consult the Aamjiwnaang First Nation representatives, and that he was subject to workplace reprisals for raising the issues. His grievance, filed with the labour board, details his accusations and asks for $186,000 to compensate for the reprisals, and for the ministry to begin discussions with him and Aamjiwnaang representatives “with the goal of providing capacity funding and to develop a program” that would transfer authority from the ministry  to the Aamjiwnaang to enforce Ontario air pollution requirements that impact their territory.

Other examples are described by reporters at The National Observer – for example, “How Alberta kept Fort McKay First Nation in the dark about a toxic cloud from the oilsands” (April 2019)  and “Alberta officials are signalling they have no idea how to clean up toxic oilsands tailings ponds” (Nov. 2018) .  The Narwhal maintains an archive of articles concerning Canadian mining examples, including the Mount Polley and Taesko mines. One example, “‘This is not Canada’: inside the Tsilhqot’in Nation’s battle against Taseko Mines” (August 2019) .  The APTN News article “Amnesty uses World Water Day to highlight environmental racism in Canada” provides an overview of First Nations actions as of March 2019.

grassy narrows warningAnother example of long-standing concern, mercury pollution at Grassy Narrows, has emerged as an election issue, with the Chief of Grassy Narrows running for the NDP in the riding of Kenora.  Dozens of other Indigenous leaders are running in the current election to bring attention to their own areas, according to a CBC report : for the NDP, 10 candidates; for the Liberals, 12; for the Conservatives, 7, and for the Greens, 6.

Related reading:

The Alberta Environmental Law Centre published a blog in September, Access to Environmental Justice: Costs and scientific uncertainty raise barriers to protecting communities .  This brief blog acts an introduction to the issue of environmental injustice by providing brief overviews (with links to further readings) of case studies which illustrate the barriers to legal action experienced by Alberta First Nations. The  specific cases described are Kearl Oil Sands Environmental Assessment (2007), Fort McKay (2016) and the Beaver Lake Cree Nation.  Looking beyond Alberta, the blog also notes examples of Sarnia Ontario’s Chemical Valley, and Africville Nova Scotia, and briefly discusses the concept of climate justice.