Citizens for Public Justice questions tar sands

By Dennis Gruending

john_hiemstra_200.jpg Citizens for Public Justice is an Ottawa-based church group with a difference. At a time when the word religion has come to be associated mainly with social conservatism, CPJ provides a Christian perspective regarding public policy debates on poverty, housing, aboriginal rights, immigration and the environment. At its annual meeting in Ottawa on June 9, CPJ invited John Hiemstra, a professor of political studies at The King’s University College in Edmonton, to highlight issues surrounding development of the Alberta tar sands. Hiemstra has spent a sabbatical year studying the boom from what he calls a public justice perspective, which he described as being “rooted in the Christian narrative of God’s good creation.”

The Prime Minister is a proponent of rapid tar sands development and Hiemstra quoted Stephen Harper as describing the project as “an enterprise of epic proportions, akin to the building of the pyramids or China’s Great Wall. Only bigger.” Harper has described Canada as an emerging “energy superpower.” Hiemstra also quoted Alberta premier Ed Stelmach as saying, “There’s no touching the brake. The economy, growth – that will sort itself out. We just want to make sure we’re globally competitive.”

The size of the project is astonishing, something that Hiemstra believes few Canadians understand in detail. He showed aerial photos of giant earthmovers working in open pit mines carved out of the boreal forest. Bitumen is scooped up and later hot water (heated by natural gas) is used to separate oil from the sand. Indeed, Hiemstra said that Alberta will have the world’s second largest dam, after Three Gorges in China, to provide the water needed for tar sands development. Northern Alberta contains the second largest petroleum reserves in the world (after those in Saudi Arabia) and the area to be mined is twice the size of New Brunswick. There was a gasp from Hiemstra’s audience when he showed aerial photos of toxic tailings ponds located immediately adjacent to the Athabasca River.

Hiemstra said that the existing model, which promotes development at all costs and relies solely on the market to dictate the speed and scope, is deeply flawed. That model submerges a host of important issues about climate change, air and water pollution, and the health, particularly aboriginal people in the area. Those issues, in turn, raise basic questions about the consumption and often-wasteful lifestyles that the project supports. Almost all of the refined product will be used for transportation purposes such as gasoline, diesel and jet fuels, and the major market is in the United States.

Hiemstra said that most often a “modernist” approach is taken toward problems associated with the development. The problems (everything from toxic tailings to high home prices and housing rental rates) are divided into small component parts to be studied.  All of those problems are assumed to be amenable to technological solutions. “ Most people don’t ask if the boom is a good thing to start with,” Hiemstra said. “Governments support it and hope for a technological silver bullet.” He said that what is needed is a “more integral and sensitive” analysis, one that he said Citizens for Public Justice has been using for many years. “We need alternative ways to focus debates about policy and action. We must question the deeper reality when dealing with concrete problems. We assume that God’s good creation should work and if it doesn’t we must dig deeper in examining the paradox.”

Hiemstra was once a Calgary-based staffer for CPJ, which arose from the merger of two organizations — the Alberta-based Christian Action Foundation and the Committee for Justice and Liberty based in Ontario. Both groups had Calvinist roots in the Dutch Reformed Church (now the Christian Reformed Church). Gerald Vandezande served as CPJ’s first staff person and until his retirement in 1999 he was a familiar figure representing the organization in public and the media and on many visits to Parliament Hill. A writer once described Vandezande as occupying the “soft liberal left” of the Calvinist tradition. Vandezande attended the June annual meeting in Ottawa along with about 50 others.

CPJ has developed a reputation over the years for providing excellent research and analysis and for being non-partisan in its approach. The organization is scrupulous in its relationships with MPs from all political parties but it can occasionally be daring as well. CPJ appeared before the National Energy Board (NEB) in 1975 to call for a moratorium on the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline, and in 1976 it went to court with other groups to disqualify the NEB chair from ruling on the issue on grounds of his perceived conflict of interest. The call for a moratorium became a major recommendation of the Berger Inquiry into the proposed pipeline. CPJ’s work on this and other public justice issues brought it into contact and alliance with other groups, broadening its experience and its base.

CPJ is membership-based and comprised of both individuals and organizations. Those members are now distributed among Christian Reformed, mainline Protestant, Catholic, and evangelical churches. Late in April CPJ’s board announced that Joe Gunn, an experienced Catholic and ecumenical activist, had been hired as its new executive director. Gunn’s hiring followed CPJ’s relocation last fall from Toronto to Ottawa so that CPJ could be closer to the federal political actors that it hopes to influence. One of CPJ’s major recent efforts is a campaign calling on Canada to create a poverty reduction strategy that includes an action plan along with measurable targets and timelines.

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Dennis

Dennis Gruending is an Ottawa-based writer, blogger and a former member of Parliament

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