Meet the woman at Ground Zero of the tar-sands fight

Imagine being afraid of the air your daughter breathes, watching your family burying their friends from rare cancers connected to toxic leakage, being unable to eat the plants or animals around you because they are sick, and swimming in your local lake has become dangerous to your health. This is not the picture of a future world gone ecologically mad. This is reality right now for Eriel Tchekwie Deranger, a 30-year-old Dene native living downstream from the tar sands of Alberta.

For Eriel and many other First Nations communities living in Fort Chipewyan, ground zero of the tar-sands fallout, this eco-nightmare is everyday life. But Eriel, coming from a long line of activists, is, as she says, “standing up to the madness.” Deranger is the Tar Sands Campaigner for the Rainforest Action Network.

Uncomfortable calling herself an eco-activist, much less an “eco-warrior,” Deranger considers her work with RAN more to be defending indigenous rights. She argues that what is happening with the tar sands is just a continuation in North America of the same old genocidal tactics: trampling on the basic needs of First Nations people in the name of economic prosperity. But whose prosperity is it? In the past, it was colonialists appropriating land and resources. Today, it is the air, water, food and livelihoods of Canada’s aboriginal communities that are being poisoned because of governments’ and corporations’ get-rich-quick scheme in dirty oil.

“Whether it be environmental activism, Indigenous rights activism or any kind of activism — it all comes down to fighting for our survival,” says Deranger.

And survival is what is at stake, she says. Because what has been touted as the world’s largest energy project is also the world’s most destructive engineering project. Andrew Nikiforuk, the crusading journalist who has been exhaustively chronicling the destructive effects of this project writes in his book Tar Sands: Dirty Oil and the Future of a Continent:

A business-as-usual case for the tar sands will change Canada forever. It will enrich a few powerful companies, hollow out the economy, destroy the world’s third-largest watershed, industrialize nearly one-quarter of Alberta’s landscape, consume the last of the nation’s natural gas supplies, and erode Canadian sovereignty.

Not to mention carve into the boreal forest (a larger carbon sink than the Amazon rainforest); inject toxins into the Athabasca River through tailing-pond leakage (the same chemicals, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAH, that are associated with the rare cancers found in First Nations communities); make Canada one of the only countries to use nuclear power to increase fossil fuel development; and blacken the sky with increasing greenhouse gas emissions.

“We need a moratorium on new tar sands development. We can’t continue to expand. It’s absurd and idiotic to push forward,” says Deranger.

Deranger is willing to achieve that moratorium with any and all kinds of non-violent means that she can. From demonstrations, rallies, days of action, and her most recent protest: scaling to the top of a Canadian flagpole at the Royal Bank of Canada’s (RBC) Toronto headquarters , dropping a banner reading “Please Help Us Mrs.” This appeal, by RAN and the Ruckus Society, was directed at Janet Nixon, wife of RBC CEO Gordon Nixon, asking her to lend her strong and influential voice with her husband to pull the bank’s massive investments in Alberta tar sands projects.

For Deranger, information is power and it is her hope that more Canadians, including influential Canadians like Nixon, will get the message through acts such as these.

“All of the little things slowly add up and it is my hope that more eyes will open and more people will stand up for what is right,” says Deranger.

All of us, as Canadians, have our hands in dirty oil development, whether we realize it or not. When we pump up for gas at Shell, we are funneling money to the largest stakeholder in the oil sands.By doing our banking at RBC, our money is being invested into the largest banker of the oil sands. Not to mention how much of our taxes are being diverted into our governments’ support for the tar sands.


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