Preventing climate catastrophe

‘We’re running out of time’: Jane Fonda on the tar sands

Actor tours northern Alberta with leaders of affected Indigenous communities
Barbara Williams, Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, Jane Fonda, and Chief Allan Adam (Photo courtesy of Mike Hudema, Greenpeace Canada)

Jane Fonda and colleagues from the entertainment industry toured the Alberta tar sands this week as part of a small delegation led by members of Indigenous communities.

“The giant multinational extractive industries have known that what they are doing is causing catastrophic climate change and they have spent many millions trying to deny it and fool us so that the very real, attainable alternative sources of energy won't threaten their profits,” Fonda told Ricochet by email from northern Alberta on Tuesday.

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Using her celebrity to draw attention to the health and climate impacts of the oil industry, Fonda’s intervention has, predictably, been met with a backlash from corporate spokespeople and mainstream media.

It’s not an unfamiliar scenario for Fonda. The award-winning actor has long been disparaged and vehemently denounced by critics for her high profile opposition to the Vietnam War. Those attacking Fonda might do well to remember that history has vindicated her stand on the U.S. war in southeast Asia. Though controversial at the time, her opposition to the wanton destruction of Vietnam now seems more like common sense.

In the case of both Vietnam and climate change, Fonda told Ricochet, “The powerful have known the truth and kept it from the people. In the case of Vietnam multiple administrations knew that the war was a mistake and that we couldn't win short of nuclear annihilation (the Pentagon Papers exposed that once and for all).”

On Wednesday, Fonda joined a press conference convened by Indigenous leaders, explaining that the incoming Trump administration and its close links to Big Oil contributed to the timing of this delegation.

Solidarity with Indigenous communities

“Trudeau has signalled that he is willing to work with Donald Trump to restart the KeystoneXL pipeline,” said Melina Laboucan-Massimo, a member of the Lubicon Cree First Nation and a campaigner with Greenpeace Canada who opened the press conference Wednesday.

“The Trudeau government is not respecting Indigenous peoples' decisions for their land and peoples,” said Laboucan-Massimo, noting that recent approvals of Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain pipeline expansion and Enbridge’s Line 3 are in contradiction to the government’s stated commitment to the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. “Jane Fonda came here this week to show solidarity with Indigenous communities,” Laboucan-Massimo emphasized in her introduction.

“We wanted to show them [Fonda and other members of the delegation] some of the outstanding issues for our communities,” said Chief Allan Adam of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation.

“Everything’s still the same, they’re approving projects like they were before, and First Nations issues are not a concern to them,” Adam continued. “It’s all because of mismanagement. I believe the whole oil sands is being mismanaged by the provincial and federal governments . . . .They continue to push pipelines through and whatever concerns [we] have as a nation it doesn’t matter anymore because the almighty dollar counts more than human life.”

Tipping point coming soon

“We are at a moment in human history that is absolutely unique,” argued Fonda at the press conference.

If we don’t do what is right starting now, we are destroying the future for our grandchildren and our great grandchildren, and we have no right to do that. Native people have been telling us for generations to protect the land and we haven’t listened . . . .We are running out of time. There’s going to be a tipping point and it’s coming soon, after which we will not be able to stop a catastrophe after which much of the planet could become uninhabitable for human life.

“With the election of Trump and his appointments of the worst people imaginable, it is urgent that we stand up against social and environmental injustice,” Barbara Williams, a Gemini-winning Canadian actor who also joined the delegation, told Ricochet by email.

Rapid and just transition needed

“The U.S. is the biggest importer of tar sands oil,” Williams noted. “We have to begin the transition to renewables and move away from oil-based economies. I was struck by the huge scale of everything. It’s monstrous. I also was moved by the stories of some of the First Nations people I met. How their health has been impacted. The rates of cancer are 10 times the national rate.”

“Prime Minister Trudeau was a real rock star when he made his commitments at the Paris climate conference, and his gestures to First Nations people on reconciliation were very moving,” Williams said at the press conference. “But I’m kind of not feeling the love anymore.”

Legal challenges to pipelines

Grand Chief Derek Nepinak of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs also spoke at the press conference, noting that his organization is challenging the Liberal government’s approval of the Line 3 pipeline in federal court due to a failure to properly consult First Nations.

“We need to talk about inclusion, and we need to talk about just transition and the need to include Indigenous people in this process,” said Nepinak. “Justin Trudeau talked about the need to consult First Nations people in Paris, and I believe him...If politicians want to win the hearts and minds of Indigenous people then you better observe our Indigenous laws and ceremonies.”

“We are not an enemy of the workers, we share an enemy with the workers,” said Fonda, arguing that renewable energy developments and other sectors are more job-intensive than fossil fuels. “Powerful interests don’t want us to know that there are alternatives available now.”

“I want to say as clearly as possible that British Columbia is not Canada’s doormat to access Asian markets,” said Grand Chief Stewart Phillip of the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs. “We are staunchly opposed to Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain expansion project, and for the last decade we opposed Enbridge’s Northern Gateway heavy oil pipeline proposal. And we were successful . . . at the end of the day it was First Nations' lawsuits that squashed that project, and now we’re fighting Kinder Morgan. The future in B.C. is going to be extremely litigious.”

Even with the recent Trudeau pipeline approvals and a Big Oil-friendly Trump administration looming, speakers at the press conference expressed determination and a certain sense of optimism.

“I got news for you Donald Trump: it ain’t going to happen on our watch,” said Chief Adam. “We aren’t going to keep letting our people die of cancer and other causes.”

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