Grassy Narrows and the Tragedy of Joe Oliver

Forty years ago I had the privilege of working with and securing financial resources for First Nation representatives and civil society organizations seeking redress from Dryden (REED) Pulp and Paper for the suffering inflicted on the residents of Grassy Narrows and White Dog First Nations and the destruction of an important life-sustaining ecosystem. Over an eight year period beginning in 1962 and without the benefit of environmental regulation, the company dumped nearly ten tons of methyl mercury, a lethal neurotoxin, into the Wabigoon River system. It destroyed the aquatic ecosystem and bio-accumulated in fish, ultimately poisoning First Nation residents who depended on this vital food source. Four decades later as recent protests at Queen’s Park will attest, the suffering in Grassy Narrows continues. Back then, it was all justified in the name of job creation and legitimate profit. Or, as Joe Oliver and Greg Rickford would have us believe, the price of progress.

It is an ironic coincidence that just as the trembling victims of Dryden Pulp and Paper’s lethal negligence were on their way to Queen’s Park, four former federal fisheries ministers collaborated in an open letter to the Harper government expressing their grave concern over major changes to the Fisheries Act which will negatively impact fish habitat and species protection. This telling and unprecedented act of solidarity is but one example of the depth and degree to which this and other issues buried deeply within the so-called Harper “Budget Bill” have angered Canadians and subverted the ability of our members of parliament to do what they’re paid for: provide scrutiny and due diligence.

With all the hyperbolic spin and hype that we have been exposed to – frequently gracing the pages of this newspaper – about the wondrous economic advantages (jobs, profits and prosperity) of the Ring of Fire, The Tar Sands Development and the Northern Gateway Pipeline, this is like déjà vu all over again. Some things never seem to change!

Without question, there are numerous benefits which we have all enjoyed as a result of investments in extractive industries, from the employment generated to the comforts and conveniences they have created. But disturbing evidence of climate change, as recently provided in this newspaper by Graham Saunders’ analysis of extreme weather events, is beginning to more than suggest that something nasty this way comes! Oliver’s and Rickford’s reckless and short-sighted “pave to the grave” and hurry-up-exploit-at-all-costs development “strategy” is ensuring the “nasty” is aided and abetted by the unbridled destruction of Canada’s natural capital.

The concept of “natural capital” is not new. In fact, it is a business-friendly idea which places an economic cost on the multiplicity of functions performed by our natural environment. It leaves little room for the 19th century economists and the Harper-led oiligarchy who consider the environment as an “externality.” Trees suck up planet warming carbon dioxide and provide us with oxygen; wetland plants absorb and safely process lethal heavy metals that would otherwise enter our bodies; rivers and riparian systems provide fish habitat, food and other forms of human sustenance.

Imagine if we had to pay Nature Inc. for all the services it provides in abundance? We’d all go bankrupt faster than you can say the word “Enron”. Yet we rarely think twice about the “free” services that are removed from the economic system every time we permit extractive industries like mining and oil companies to mow down and dig up millions of hectares of people-serving products like breathable air and clean water. So what can be done to balance the scales between economic progress and human prosperity and the natural environment that so willingly supplies it without yet sending us a bill?

Resource extractive industries should be required to catalogue and assess the economic value of the natural capital available in the ecosystem that they are about to remove. We commodify everything else so this should not prove difficult and “externality costs” are something they can understand. Amortized over the life of the extractive project, that amount is added to whatever taxes and royalties the company pays to the public.

Resource extractive industries should be required to set aside a pre-project development reserve estimated to equal the annual post-project costs of fully remediating the site they have altered.

Throughout the past four years, the citizens of Canada, through their federal and provincial governments have provided in excess of $5.8 billion dollars in subsidies and write-offs to some of the richest energy and oil companies in the world. Re-imagine our health care system with that infusion of money. These perverse and reckless subsidies need to be eliminated.

Stephan Harper, he of the 39% “majority” and the oiligarchy he assists in Ottawa must abandon their full scale, frontal-assault on regulations designed to protect our natural capital, regulations that were in their infancy when the tragedy of Grassy Narrows struck. We are entitled to a rigourous, comprehensive and public assessment – transparent, accountable and participatory – of the impact of every major extractive development, from the Ring of Fire to the Northern Gateway Pipeline.

Finally, where is Harper’s long-term, national energy strategy? We import 50% of our oil from abroad. It is a fast depleting resource and Canada is one of the most energy-intensive consumers in the world. Yet thanks to the reckless abandon promoted by barkers like Oliver and Rickford, we are hell-bent on exporting as much raw tar oil out of the country as quickly as we can. Fast buck artists have nothing on this myopic and blinkered, helter-skelter scheme.

Distracted as we are by all the conveniences and comforts that have lulled us into complacency with this government-by-stealth-and-slight-of-hand in Ottawa, don’t we deserve better than this? How stupid do Oliver and Rickford think we are? Apparently, very.

Peter Andre Globensky

Former CEO of the Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment, the intergovernmental agency responsible for advancing and harmonizing environmental protection in Canada.

Published in The Chronicle-Journal, Thunder Bay, June 8, 2012