Extracting bitumen from tar sands to make petroleum products like gasoline has been described as the world’s most destructive industry because of the heavy toll it takes on the environment. As director of the UK Tar Sands Network, Suzanne Dhaliwal has played an important role in opposing the exploitation of tar sands. Her work has taken her from standing up for Indigenous communities to challenging racism in the green movement.

While tar sands deposits exist globally, Canada’s tar sands are the biggest energy project in the world, currently producing 1.9 million barrels of oil a day. Tar sands are also the fastest-growing source of greenhouse-gas emissions in Canada, and deforestation is also a major issue: the tar sands in Alberta stretch across 54,826 square miles, an area bigger than England. The impact on Alberta’s First Nations communities is devastating.

“Tar sands developments scar sacred territories, disturb traditional cultural practices and undermine constitutionally-enshrined treaty rights,” the organisation’s website states.

Fair representation

The UK Tar Sands Network has been pivotal in internationalising the tar sands issue: “We were really nimble as a small organisation,” Dhaliwal says. “Without the restrictions placed on larger organisations, we worked across the spectrum, used diverse tactics, we sowed the seeds for the divestment movement by bringing the frontline voices to BP and Shell to show tar sands extraction was an Indigenous rights and climate disaster.”

But over time, Dhaliwal says, it became apparent that there were issues with working in this way, as people weren’t used to taking direction from Indigenous leadership. “As the sole person of colour often organising in climate spaces, it was difficult,” she says. Dhaliwal uses the acronym ‘WEIRD’ – Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich and Democratic (coined by Joseph Henrich et al. in an article published in 2010) – to describe a particular attitude she says she would come up against. “You can’t talk about the race issue, about the privilege issue, let alone expect people to take direction from frontline communities,” she says.

Dhaliwal has worked for Indigenous rights for over a decade, beginning with Doctors Against Borders, moving on to Survival International and later joining and organising more grassroots campaigns. As a Sikh, Dhaliwal talks about how the concept of seva, or selfless service, for spiritual growth and contributing to the community is, for her, entwined with the fight of Indigenous cultures and the way she was trained by the Indigenous Environmental Network in climate justice organising. “But we can’t operate as women of colour in the environmental movement. It happens a lot, but we just don’t talk about it.”

Dhaliwal says a big challenge, one that precipitated the closing down of the UK Tar Sands Network in April this year, was when Greenpeace Canada did a tar sands action outside Canada House with a post on social media saying, “Today, the resistance against tar sands pipelines went international.” Dhaliwal calls this “erasing the history of Indigenous tar sands activism”, stating: “Directed by Indigenous leadership we internationalised tar sands and supported frontline resistance in Alberta and this is now the environmental justice issue of our generation.”

In their statement following Dhaliwal’s departure, the UK Tar Sands Network said: “We are using this occasion to break away from toxic organising cultures and drawing a line at the White Supremacy in our organising spaces.” The organisation now exists as No Tar Sands, while Dhaliwal decides where to redirect her energy.

In a response to Dhaliwal’s comments, Areeba Hamid, Deputy Programme Director at Greenpeace UK, said: “We’re grateful to the UK Tar Sands Network for the issues they’ve raised about our pipelines action at Canada House. We’re listening carefully to their concerns and are determined to take them on board.

“As a large organisation campaigning on multiple issues, we still have much to learn from grassroots groups that have spent years doing the heavy lifting in areas of work that we are new to. This is especially true at a time when many smaller NGOs, often representing marginalised communities, are struggling to secure funds. We’re determined to learn from our mistakes and strive to be better allies to the organisations campaigning in the same space.

“The UK Tar Sands Network has worked tirelessly for years on one of the crucial climate issues of our time, and we would very much like them to continue to do so. Tar sands developments are a major threat to our climate – it’s vital that we build the widest and strongest possible movement to stop them.”

How to move forward

Dhaliwal calls for an overhaul of the non-profit system: “If we look at what has recently happened with Save the Children and Oxfam in a sector-wide context, we see the need for accountability and transparency across the charity sector.” If we truly believe in fighting for environmental justice, then we need to look at organisations and ask: how many of you are women? How many are people of colour? Also, what protection is there for these voices in the movement?

So, I ask her, how do we move forward? “Finding accountability, and anti-oppression work in the movement need to go hand-in-hand with environmental activism,” she replies. Organisations need to focus on creating a safe space to start the conversation. “Keep talking about things,” she continues. “We need a model of Indigenous organising, a diversity of voices and approaches for solutions for the planet. The climate movement has to represent the wider movement.”

Although very little tar sands oil is currently flowing through UK petrol pumps, large amounts of investment are coming from UK banks and corporations, and NGOs have a role to play in the movement. Ways forward include empowering those fighting on the ground, tackling the uneven distribution of resources between them and larger, more prominent organisations, and ensuring that their voices are not buried or stolen in the process. This isn’t about finding Indigenous peoples a seat at the table any more, but about forging a new table based on a deeper understanding of environmental justice in the UK.

So what’s next for Dhaliwal? “I speak less about white supremacy now and am focusing more on creative strategies for decolonising our movement. I work as a consultant to organisations and brands that want to do things in an intersectional way,” she says. “I am also working on an exciting podcast dedicated to lifting the strategies and voices of women of colour in the climate movement. Stay tuned!” As for the wider fight, she states: “Like with fascism, we’ve been too nice. Environmental justice must be on the agenda. We need a model of organising that is a mirror of the world that we are trying to create.” Whether it can be done remains to be seen, but it is crucial to the wellbeing of our planet.

Since this article was written, Greenpeace have been in touch with Suzanne Dhaliwal to apologise for the events that occurred. They are now working with her to help support her anti-racism work in the UK.

Zion Lights is the Contributing Editor of JUNO magazine, TEDx speaker and author of The Ultimate Guide to Green Parenting. www.zionlights.co.uk