From January to March of this year, the Utah state legislature will be meeting at the state capitol to consider bills on topics ranging from sex education to new highway speeds. But amidst the debate on all of these important issues, perhaps the most interesting event to occur at Capitol Hill was on February 21, after the session had officially closed for the day. That Thursday evening, a group of Native Americans, activists, and local citizens gathered at the rotunda of the Capitol building for a flash mob and demonstration planned by the organization Idle No More. While the event may have gone unnoticed by many, all of what was said and what occurred deserves attention and consideration, not just by Utahns, but by all Americans.
Idle No More was founded in 2011 in Canada to combat exploitation both of indigenous peoples and the environment, and has garnered considerable support throughout Canada, the U.S., and Mexico. Led by indigenous leaders like Chief Francois Paulette, who was present for the Salt Lake City rally, the group has been working tirelessly to challenge perceived commercial and governmental abuses. The group has caught worldwide attention for its criticism of international involvement in questionable practices occurring in Canada.
One issue of particular focus has been mining for oil at bituminous sand deposits, usually referred to as “tar sands,” which has created a public outcry in Canada. The drilling of tar sands in Alberta has been condemned in scientific investigations for its considerable damage to the environment and significant hazard to public health. While the group continues to battle against overwhelming odds and capture notoriety around the globe, corporate interests and governmental indifference give little impression that significant change is close.
The tar sand debate became immediately relevant to Utah in January when the go-ahead was given to the Alberta-based corporation U.S. Oil Sands, Inc to begin drilling at the oil sands in eastern Utah after the company spent eight years seeking approval. While local activists instantly began protesting such a decision, it was unique and significant that Idle No More and Chief Paulette could travel to Salt Lake to support the event as part of their continued efforts to speak out against the drilling of tar sands.
The crowd that gathered under the Capitol’s rotunda was led by Native Americans from Canada, the United States and even Mexico. Wearing traditional garb to accompany the drumming and chanting that filled the capitol building, they led those who had gathered in a circle-dance, before Paulette and one of the representatives from a Mexican tribe addressed the crowd. Referring to the environmental impact of the tar sands, Paulette explained, “Every day my people live with this kind of thing. You don’t want that here.” The second speaker, from Mexico and sporting a tee shirt of the legendary indigenous revolutionary leader and fellow Mexican Subcomandante Marcos, spoke of the need to promote greater awareness and interest in the issues: “You need to speak up. You need to use your smart phones [for something smart]…to ensure that the earth will be protected.”
After their comments, the crowd relocated to the Salt Lake public library to watch “The Tipping Point,” which chronicles the struggle of Paulette and Idle No More against tar sand drilling and other unsustainable environmental practices as well as their struggle to promote public awareness of these issues. See www.tippingpointdoc.ca for more information on the documentary.
While it would certainly be easier if such a divisive issue as the environment and the way it is impacted by oil drilling could be kept out of Utah, the reality is simply that it is too late. Utah is now a part of a national and global dilemma, and the dialogue will move forward regardless of our willingness to participate. The Utah state legislature will only meet until March 14, but the debate over tar sands and human impact on the environment will continue much longer. Utah was privileged to have leadership like Francois Paulette and an organization like Idle No More take interest in our local tar sands, but the responsibility to study and act on these issues falls to those who live here. The number of individuals willing to get educated and get involved will ultimately decide how the story ends.