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Environmental racism and climate solutions in Canada


The article below is based on a speech given by Workers’ Voice member Taytyn Badger at the “Power Up for Climate Solutions” Action in Saskatoon, Sask., on Nov. 4, 2023. This event was one of hundreds held around the world for the Nov. 3-4 Days of Action, when fossil fuel companies published their quarterly profits.

Tansi, and good afternoon everyone! My name is Taytyn Badger. I’m a Nehiyaw guy who grew up back and forth between Sucker Creek and Saskatoon, a decolonial socialist, and a member of Workers Voice.

Obviously, I can talk about a million things—extractivism, environmental destruction, and how global warming affects everyone. However, the effects come down hardest on the workers, the poor, the oppressed, andd the hyperexploited.

The Indigenous peoples of the land occupied by Canada have been subject to environmental racism by Canadian Settler-Capitalism for centuries. Over centuries of dislocation, expropriation, and genocide—which continue today—Indigenous peoples have been forced onto land, both rural and urban, seen as unproductive or unprofitable by settlers.

Here, we are subjected to overcrowding, poor housing, lack of utilities, and poor health care, making us particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change. Business sees this land as marginal, and the people living on it as disposable labor at best, and an obstacle at worst, and so they act with zero concern for environmental and human health, as can be seen in the tar sands, fossil fuel pipelines, extraction projects including lithium mining, and countless other projects.

My home, Sucker Creek, is a short distance from the Peace River Tar Sands, one of the greatest environmental disasters today, as well as various other fossil fuel projects. My kokhom, my grandmother, is one of the elders whom the oil companies drag out for “consultations,” where they patiently listen to what they say and then promptly ignore it, so that they can go on about how much they respect Indigenous peoples while they loot the place. Every time she talks about it, about how she hates doing it because it’s all pointless anyway, you can hear the anger in her voice.

Once, she made one small request from the company, when they dragged her out to the proposed site of a new oil platform: “Would they be able to move a small bunch of trees on the edge of the planned area to Sucker Creek for replanting?” “That’s a great idea” the oil rep said, “I’ll be sure to get that set up.” My kokhom never heard anything more about it, but the next time she was brought out to the platform, now under construction, she saw that the trees had been chopped down to their stumps.

Last month, a bunch of the elders were dragged to a meeting for more “consultation.” Tempers rose, arguments were had, until my great aunt felt a pain in her chest. My kokhom, a former nurse, ran over to help her, though thankfully, another nurse she had trained was there to make sure she was stable and to help her out of the building. She had to decide never to go to another consultation again she literally can’t take it any more.

Even beyond the “active” environmental destruction of the tar sands, we are also given lower priority for ameliorating the effects of climate change than areas of greater perceived economic value to capital. In cities, there are fewer trees and greenery in areas populated by Indigenous peoples. This leads to far higher temperatures as pavement and asphalt absorb and radiate heat, as well as lower air quality, greater storm water runoff, and worse community and mental health.

In rural areas, Indigenous communities are largely abandoned to deal with climate change on their own. During this year’s unprecedented wildfires, thousands were forced to flee their homes under threat of fire, and many communities set aflame. Among them was East Prairie Metis Settlement, only 25 kilometers from Sucker Creek, given nearly no assistance or equipment with which to protect their homes, resulting in the destruction of 24 houses.

In the aftermath, they have been forced to fight insurance companies, which argue that homes were burnt on purpose for insurance payouts. In one case, the insurance company has refused a payout because the fire department was called before a house was destroyed, said the fire didn’t pose a threat, and left.

My kokhom and moshom spent weeks, along with the rest of Sucker Creek, on official evacuation alert, ready to evacuate with one hour’s notice. When I called in to make sure that they were alright, my kokhom told me about how relatives had lost everything, and how terrified she was of losing her home, and all the memories and mementos she had of raising two generations of children and the last thirty years of her life.

All these companies want to act like we can somehow resolve the climate crisis through individual solutions and technology that is either perpetually just out of reach, or a completely ineffective waste of resources like carbon capture. Breakneck economic growth, they claim, can continue unabated so long as we leave them to transition to supposedly green technology. In effect, they claim we can consume our way out of climate catastrophe, an idea which just so happens to put them in a position to earn even greater profits.

