Inside Politics

The uninhabitability of the oil sands forests

Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver has quite the sales job ahead of him. As minister in charge of selling the oil sands, there's a lot of bad press to spin out of and ugly pictures to gloss over. Lucky for him, the potential for tens-of-thousands of new jobs and billions of dollars in new revenues make the job that much easier.

Still, when he sat down for an on-camera interview with the CBC's Margo McDiarmid last week, it was hard to ignore when he made his job a whole lot harder.

"That (oilsands) land, which only represents one-thousandth of our boreal forest, is uninhabitable... uh... by human beings. So, you know, no community is being disrupted," according to the minister.

Uh, Joe? It may be uninhabitable by human beings if your idea of human habitat is restricted to the confines of the Toronto riding of Eglinton-Lawrence. But if, say, you live just down the river from the oil sands development in the mainly Cree, Dene and Metis town of Fort Chipewyan, you might have a different take on the possibilities of the human habitability of the area. There are about a thousand people who live in Fort Chip. And they've been doing pretty well ever since the town was founded in 1788.

Or maybe you're just confused about who actually lives there. Because earlier in the interview, while mentioning the economic benefits to people in the area, you said:

"The impact in the North among the aboriginal community - the Inuit - is very significant. I mean, a lot of these communities have experienced a culture of despair and now there are people being employed. There are Inuit tribes that are benefitting economically directly and the whole area is being advanced."

Now, the nearest Inuit community is about 1,700 kilometres north. So, if you meant that the oil sands area was uninhabited by Inuit, then you'd be right. As for uninhabitable... I'll bet a few Inuit could figure out a way to build and live in a Fort Chip habitat... traditional Cree, Dene and Inuit animosities aside.

Mind you, there have been a few complaints about the quality of the water in town since operations down in Fort Mac really got going. And the locals have noticed an awful lot of cancer-related deaths in the last couple of decades.

So who knows? Maybe you're onto something about the human habitability of the area. Maybe you know something we don't?

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