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Harper, Please Listen to Sandy

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Like so many people with family south of the border, I was tracking people down to see how they fared in Hurricane Sandy. There is some déjà vu to all of this. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, I travelled to the small town east of New Orleans where my parents live. There, I helped them begin the process of rebuilding their shattered home. I saw first-hand the devastating toll that an increase in severe weather will take on even in the wealthiest countries.

Hurricane Sandy has left more than 100 people dead, and wreaked havoc on the lives and livelihoods of millions. And of course, as we saw last week in Haiti, the Dominican Republic and Cuba, the impacts are that much more dramatic in areas of the world where people are already struggling to meet their most basic needs.

Following so closely on the heels of the horrific droughts and wildfires of this past summer, Hurricane Sandy should be making it abundantly clear to all of us what lies ahead if we don't get serious about reversing climate change. Climate change is changing our weather patterns, often making weather more extreme.

But while it should be obvious by now that we need to take decisive action to reverse climate change, the Harper government seems determined to do otherwise. Instead, our government is recklessly embarking on a plan to actually increase global warming by expanding oil sands production in Alberta from 1.4 billions per day to 5 billion by 2035. This expansion will increase greenhouse gas emissions exponentially; the government's own forecasts predict emissions from Canada's oil sands will double from 2009 to 2012.

Luckily, some Canadians -- including some brave women in northern Alberta and northern British Columbia -- are sounding the alarm bells.

Last month I traveled with a group of women to Ft-McMurray, Alberta and then along the proposed route of Enbridge's Northern Gateway pipeline through British Columbia. We wanted to see the reality of "the biggest mega project on planet earth" for ourselves. We were a group of women from Canada and the U.S., including a Nobel Laureate, a singer and activist, a climate scientist, a sustainability expert and
an indigenous environment campaigner.

We heard from more than 200 women in 13 communities about their concerns over the massive expansion of the oil sands and pipeline and tanker projects, and the impact on their communities. We met mothers with babies, grandmothers and women in wheelchairs. Their passion is fierce, their conviction contagious.

They, too, are anxious over the climate change crisis, and they are angry over the false dichotomy of having to choose between environmental destruction, inaction on climate change and economic development. But what inspired me is that they are channeling their anger and anxiety into positive action; these women are organizing and demanding to be heard.

The first thing we did upon arrival in Ft McMurray was to take an aerial tour of the oil sands. The magnitude and scale of the mines blew me away, and it was shocking to see how close they were to the waterways. In Ft McMurray we met Crystal Lameman, who lives with her family near Lac La Biche, Alberta. She is leading a legal battle to hold Canada accountable for violating indigenous people's treaty rights.

"What used to be the boreal forest now is like the Sahara desert," Crystal told us. "And they want to pacify us with money. Yes, we are all here, we rely on this industry, but it should never be alright that you have to chose between your values, and who you are as an indigenous person."

When we traveled to northern British Columbia, the pristine landscape was a complete contrast to Ft McMurray. There we met women who are deeply concerned about the devastation an oil pipeline may bring. But the women were not only concerned with protecting the rivers, the wild salmon and the forests. Some talked about how oil production in Canada contributes to climate change, and the impact
this has on marginalized communities, First Nations and those in the developing world.

"Overseas, climate change is on everybody's lips, how it's changing how [people's ability] to farm, catch fish, live their lives," said Emily McGiffin, a teacher who recently returned to Smithers, BC from volunteering in the Philippines. "It's incumbent on us to start demanding that things be done differently."

Some also pointed to impacts of climate change felt in their own communities.

Parts of northern British Columbia are now experiencing very mild winters, making it fertile territory for the destructive pine beetle. Hilary Crowley, from Summit Lake, told us how she had witnessed the pine beetle destroy forests. With the forest floor lost, silt has flooded into the rivers, and floating dead trees have created dangerous logjams.

We heard more about this when we visited Burns Lake. Chief Al Gerow of the Burns Lake Indian Band told us that his community has lost over 80 per cent of their forests to the pine beetle. Under certain dry conditions, Chief Gerow says the trees killed by the beetle can be dangerous to mill. Last January, an explosion at the Babine Forest Products Mill in Burns Lake created a fire, killing two men and injuring 19 others. The community is still struggling to cope. In the months after the explosion, the Chief told us that domestic violence went up by a whopping 227 per cent.

But while many people in northern BC fear what further changes the proposed oil pipeline might bring to their communities and their land -- they are not simply shrugging their shoulders. Anne Hill, recently retired from teaching music in the public school system in Terrace, BC, echoed many in sharing how she's
transforming her anxiety into action. "I'm ready to sit in front of a bulldozer to stop this project. I'm absolutely terrified for the future of this planet for my children and grandchildren, and I'm ready to do whatever it takes."

It's time our government started to take these women, and their communities, seriously.