Last week, the Winnipeg chapter of the Council of Canadians hosted an event The Truth About Energy East: No Prairie Pipeline. Council of Canadians has been talking about this pipeline for over a year and it is great to see that the fight against this pipeline is gaining momentum.
Council of Canadians has factsheets and resources on our website that provide information about why we oppose this pipeline, so I won’t repeat myself in this blog. At the Winnipeg event, I not only spoke about the nitty gritty facts about the pipeline (intended route, infrastructure changes, costs, environmental risks, etc.) but also about this pipeline as a Nation Building Project. Alberta’s premier Alison Redford declared that Energy East, “is truly a nation-building project that will diversify our economy and create new jobs here in Alberta and across the country.”
Pipeline advocates have been excited that Energy East could help connect Eastern Canada and Western Canada, create national energy security, and create jobs. Suggesting that communities connect or that they feel secure when hazardous materials are shipped from one to the other, however, seems strange.
Also, the very idea of a nation building project that connects the east and the west sounds like a bit of history repeating. In other words, it sounds like the Canadian Pacific Railway built in the late 1800s, which enabled land grabs, colonization, and exploitation of people of colour and their labour. I am in no ways suggesting that any of these things stopped after constructing the railroad was complete. In fact, Canada has been taking over Indigenous lands, it has been partaking in colonial practices, and it has continued to build a country on exploited people of colour and their labour. I am merely suggesting that they do not often do this under the guise of nation-building, and doing so is creating a sense of nationalism that is…well, racist?
Let’s take a brief look at Canadian history and the building of the railroad. We may see some practices that may foreshadow some of the issues that may arise from another industrial nation building project.
TransCanada or regulating bodies may consult with First Nations along the route, but they certainly are not seeking their consent—that is, they are not seeking permission and giving Indigenous peoples the opportunity to say “no.” This undermines the right to Free, Prior, and Informed Consent (FPIC)* as outlined in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Sure, it wasn’t internationally recognized to respect Indigenous people’s right to FPIC in the 1800s, but that doesn’t absolve anyone from the responsibility of asking people whether or not they are okay with an industrial project being put on the homes.
The railroad also blazed through Indigenous lands without anyone seeking their consent. In fact, in the 1800s, numerous First Nations and Métis people in the Prairies were opposed to the railway. They saw how the railway in the U.S. had destroyed buffalo populations on which they relied for food and shelter, and enabled further land theft. In response to declining buffalo populations, some Indigenous peoples in the U.S. transitioned into sedentary lifestyles and farming. Knowing that this would be an impending result of a railway, communities including Métis, Blackfoot, Cree, Blood, Peigan, and Saulteaux “rebelled” against the government. Canada’s response was to send in 3000 troops.
The fact that this was written into history text books and Canadian consciousness as a “rebellion,” when what people were actually doing was defending their land and homes, is an indication of what side Canada’s national identity favours. When I think of current land defenders fighting off mining companies, fracking trucks, nuclear waste dumps, and pipelines I hope that history text books begin describing them as “brave,” “courageous,” and “doing what we should all be doing.”Maybe history text books would also write about the growing awareness and opposition to these projects and the base of support that will grow so large that the federal government wouldn’t even dare to send in the troops like they did during the aforementioned rebellion—but I suppose that is the part of history that we need to take responsibility for right now.
Carrying on with our history lesson, let’s talk about the exploitative and racialized labour practices resulting from the Nation Building Project of the 1800s. Through B.C. alone, 7,000 workers were needed to build 15 tunnels through the mountains. 6,000 of them were Chinese and were paid $1 per day and had to pay for their own equipment. White workers, on the other hand, were paid $1.50-$1.75 per day and were given equipment. Chinese workers were also given the most dangerous jobs and it is estimated that four Chinese workers died for each mile through the Fraser Canyon where the tunnels were built.
Would this ever happen during this modern day Nation Building Project? Well, let’s take an even closer look at the current (not projected! Current!) fossil fuel and extractive sector and their treatment of workers with precarious immigration status.
In 2007, oil giant Sinopec was building a massive storage tank in the tar sand which workers even claimed looked a little…off. Head of the Alberta Federation of Labour Gil McGowan even heard a union official say “I’ve never seen scaffolds erected like that. I’ve never seen tanks being built that way.” That very day, the structure holding up the tank’s roof collapsed and killed two Chinese workers and injured another two. Soon after, a legal battle began so that the company could avoid facing health-and-safety charges, and prompted the company to send about 150 Chinese workers back home. These workers, brought to Canada through the temporary foreign worker program, allegedly received only a fraction of the wages that the company promised.
The current Conservative government has drastically expanded the Temporary Foreign Worker Program and union officials involved in the aforementioned situation predicted that tens of thousands more temporary workers are expected in the oil and gas sector. Through this program, workers have been forced to work without proper safety equipment, live in crowded conditions, and pay into health care and EI which they cannot access themselves. If they complain about any of this, they can be deported.
