“The Forest Will Heal, and so Will the Hearts of the People…” ( Avatar)

Iconic Canadian storyteller and director James Cameron took more than forty minutes to share his perspective of the Canadian oil sands. Invited by Mr. George Poitras, former chief of the Mikisew Cree, and self identified activist, Cameron was a respectful guest and considered the perspectives of all who shared their beliefs on what is perhaps the backbone of the Canadian economy at this time. The Canadian oil sands are not without their opponents.

Traveling to Alberta however it would make it hard to believe any live of them live there (but there are those who do). The sheer scale, size and economic input to the province is staggering. Provinces in Canada have the rights to natural resources. They are beholden to manage these resources responsibly, one of the key observations Cameron made. The Canadian who had grown up close to the land had lived a life many who live in major metropolitan environments could only ever dream of.

Able to swim in the rivers as a child, able to hunt although not to support himself or his family, able to live a life close to the land in a way he felt he had portrayed in Avatar, is not something the Canadian First Nation’s people living along the Athabasca River can now do because of the high levels of contaminants in the river and in the air. It is however their constitutional right to do so, established by treaties as far back as 1879. The First Nations have filed a lawsuit against the province of Alberta for treaty violations; this detail shared by Chief Layman of the Beaver Lake Cree Nation.

The anticipated costs are in the neighborhood of $15 million. Not unfamiliar with the constitutional issues Cameron encouraged Canadians to do the real science, that the science be open to the public, that the science be put to proper peer review, an important point not missed by any with knowledge of the Canadian government’s position on the oil sands. The government of Canada’s 18 month investigation into oil sands pollution of the Athabasca River was cancelled and draft copies of the final report were destroyed.

Referring to water expert Dr. David Schindler’s perspectives on the scientific methodology that had attempted to deny there were any issues within the river as a result of the tar sands Cameron said “it would behoove us to establish what the causes of the fish deformities are that are showing up with greater and greater frequency” and that “it is very important that the clear linkages between rapidly expanding oilsands development and evidence of damage to the Athabasca River be addressed with integrity, embraced and mitigated”.

Cameron had toured three of the mining operations. He noted meeting smart, practical people committed to doing real reclamation. He noted the mining companies are forty years into the process and that reclamation efforts were less than a year old, that the oil companies are promising to make good on the reclamation which at this time is phenomenally expensive. He did not tour SUNCOR’s completed reclamation project, land which had been a wetland is again a wetland by efforts of scientists and ecologists involved in the project for more than seven years.

Cameron noted: what the oil companies are demonstrating is on a scale that is economical to them. Cameron also noted the value of the resources, particularly to the US, an energy starved country that does not have one legislator able to talk about climate change issues. He made no mention that oil is an essential ingredient in 100% of all of our possessions, that no food is eaten without massive oil inputs, no iPods or flat screen televisions to entertain us without the oil to make them, deliver them and fuel them.

Coincidentally for those of us who choose to bike to work, that the roads themselves are made of oil. It is so familiar and so necessary to our lifestyles it is not even noticed. Cameron spoke of his commitment to these issues; he is not a ‘drive by environmentalist’ as evidenced by the research he had done on these very complex issues. All should be as rigorous with respect to our positions. Cameron noted we could be buying oil from the Middle East – perhaps we could be imploring Canada to manage their natural resources better than we have our own. Sharon Marianne Szmolyan, B. A. , M. B. A.

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