From his traditional Mikisew Cree homelands on the shores of Lake Athabasca in northern Alberta, he has journeyed to Murray Place in the centre of Stirling – to confront the Royal Bank of Scotland.
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“My people are dying, and anyone involved in the tar sands industry must take responsibility for that, including those that help fund it like RBS,” he said. RBS, which is now 84% owned by taxpayers, stands accused of supplying loans worth nearly £5 billion over the last three years to companies involved in extracting oil from underground tar sands in northern Canada.
The industry is not just dirty oil, it is “bloody oil”, insisted Mr Poitras, the
46-year-old former chief of the Mikisew Cree First Nation. He blamed the high rates of cancer among his people on toxic pollutants from massive mining operations 150 miles upstream.
More than 100 people in the small lakeside village of Fort Chipewyan have died from cancer, out of a First Nation population of about 1,200.
Studies have suggested the cancer rate is 43% higher than normal and some of the cancers are rare varieties which campaigners claim are linked to contaminants. “This has been our traditional homeland for over 12,000 years,” he told the Sunday Herald.
“But now the water and the air are being contaminated, as well as the wildlife, the ducks, geese, moose and fish.”
Critics say concentrations of arsenic up to 450 times more than acceptable levels have been detected in meat from moose. Fish and game animals are said to be covered with lesions and infested by tumours. “Angry and upset is a gross understatement of how I feel,” Mr Poitras declared.
“RBS needs to take a serious look at its investments and their consequences, and disinvest from tar sands.”
The exploitation of tar sands in Alberta has been dubbed “the most destructive project on Earth”. In 2006 there were reckoned to be 170 billion barrels of economically-recoverable oil there, making the area’s reserves second only to Saudi Arabia.
But extracting it involves strip-mining on a massive scale and then processing the sands to extract the bitumen they contain. The operation leaves vast ponds of contaminated waste, which can be seen from outer space.
“The scale of this operation makes the great wall of China look like a little white picket fence,” said Clayton Thomas-Muller, a First Nation Cree and tar sands campaign co-ordinator for the Indigenous Environmental Network in Canada. He has come with Mr Poitras to Stirling. “Four tonnes of earth are removed for every barrel of oil. Every single day enough earth is removed to fill a Toronto baseball stadium,” Mr Thomas-Muller explained.
He pointed out that the boreal forest that is being destroyed to mine the oil is the Earth’s biggest store of carbon, after the tropical rainforest. “RBS is essentially profiteering from this destruction,” he claimed. “The bank must get out of Canadian tar sands.”
The visit to Scotland by Mr Poitras and Mr Thomas-Muller has been hosted by the World Development Movement, which held a meeting yesterday to help prepare for protests around RBS’s annual general meeting in Edinburgh on April 28. “In 2008 the UK Government used taxpayers’ money to bail out RBS with hundreds of billions of pounds,” said the movement’s Scottish campaigner, Liz Murray.
“Against the Government’s own guidance on investment of public funds, RBS is using that money to finance dirty development projects, such as tar sands extraction, that are fuelling climate change and threatening the health and human rights of local communities.”
RBS declined to deal directly with the criticisms of its investment in tar sands companies. A spokeswoman said that the bank’s lending and investment decisions took account of “relevant social, ethical and environmental issues”.