At the same time, the federal and provincial governments, regardless of who is in charge, do next to nothing to oppose environmental destruction and throw their weight behind the expansion of fossil fuel pipelines, extraction, and the invasion of Indigenous land. This isn’t surprising, as the government and major parties exist to maintain capitalism and its profits, working as middlemen for the rich. Canada is home to 75% of the world’s mining companies. As the joke goes, it’s less a country than three mining companies in a trenchcoat. And, it’s hard to get a promotion if you actively oppose your employer.

Supposedly green companies and governments claim that we can stop climate change and environmental destruction by slapping solar panels on everything, buying brand new electric cars, and commodifying environmental destruction through carbon taxes and the like. What they handily leave out are the environmental costs of these technologies. The mining of lithium, used for all sorts of batteries, including for solar panels and electric cars, is itself massively environmentally destructive. In Chile and Argentina, primary producers of lithium, the extraction of Lithium poisons workers, indigenous peoples, land, groundwater, and rivers.

The Thacker Pass lithium mine in Nevada, currently under construction despite the resistance of the Indigenous Newe and Numu peoples, is projected to consume 3224 gallons of groundwater a minute, produce as much carbon dioxide as a small city, and will leave 270 million cubic meters of toxic and radioactive tailings in its wake. This before even considering the cost of man-camps on women and two-spirit people, and the destruction of sacred and burial sites. Already, extraction companies are laying the groundwork for similar facilities up here on the land occupied by Canada.

All this is before even looking at the environmental costs of shipping lithium and batteries thousands of kilometers, and the actual production of batteries and electric vehicles.

However, a just, environmentally sustainable economy is possible. On one hand, we must break with the idea of continuous growth of production and profit, a basic premise of capitalism, which is fundamentally incompatible with the planet’s ecological limits. In its place, we must demand reduced production and a just transition with more efficient and equitable distribution, decolonization of Indigenous land, and democratic control of production to meet actual, human needs within ecological constraints.

The way forward is pointed to by recent efforts in Chile, where the National Intercompany Mining Union joined with the Mapuche people to demand the return of the Wallmapu and nationalization of the mines to place them under the joint control by mine workers, villages, and Indigenous peoples, to ensure any mining was carried out in the interest of all parties involved.

Under capitalism, the vast majority of production is carried out by workers, who are exploited to turn a profit. Because of this, they possess an incredible amount of power, enough to not only challenge capitalism but overthrow it. However, to exercise this power, workers, as well as oppressed and hyper-exploited groups, must organize and mobilize to exercise it. In the sphere of environmental justice, we must take our lived experiences of environmental destruction and its effects and use them as the basis of ecological solidarity. As in the struggles for Black and women’s rights, organized workers must be at the front of the struggle for environmental justice and sustainability.

In terms of even relatively simple, smaller improvements, we have countless avenues open to us. Among them, we must move away from relying on inefficient, wasteful private cars through improvement and expansion of mass transit. Instead, for the last hundred years, our reliance on private transport has only grown.

Saskatoon had a streetcar system until 1951 and an electric trolley bus system until just 50 years ago. Passenger train services have been rolled back, and today barely offer a single line across the country. The Saskatchewan Transport Company offered affordable, accessible transportation throughout the province until 2017.

We must also put an end to the ongoing invasion and destruction of Indigenous land, whether for the extraction of fossil fuels or nominally “green” industries. Control must be placed, not in shareholders or some boardroom, but the hands of workers, the affected people, and the Indigenous peoples whose land we occupy.

The last of these is especially vital, as Canadian capitalism is built on its ongoing invasion, occupation, and destruction. Indigenous peoples have lived with this land since time immemorial and have developed complex strategies and relationships for maintaining and protecting it. For true environmental justice, Indigenous peoples must have their land returned.

Thanks to all of you for listening. Free Palestine! Land Back! Trans lives matter! Capitalismus Delendus Est.

Photo: Some participants in the Nov. 4 Power Up for Climate Solutions rally in Saskatoon.

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