Canada’s Prairies Are on Fire. The Time for Bold Climate Action Is Now.
Amid raging wildfires and evacuations, Alberta is grappling with political inertia. Fighting for a livable future in the climate-denying, oil-producing province will require a bold politics of anti-austerity and just transition policies.
On a Friday evening at the beginning of the month, I sat on a rooftop patio along a main street in Edmonton as ash floated down from the sky and into my friend’s beer.
Hours later, my phone blared with the third evacuation alert of that evening, notifying people in a nearby county to evacuate because of approaching wildfires. I returned home to discover I had left my windows open. When I crawled into my bed, it smelled like a campfire.
The next day, as tens of thousands of people were forced from their homes, Alberta’s premier Danielle Smith declared a state of emergency. Soon, more than a hundred wildfires were burning across Alberta.
Fueled by an extremely hot and dry spring, the wildfires have already consumed a staggering 391,000 hectares this year, compared to just over four hundred hectares at this time last year.
The emergency has conspicuous timing: it started just five days after the writ was dropped for the Alberta provincial election, triggering a race between Smith’s United Conservative Party (UCP) and Rachel Notley’s New Democratic Party (NDP).
But while there couldn’t be a better moment to reckon with the roots of this emergency, neither political party has shown the courage to address, or even to name, the crises fueling the fires: austerity and climate change.
The province has never been riper for a compelling vision of what a thriving and safe future for Alberta could look like, yet Notley seems bent on missing the opportunity. Instead of underestimating the readiness of everyday Albertans to grapple with the climate emergency, Notley could be appealing to what they’re most proud of — their diehard commitment to protecting their neighbors in the face of crisis.
But with indigenous communities being devastated and far-right extremists sowing the seeds of conspiracy, what’s unfolding is a dangerous sign of what’s to come if we continue to let Big Oil and the corporate elite set the political agenda.
In Grande Prairie, tense scenes at public town halls have emerged of residents equating evacuation orders to COVID-19 mandates and threatening to violate the orders.
“If you guys don’t stop, we will be driving through the check stops because what are you gonna do?” said one unnamed person at the town hall. “You’re going to arrest everybody for going to their homes? This is like COVID all over again. ‘We’re going to lock you guys down, treat you like children, and you can’t do anything.’ We’ve dealt with this for three years and we’re done.”
According to reports from CityNews Edmonton, officials believe people have been violating orders and reentering their communities. Far-right websites and social media accounts have also begun to spread rumors that “radical eco-terrorists” set the fires, without any evidence.
With social cohesion and trust in government at an all-time low, first responders and public officials have been on the receiving end of harassment and vitriol. Far-right extremists have gone so far as to suggest that “feminist firefighters” from a women-in-training program accidentally set Banff ablaze.
Meanwhile, northern First Nations and Metis communities across the province have been amongst the hardest hit by the fires, once again showing that indigenous peoples bear the brunt of the climate crisis.
Dozens of structures have been destroyed in Sturgeon Lake Cree Nation, where more than one thousand people were forced to evacuate. Thousands more were evacuated by firefighters and local leadership from the Little Red River Cree Nation. The northern community of East Prairie Metis Settlement has reported losing two dozen homes and a bridge after a wildfire blazed through the community and forced the evacuation of hundreds.
While the blame has been severely misplaced, the truth is that in an austerity-ridden, climate-denying province like Alberta, there’s no shortage of institutional culprits on whom to pin a degree of blame.
Many have rightfully called attention to the fact that UCP budget cuts have left the province under-resourced and ill-equipped to respond to the scale of the crisis. An elite wildfire fighting crew that specialized in rappelling into blazes while they were still small was cut by the UCP government in 2019, saving the province just $1.4 million from its $117 million wildfire budget. Former members of the team say they could’ve made a difference in key wildfire zones.
While the UCP says that the firefighters’ skills were better utilized on the ground, internal government documents suggest that rappel crews were deployed close to one hundred times per year between 2014 and 2018, including dozens of rappels into fires every year.
The lack of firefighting resources has resulted in some communities taking it upon themselves to haul buckets of water into the bush in order to extinguish spot fires surrounding their homes.
The Oil Industry Fuels the Devastation of Forest Fires
The forest fires that are now consuming hundreds of thousands of hectares of boreal forest — lands that the fossil fuel industry refers to as “overburden” — have been supercharged by those same corporations.
Alberta, of course, is home to many of the companies who collectively hold a disproportionate responsibility for the climate emergency.
In 2017, a report found one hundred fossil fuel producers to be responsible for 71 per cent of all global greenhouse gas emissions. Almost every single corporation operating in the Alberta oil sands appears on the list. Collectively, they own between four to five times the reserves that can be safely extracted and burned.
While food bank usage in the province has skyrocketed to the highest level ever, fossil fuel corporations have more than doubled their profits over the last year. And while the Alberta government could tax Big Oil’s excess profits and use the funds to cover the costs of the devastation they’ve caused, the idea has yet to penetrate the political mainstream.
