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Traditions and transitions

This very morning, Obama is assuming presidency of the USA. For Canadians, every earthquake south of our border has ripples…

By Jodie Martinson , in Chances for change , on January 20, 2009 Tags: , , , , ,

This very morning, Obama is assuming presidency of the USA. For Canadians, every earthquake south of our border has ripples up here in what Jon Stewart calls the attic and this man taking presidency is certainly a major event.

Two weeks ago, a group of First Nations chiefs rode on horseback to Washington D.C. to get the President-Elect’s attention. They want a pledge from the American government to stop their complicity in developing Alberta’s tar sands oil, most of which is exported to the USA.

Tar sands development is hurting First Nations communities like Fort Chipewyan, downriver from the tar sands where cancers that shouldn’t be are cropping up, and traditional hunting and fishing practices are becoming hazardous due to toxins in the environment. So chiefs from across the country took to horseback to get Obama’s attention.

What a beautiful image full of symbolism. It harkens back to the days when chiefs from this region used to ride on horseback to see the “Great White Father,” the American president, to stimulate trade. It connotes a partnership.

But, things have changed.

This time they traveled to say we need a slowdown on tar sands development and our own “Great White Father” domestically is someone we don’t trust to represent our interests to the USA. What a sad image full of a history of disrespect and good reasons to distrust Ottawa. Of course, we don’t need reminding that for the first time, the American Great White Father is not white.

The chiefs have it right: the world is changing and Canada, especially Alberta, is setting itself up to be left behind in the dark ages of dirty oil and coal power. Our government embarrassed us at the world climate change conference in Poland in early December by standing in the way of international climate change policy.

This is not to say that there isn’t going to be money to be made in developing one of the most resource-intensive oil deposits in the world again if the market comes around. This is to say that the realities of climate change demand that Canada keep up with the push for clean energy and the imperative to stop burning carbon.

Interesting then that a tradition, riding horseback to meet the President, can be both a reference to the past and a call for a different future.

Has anything changed at all? Haven’t we always had lots to learn from First Nations leadership about environmental change and just never been listening?