First Nations leaders respond to Redford and Kent's desperate American Keystone XL lobbying tour

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"Alberta's last ditch effort to drum up support for the tar sands in the US really shows how damaged their brand has become," said Ben Powless, a Mohawk from Six Nations in Ontario and co-founder of the Canadian Youth Climate Coalition. 

"Selling oil to America is normally as easy as selling water to fish, but even America is becoming hesitant to accept this dirty, destructive fuel."

Powless himself has made trips to the U.S., only to protest against the Keystone XL pipeline, joining thousands of protesters at 350.org's giant protest outside of the White House in 2011. 

In his view, Keystone XL isn't really about the Canada-US relationship: if not the U.S., Canada would be just as happy to build a bigger pipeline to Asia, where the oil would sell for higher prices, but the Enbridge Northern Gateway controversy proves how difficult it has become for oil pipelines to pass.

"All these discussions (around pipelines) take place without acknowledging the extreme impacts on Indigenous communities in the tar sands sacrifice zone, who have exactly zero input on their own future," he said.

Health and land over jobs 

A big part of Redford and Kent's problem is that approval of the Keystone XL will result in rapid increase of oil sands development and some of the people most directly affected -- Indigenous peoples living near the oil sands and along pipeline route. Roughly 23,000 Aboriginal people live in the oil sands areas, with 1700 employed in the industry as of 2010. 

But while some rely on the industry for high-paying jobs, many First Nations in Alberta argue that the economic benefits will be vastly outweighed by the destruction it will bring to their environment and culture. 

Eriel Deranger, a communication coordinator of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, has family members who are living and working in Fort McMurray, at the epicentre of Alberta's oil sands development.

As a mother of two, she worries what a pipeline like Keystone XL could mean for the next generation. 

"The biggest thing for me is that I've already seen the landscapes I've [grown up with] as a child get destroyed," she said. "My daughter, who's 14, has the enjoyment of being on the same kind of land in the same region when she learned to make a fish net, catch fish, prepare dried meat...and I wonder, when my son is her age, will he also have his experiences? I worry about the direct impact on the land and our culture. Our identity is directly attached to our land -- if that land is destroyed, our identity is destroyed with it."

As for Redford's lobbying, Deranger feels the Premier's U.S. tour is proof that the government is "fully in support of industry rather than people and the province."

An "affront" to communities

Melina Laboucan-Massimo, an anti-oilsands campaigner for Greenpeace and member of the Lubicon Cree, said Alberta's Premier Redford would leave behind a "legacy of destruction" if she succeeded in convincing the U.S. to approve the Keystone XL pipeline.  

"It's pretty unfortunate that shes isn't mentioning the health issues that have occurred in the tar sands. We've seen very serious health issues [...] We have even had a cancer study (by the Alberta Cancer Board) saying there's a 30 per cent increase in cancer in Fort Chip," she said, referring to the Fort Chipweyan community downstream of Fort McMurray. 
 
"With respect to communities dealing with health issues (allegedly caused by oil sands-related pollution), it's an affront."
 
Laboucan-Massimo doesn't begrudge people who work in the oil sands, but echoes Deranger in saying that people in Northern Alberta often work there because there are few viable alternatives. 
 

"A lot of communities are stuck between a rock and a hard place...We don't see solutions, we don't see alternatives," she said. 

And the longer their concerns go unaddressed by federal and provincial leaders, the more forceful their opposition will be as President Obama heads into his decision. 

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