But the province could not be better primed for this intervention.
Back in 2017, at the one-year anniversary of the Fort McMurray wildfire, I attended a conference hosted by the city’s local college to mark the occasion and share lessons from the disaster. During a session held by a local food bank, a worker described a “crockpot program” they had initiated when residents had returned home in the wake of the fire.
In order to support community members dealing with financial hardship and social isolation, the food bank provided free crockpots. Every week, they were given a basket of groceries and a recipe for a meal to prepare. Often, they’d choose to hang around and prepare their meals together.
The woman presenting beamed with pride as she described the positive impacts of the program. But then her voice lowered as she explained that with Shell pulling out of the oil sands, they were also pulling their funding from the crockpot program. During question time, I raised my hand to ask whether they had secured another source of funding for the program, expecting that the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo might have stepped up.
“We’ve asked CNRL [Canadian National Resources Limited] and Cenovus,” she said, “but sadly, we haven’t confirmed anything yet.”
As I listened to her speak, I tried to hide the confusion and disappointment on my face. I couldn’t help but think how basic the request was for people to have access to good food and be nourished by the community — and how enraging it was that they had to rely on the fleeting benevolence of a handful of corporations that were torching the planet.
In the midst of the current state of emergency, the Alberta NDP has been silent on both climate change and the urgent need to loosen Big Oil’s grip on the province’s economy.
Last week, as new fires erupted across the province, Notley took to social media to boast about her unwavering support for the Trans Mountain pipeline. Terrified of losing Calgary if the party so much as utters the words “climate change,” the NDP has essentially settled on offering “thoughts and prayers” to first responders and those affected. So while the province is experiencing one of the earliest and most devastating fire seasons on record, there’s no mention of the climate crisis to be found outside the provincial Green Party.
In perhaps the most tone-deaf move of all, the NDP chose to announce its “Hometown Alberta program,” promising to improve and build new hockey arenas “in every corner of the province.” Alongside social media graphics that could easily be mistaken for satire, it also announced a “Kids Activity Tax Credit,” promising families up to $500 to pay for swimming lessons, gymnastics classes, and hockey equipment.
Notley is missing a historic opportunity to speak to the material grievances of working Albertans and their anxiety over what the future holds. Instead of promising hockey rinks and subsidies for piano lessons, she could paint a compelling vision for this province. She could appeal to what the vast majority of Albertans are demonstrating they do best — come together in moments of crisis to fight for their neighbors and communities.
She could speak to how the fossil fuel industry is utterly failing workers, communities, and everyday people. She could point to how, while fossil fuel companies have been raking in record profits and siphoning billions out of public coffers, they’ve also been automating jobs out of existence, walking away from their cleanup obligations, and issuing pink slips to their lowest-paid employees.
Better yet, she could tell Albertans about the thriving economy we could build in the shell of the old. The robust public programs and social services that could enable our children to thrive. The beautiful, affordable homes that could shelter our unhoused neighbors. The indigenous and democratically owned renewable energy and restoration projects that could put hundreds of thousands to work. And the efficient, comfortable public transportation that could connect our communities in a fraction of the time.
She could invite Albertans who are now dousing their homes with buckets of water into the fight of their lives — a fight that, if won, could guarantee good work and a more dignified life for all.
Rising Above Self-Blame
Last year, as I was moving out of my apartment unit into the one next door, the next-door neighbor, himself moving out, asked me what I did for work.
“I work on climate change,” I said, reluctant to get too into it at 7:00 a.m. “No way!” he said, a smile spreading across his face. “That’s awesome.”
I put the question back to him and watched as he shifted uncomfortably. “I work in energy — out at the refineries,” he said. “I’m a boilermaker. I’m the enemy.”
I tried to give him a reassuring smile. “No, no you’re not!” I said. “I’m actually working on fighting for a just transition, so I’m trying to make sure that workers like you don’t get left behind.”
He told me he was familiar with the term and had actually looked up Iron & Earth, an organization of oil and gas workers fighting for a just transition.
“Honestly, if it weren’t for climate change, I’d want to keep working in oil and gas,” he said. “But living through the heat dome this past summer was hell. Looking around and seeing BC [British Columbia] up in flames, thinking to myself, ‘Fuck, this is all my fault.’”
We exchanged some dark jokes before I asked him where he was moving to. He explained that he and his girlfriend had bought a house in the suburbs. He had a young son who spent half his time with him and half with his mom. He wanted him to have a backyard to run around in.
As the wildfire alerts began blowing up my phone this week, I thought of him. I hope he knows he’s not to blame for the fires ravaging the province. I hope he finds a good job as a boilermaker, building the infrastructure of a new economy. I hope his son has summers of clear skies in the backyard. And more than anything, I hope we’ll fight like hell for him to have a livable future in this place.