With each day the bad news spreads. A gigantic wildfire now covering some 4,000 km2 is spreading through northeastern Alberta and into Saskatchewan — devastating much of Fort McMurray, the city in the heartland of the tar sands. Some 90,000 residents have been displaced and thousands of homes, many local industries and businesses, destroyed.
Although not comparable with the tragedy in Lac Mégantic, Quebec, where 47 people were killed when a runaway oil train exploded, the material destruction in the Alberta tar sands now ranks as the greatest in any single event in the history of modern Canada.
The tragic irony is that the working people most directly caught up in the extraction and processing of Alberta’s enormous tar sands operations now find themselves the most direct victims of one of its pernicious consequences.
The current wildfires — there are hundreds now burning in Alberta and Saskatchewan, many beyond human control — are the product of a perfect storm in which unusually dry hot weather in recent months, attributed to an intense El Niño effect (itself linked to global warming), has combined with the general warming resulting from the climate change to which the tar sands operations are a major contributor.
It is as if Mother Earth — “Pachamama” as she is known in the Andean nations of Inca origin in the South — was avenging the massive assault on her integrity now being mounted by global capital and its transnational corporations in large regions of Alberta.
What a devastating confirmation of the very dangers pinpointed by the Leap Manifesto with its demand for an end to hydrocarbons exploitation, especially the tar sands operations that constitute the major industry in Alberta. Just last month 1,500 delegates to the New Democratic Party federal convention, meeting in the Alberta capital, Edmonton, voted against party leadership opposition to make the Manifesto recommended study in the party over the next two years, with instructions that the social-democratic NDP, at its next convention, take a clear position on the challenges it poses.
And what a refutation of Alberta Premier Rachel Notley, head of the NDP’s last surviving provincial government, when in her address to the Edmonton convention she derided the Leap Manifesto as “naïve.”
“We believe that it was ill-considered and, quite frankly, very tone-deaf to the economic realities that are being experienced in Alberta,” she said, adding that her government is totally committed to building pipelines “from Alberta to tidewater.”
Notley and her cabinet are now scrambling to cope with the current disaster. But there is no evidence that she is rethinking her recent decision, made in collaboration with the major corporations involved, to allow for a massive expansion of the tar sands emissions from 70 megatonnes a year now to 100 megatonnes a year in 2030.
Largely silent amidst the Fort McMurray tragedy are the major unions tasked with representing many Alberta workers, including in the tar sands. Like most North American unions, they identify their members’ interests with the fate of their employers, and with Capital itself. Their members’ precarious employment in today’s crisis-ridden capitalism and its climate-destroying industries bolsters that dependency, and has so far provoked little rethinking in the ranks of the official labour movement, least of all in Alberta.
Leading the attack on Canada’s petro-dependency today are communities directly in the path of the pipelines that (as Notley says) are indispensable to getting the hydrocarbons to markets. And in their forefront are the indigenous peoples, the First Nations, who despite the deep poverty of so many, their small numbers in the total Canadian population, and the illness and devastation directly suffered by those situated on tar sands lands, at least have retained the determination, and the space through the existence of their “reserves,” to say No to the corporate behemoths intent on violating those vital spaces.
Working people have displayed once again — as they did in response to the Lac Mégantic disaster — their solidarity with the displaced Fort McMurray workers, raising impressive amounts of financial and material aid in response to public appeals. But now we need to go further, to become involved as never before in the needed debate over climate change and its implications, and the quest for a radical response.
The Leap Manifesto contains some useful pointers, and it can be a valuable part of that debate, not only in the NDP. But ultimately we need to address the underlying problem that the Manifesto itself does not name, the capitalist system, and to find ways to challenge the very logic of capital, with its competitive and environmentally destructive drive.
Fort McMurray has given us a disturbing picture of what the future holds in store for all of us if we fail to meet that challenge.