05/01/2012 11:32 EDT | Updated 07/01/2012 05:12 EDT

Hope Aboard the Yinka Dene Train


These days, it's easy to feel like Canada has gone off the rails if you care about clean water, clean air, and what type of planet we're passing on to our children. Powerful oil interests are in the driver's seat, with a complicit federal government willing to steer us over the cliff by removing environmental protections that keep Canadians safe from oil spills, and other toxic trash. And the passengers -- citizens -- are told to just shut up about it.

It's easy to feel alone, but you're not.

Today, a trainload of First Nations from northern B.C. took to the rails (literally) to fight for a vision that's more in line with what Canadians want. The Yinka Dene Alliance, made up of five First Nations whose territory comprises 25% of the proposed Enbridge Northern Gateway oil pipelines and tankers project, is taking a Freedom Train across Canada. They're travelling with allies from several other Nations like the Haida, the Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs, and Tsleil Waututh. They're doing it to enforce their legal ban on the project, and to protect their freedom to choose their own future, and live according to their own cultures. It will be a long trip, too: All the way from northern B.C. to Enbridge's annual shareholders meeting in Toronto, making stops along the way to rally support.

Communities in northern B.C. are on the front lines of the current attack on the environment. The oil industry's desire to sell tar sands oil to Asia via the pipeline and tanker project is behind the gutting of key environmental safeguards, and moves to silence environmental charities. Nowhere does this hit home more than in communities most at risk of oil spills; communities that also worry what will happen to the 45,000 coastal jobs that rely on clean water.

But while the pressure to ram the pipeline through is being felt most directly by communities in northern B.C., the impacts of a Canada run by powerful oil interests will be felt by all Canadians. The removal of environmental safeguards will apply coast to coast to coast, meaning less protection for Canadians from oil spills, toxic mining waste, and dangerous air pollution. The stifling of democratic debate about major industrial projects means all Canadians will have less of a voice in decisions that impact us.

Nor is only the environment at risk. The economy could also be harmed by recklessly expanding tar sands oil production. As the Canadian dollar rises -- called a petro-currency -- jobs in other sectors like manufacturing, tourism, agriculture, or fisheries that depend on exports are at risk. Doubling down on oil might be good for extremely profitable oil companies, but isn't necessarily great for the rest of us. It's also the opposite direction that other countries are going, namely moving to clean, renewable energy.

So while the land and water the Yinka Dene want to protect might be a long way from where you live, we all have a stake in their message about the Northern Gateway pipeline. The Freedom Train is about their land and their culture, but the fight over this pipeline is about what direction Canada is heading. We can let the oil lobby drive us over a cliff, or we can join the Yinka Dene in changing the track.