How the Tar Sands Demonstrations Europe Project Began - Part Two: Copenhagen and Canada's International Reputation

submitted by Derek Leahy

How does one go from being a care-free individual giving walking tours to subsidize his many many travels in Europe to organizing demonstrations in five major European cities to raise awareness about the tar sands? 


BERLIN, GERMANY - My last post explains why I decided to finally get involved in the climate change movement but not why I began with the tar sands. There are dozens if not hundreds of different issues related to climate change that I could have began with but I chose the tar sands.

The easy answer would be I am Canadian and thus I should be concerned with Canadian issues. There is some truth here. I knew I had to begin with something I knew and being Canadian I knew more about the tar sands than I do about the dangers of rising sea levels in the Maldives for example (although, it does not take a rocket scientist to figure out why rising sea levels is a problem for a nation of islands a meter above sea level). 

Once again it was my experience in Copenhagen during the UN Climate Change Summit. In fact, it inspired me to write the article below during the summit which was published in the Edmonton Journal, Straight Goods, the Watershed Sentinel and even in the small town paper of Uxbridge, Ontario called Cosmos. The article is about this Canadian realizing the pristine international reputation of his country could be completely lost because of the tar sands. 

I love to travel. I'm 28 and lucky enough to have spent most of my adult life working as a tour guide in Berlin, Germany. I can tell you travelling as a Canadian citizen has been a delight. But now that I am in Copenhagen, Denmark, I worry that will end this week .

I've been to twenty-five countries and every single one it is the same thing; people love Canadians. There is something about us people just like. It's always a warm reception everywhere I go.

Last year I arrived in Belgrade two weeks after Kosovo declared independence from Serbia. The American Embassy had been set on fire. Rocks were even thrown at the UK, Croatian and German Embassies but peoples' eyes still lit up and they'd smile when they found out that I was Canadian. I think it is safe to say there is no country in the world (with the exception of Australia) that is so universally loved as my country, Canada.

Like I said, I love to travel. I am in Copenhagen right now for two reasons; to see a place I haven't been to yet and to learn about climate change. Like anyone, I know climate change is happening. I don't need scientists, the media or the UN to tell me. I have my memory. I know the winters that I grew up with in Canada don't exist anymore. In 6 years of being abroad, I've been back home for five Christmas'. I can only recall one that was white. I can't remember the last time I had two white Christmas' in a row back home. It must have been when I was still in high school.

To be honest, I don't understand exactly how CO2 emissions warm the earth. That's why I am in Copenhagen. Even then, I do not need to know the science precisely. I've got my common sense. I do know that smoking a pack of cigarettes a day and drinking toxic water wouldn't be good for me or anyone else. But I want to understand how exactly this is damaging the world.

What have I learned here in Copenhagen this last week? Many many things, but only one will worry me for the years to come. I realize now that people in other countries are beginning to dislike Canada. I watched a First Nations' woman from North Dakota last Thursday cry as she explained how the refining of the tar sands from Canada in her state has caused cancer rates in her community to skyrocket. I can't stop thinking of the five boys she spoke of who probably would be up to my waist and had brain cancer. They buried four of them already. She said the fifth probably won't make it.

I met three people at a demonstration on Saturday holding a Canadian flag with the words "Tar Sands: Climate Crime" painted on like oil stains. I thought they were from Canada. They were from London, England. They had read an article in National Geographic about the environmental impact of the tar sands on northern Alberta. Later that night, I saw them hold a candle light vigil in front of the Canadian Embassy here in protest.

And during that same demonstration on Saturday, the final blow came. The chair of the environmental group Friends of the Earth International - a Nigerian - made a speech to 100 000 people from every corner of the world asking them to tell their leaders to leave the oil in the ground, to leave the coal in the mines and "to leave the tar in the sands". This and this alone, cut me like the edge of a knife. Why? There is no other country that possesses and uses tar sands the way Canada does. He could only be making reference to one country when he said that. Canada, my country, was the only country being singled out. Maybe that's why 100 people protested in front of the Canadian Embassy here just today.

Every time I see another "Stop the Tar Sands!" sticker or banner in Copenhagen, the knife cuts me deeper and I cannot help to worry and wonder. Will the day come that it will be unpleasant for me to be a Canadian abroad? I remember how hard it was for Americans to be in Europe under the Bush administration. In 2003, while in Lyon, France, an friend of mine from Indiana told a shopkeeper he was Canadian (while wearing one of my favourite Molson Canadian T-shirts) to avoid being criticized because of his nationality. Will this happen to us? Will people no longer give us that warm reception and instead pester us with questions of how could YOU let this happen? Why would YOU vote for these leaders? Why are YOU doing this?

Will the day come where we will no longer be able to proudly sew the red maple leaf on our backpacks before enjoying a summer backpacking through Europe?

I love to travel. I hope I can keep travelling until the day I die. I fear that it won't be that easy for me to be a Canadian abroad in the future. I hope I am wrong.

Can somebody please help me?

A Canadian Abroad

Derek Leahy