Residents returned to fire-ravaged Fort McMurray last week and, as throughout the crisis, our national media had plenty to commiserate over: burned-out buildings, ash-covered everything, homes reeking of smoke and rotten food, thousands of refrigerators in need of disposal, biblical swarms of wasps and hornets — not to mention all those damaged quads, dirtbikes and powerboats.
While myriad reports kept heartstrings taut across the country, the good folks of this beleaguered northern city rolled up their sleeves and, with financial help from Canadians coast-to-coast and provincial and federal relief funds (also accrued from fellow citizens), got down to the years-long rebuild of their lives. Stores and restaurants re-opened, the collective gestalt writ large as getting back to Business as Usual. But though a reasonable facsimile of the past might well be erected here, it cannot — should not — ever be status quo again.
You wouldn't know this from the way things are portrayed by the helium-sucking media and political chuckleheads in Edmonton and Ottawa, so you might wonder if there's anything more to be said about Fort Mac. Well, yes, actually... plenty.
Let's start here: whether they are initially sparked by cigarettes or lightning scientific consensus that climate change is causing more intense and frequent wildfires globally; there's also consensus that this fire was just such a conflagration. No one from any quarter where rational thought and evidence underpins conversation would say otherwise: NASA, the IPCC, the University of Alberta — even Whistler, where fire training is underway this week and preparations are made in our forests and on paper to handle the kind of fire that, to a community where climate change drives all planning, seems inevitable. Thus, cognoscenti far and wide see the exodus from Fort Mac as the very face of climate refugeedom, to which, by virtue of national altruism, we are compelled to respond.
Of course we should aid any fellow Canuck whose life has been thus beset. Equally of course, we should immediately talk — as after every sad mass shooting in the U.S. — about what we can do to avert such disaster. We didn't. According to The Tyee, only six per cent of articles in a Google search on the Fort Mac fire mentioned climate change. The majority of these in foreign press (e.g., Elizabeth Kolbert in the
New Yorker), or progressive Canadian journals like The Tyee and National Observer. Otherwise, Canada mostly had articles chastising the indefatigable Elizabeth May for daring to suggest, early on, that the Fort Mac fire was climate-driven. This because media has long treated the tarsands with kid gloves. Is it inherent politeness at work, fear of offending individuals or business, or a special kind of institutionalized denial?
I'll take the latter, which appears on display everywhere. For instance, in spite of repeated natural disasters made worse by climate change, and lofty emission-reduction targets promised in the Paris Agreement, Justin Trudeau and provincial premiers like Christy Clark and Rachel Notley are still pushing for pipeline development and fossil-fuel expansion. Business as Usual. Meanwhile, expect temperatures to continue to rise, with ever-more-scorching summers stressing forests to ignition.
Sadly, such denial leads us to hypocrisy: as the fires raged, a new Environment Canada study declared the tarsands a top continental source of the harmful air pollutants known as secondary organic aerosols (SOAs) — up to 84 tonnes each day, comparable to the daily output of the Greater Toronto Area, Canada's largest metropolis with some 7,000,000 people. Previously, tarsands pollution was clearly linked to elevated cancer rates in nearby Fort Chipewyan. A University of Manitoba study conducted in collaboration with the Athabasca Chipewyan and Mikisew Cree First Nations found that fish and animals consumed as part of a traditional diet contained unusually high concentrations of contaminants emitted during the extraction and upgrading of bitumen. The effect on health was "clear and worrisome," researcher Stephane McLachlan said. "Something unique is happening in Fort Chipewyan, especially around cancer."
Have we rushed headlong, as a nation, to help Fort Chipewyan? No. Have provincial agencies or neighbours in Fort McMurray offered a helping hand? The opposite: in denial, they look the other way. Business as Usual.
In a May 9 article on Rabble.ca, "Don't let the Fort Mac fire turn into feel-good boosterism for the extractive industry. They knew this was coming," Sarah Beuhler addressed a sentiment quietly shared across the land. Everything is a choice. I don't know a single Fort Mac worker who isn't aware, deep in their hearts, that they've made a pact with the climate devil in order to cash in on a monstrously destructive industry to earn absurd amounts of money in the short term. It wasn't karma or kismet — as some fools allege — that brought that devil calling on Fort Mac, but a convergence of anthropogenic and cyclical climate forcing acting on geography to qualify the result as mere irony. That's reality.
We quite naturally help our fellow Canadians in time of need, but a little humility and awareness is in order all around. The companies knew. The employees knew. The province knew. The country knew. It can't be Business as Usual anymore. Let's talk about it.
Leslie Anthony is a Whistler-based author, editor, biologist and bon vivant who has never met a mountain he didn't like.