Grassy Narrows and the priorities of Joe Oliver – by Peter Andre Globensky (Thunder Bay Chronicle-Journal – June 11, 2012)

The Thunder Bay Chronicle-Journal is the daily newspaper of Northwestern Ontario.

Peter Andre Globensky, a resident of Thunder Bay, is the former CEO of the Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment, the intergovernmental agency responsible for advancing and harmonizing environmental protection in Canada. He was also an ex-officio member of the National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy.

Forty years ago I had the privilege of securing financial resources for First Nation representatives seeking redress from Dryden Pulp and Paper (Reed) for the suffering inflicted on the residents of Grassy Narrows and the destruction of their life-sustaining ecosystem.

Beginning in 1962 and without the benefit of environmental regulation, the company dumped nearly 10 tons of methyl mercury, a lethal neurotoxin, into the Wabigoon River. Bio-accumulating in fish, it poisoned First Nation residents dependent 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.

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 the gutting of the Fisheries Act which will negatively impact fish habitat and species protection.

This unprecedented act of solidarity is but one example of the depth to which the so-called Harper “budget bill” has angered Canadians, subverting the ability of members of parliament to provide scrutiny and due diligence.

With all the hyperbolic spin that we have been exposed to about the wondrous economic advantages (jobs, profits and prosperity) of the Ring of Fire, tar sands development and the Northern Gateway Pipeline this is like déjà vu all over again!

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 conveniences they have created. But disturbing evidence in our climate of extreme weather events is beginning to indicate that something nasty this way comes! Oliver and Rickford’s short-sighted exploit-at-all-costs development “strategy” and unbridled destruction of Canada’s natural capital contributes to nasty’s arrival.

The concept of “natural capital” is not new. It is a business-friendly idea that places an economic cost on the multiplicity of functions performed by our natural environment. It eradicates the ludicrous economic concept of environment an “externality.” Trees suck up planet-warming carbon dioxide and provide us with oxygen; wetlands 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? We’d all go bankrupt faster than you can say the word “Enron.” Yet we rarely think twice about these services that are removed from the economic system every time we permit extractive industries to eradicate millions of hectares of people-serving products like breathable air and clean water. So what can be done to balance the scales between human prosperity and the maintenance of a resilient natural environment?

We should require industry to 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 an extractive project, that amount is added to whatever taxes and royalties the company pays to we, the public.

Resource extractive industries must be required to set aside a pre-project development reserve equal to an estimate of the annual, post-project cost of fully remediating the site they have altered.

Since 2008 our federal and provincial governments have provided in excess of $5.8 billion in subsidies and tax 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.

Stephen Harper, he of the 39-per-cent “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. Transparent, accountable and participatory, we are entitled to a rigorous, comprehensive and public assessment 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 per cent of our oil from abroad. It is a fast-depleting resource and Canadians are among 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.

Do we not deserve better than this government-by-stealth-and-slight-of-hand in Ottawa? If we don’t, our environment sure does.

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