Earlier this month, about 300 contractors in the oil and gas sector were replaced with temporary foreign workers. In April of this year, a mine in B.C. hired over 200 temporary workers from China, sparking hysteria in the media that these workers were taking jobs away from Canadians. People also started asking if Chinese workers would start taking “Canadian jobs” as a result of oil and gas companies being bought out by Chinese corporations like the CNOOC-Nexen takeover. This fed into the Anti-Asian sentiment that was ballooning in late 2012 as people heard about the Canada-China Foreign Investment Protection and Promotion Agreement (FIPA). This is where we need to recognize the problem with these agreements and these labour practices as being industries’ and politicians’ way of cutting corners, exploiting labour, and making bigger profits. This is not meant to encourage people to blame the Chinese or other foreigners, as if they invented cheap and exploitable labour or as if they invented capitalism. Let’s direct blame where it deserves to go: Harper, the Conservatives, and other colonial institutions that allowing state-sanctioned labour exploitation.
The number of dangerous jobs in the oil and gas sector is growing and all of us—including the labour movement—need to recognize who is going to get the shortest end of the stick. When we talk about jobs in Canada, are we just talking about good jobs for Canadian citizens or good jobs for everyone? I’d like to think we mean the latter. If we don’t protect these jobs we are not only failing to show solidarity with racialized workers, but also lowering the standards of health and safety protections for any worker. The entire idea of safe jobs is being constantly eroded and being replaced by the idea that all we need are more jobs. Who cares about the type of jobs. While the number of jobs created is important, we can’t stop critically asking why certain jobs are being promoted while there are drastic cuts to health care, education, and public transit—all of which ALSO create jobs.
Okay, so I am digressing from the history lesson but I hope you are beginning to see that workers of colour will likely continue to be exploited in the pipeline, oil, and gas sector since Canada actually never stopped exploiting their labour in the first place. Anyways, I am going to continue to talk about the oil and gas sector and the health impacts to workers—which has nothing to do with railroads. If you are cool with that, please keep reading.
Additionally, jobs in the oil and gas industry can significantly impact workers’ health. The Occupational Safety & Health Administration reported that between 2003 and 2010, 823 oil and gas workers were killed on the job. This fatality rate is seven times the rate for all U.S. industries and result from vehicle accidents, explosions and fires, chemical exposure, and being struck by or caught between heavy machinery. These accidents are also more likely to happen in the oil and gas sector than in other sectors due to the long working hours, which could be up to 16 hours in a given day, or the 3-weeks-on/3-weeks-off work cycle.
These on-the-job fatalities do not include the long term health impacts that result from ongoing exposure to toxins and chemicals and lead to diseases and cancers associated with lungs, skin, the heart, and other organs. While companies are required to have an Exposure Control Plan (ECP), we know that oil and gas companies consistently fail to meet safety regulations. Additionally, while temporary workers may be most threatened by a company’s failure to comply with health standards, they are also the least likely to complain for threat of deportation. The health impacts may also even be detected only when they have returned to their home countries. This would also mean that health impacts are under-reported and the impacts of hazardous chemicals are underreported.
Surely, we cannot celebrate this type of job creation.
As a movement fighting for environmental and social justice, we need to move the job conversation beyond debating the number of jobs created by any industry and towards critically asking what kind of communities we can create that would allow people to contribute their labour and achieve not only economic justice but also their social and personal wellbeing. Having these conversations enable us to understand how people of colour, indigenous peoples, women, and other already marginalized people are far from benefiting from the tar sands and related industries.
If only we were having these conversations prior to the construction of the railroad. Sigh…
Whether it is a railroad or a pipeline, we cannot stand by while a Nation is built through racist practices or labour exploitation. Numerous articles written in the past, one in the Guardian and one co-written by an activist in Eastern Canada and myself, have stated that the only way a pipeline would connect communities is in their opposition and organizing against the projects. I still believe this to be true.
But who cares what I have to say. What is Lupe Fiasco saying?
Now we can say it ain’t our fault if we never heard it
But if we know better, then we probably deserve it…
Complain about the gloom, but when’d you pick a broom up?
Just listening to Pac ain’t gon’ make it stop
A rebel in your thoughts, ain’t gon’ make it halt
If you don’t become an actor, you’ll never be a factor**
Thanks, Lupe. I’ll get back to organizing, then.
*Free, Prior, and Informed Consent. Free refers to Indigenous peoples’ right to make decisions free from coercion or force. Prior refers to industry or government policies to be brought to Indigenous peoples’ prior to implementing them. Informed refers to industry or governments responsibility to provide full information about the impacts of projects or policies. Consent refers to Indigenous peoples’ right to say “no.”
**Lupe Fiasco’s, Words I Never Said
Second photo credit: Caelie Frampton