Checking in early…a first glimpse of Edmonton

CCRI’s John Powell will be spending the next 10 days in Edmonton, Alberta at the International Association for the Study of the Commons’ (IASC) 15th Biennial Global Conference ‘The Commons Amidst Complexity and Change’ which takes place on May 25-29, 2015. He is president-elect of IASC and will be writing a series of blogs reflecting on the event. Here are John’s initial thoughts: 

Canada covers a massive territory.  You start to get the sense of this flying on the great circle route from Heathrow, just clipping the Arctic Circle in Greenland, and then across the mountains of Baffin Island, cutting across the top of Hudson Bay and flying for several hours across endless snow, ice, tundra, boreal forest, and finally, as we cross Alberta towards Edmonton – the prairie – still brown as it’s not long since the snow melt and Spring is just starting.

A first glimpse of Edmonton – Canada’s self-style ‘oil town’ developing on the back of the tar sands extraction to the north.  From this height the downtown looks just like a huddle of white concrete blocks – set amidst the brown land sea stretching away in all directions.  It looks almost lost amid the landscape but the Edmonton capital regional, with a population of 1.3 million is identified as the northernmost North American city of over 1 million people.  Driving in from the airport all we see are industrial lots stretched out along the road, and – the first signs of oil – road and rail tankers standing waiting to be filled.

The city originally developed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries on the basis of rail access to cheap land, fertile soil and agricultural production, but from the 1940s onward grew to support oil and gas extraction in Alberta (the local ice hockey team are called the ‘Edmonton Oilers’).  The Athabasca Tar Sands around 300 miles to the north of the city are the 3rd largest proven oil reserves in the world, and along with the huge economic benefits, their extraction potentially creates significant social and environmental problems.  Unequal distribution of the both local and regional benefits and costs, the impact on indigenous rights, and issues regarding the global impacts of burning fossil fuels are some of the relevant issues that will be discussed at the IASC conference over the next few days.