Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
March 2, 2009
Bouchard's tarsands epistle draws mixed reaction in McMurray
BY RAMON GONZALEZ
WESTERN CATHOLIC REPORTER
FORT MCMURRAY — Reaction to Bishop Luc Bouchard’s pastoral letter on tarsands development has been mixed in Fort McMurray, according to the local pastor.
“I would say it’s been a mixed reaction. Some people have welcomed it; others don’t think the Church should get involved in this,” said Father Gerard Gauthier, pastor of St. John the Baptist Parish.
Gauthier said some letters to the editor in the local newspaper have been somewhat critical of the letter, basically saying, “We don’t need to hear this.” Some have dismissed the letter out of hand without even taking the time to read it.
“To me this is part of a grieving process. There is denial and anger before there is acceptance. We deny we need to change.”
But Gauthier said many people welcomed Bouchard’s letter and are happy he spoke out at this time.
Bouchard, whose diocese covers northeastern Alberta and includes the massive tarsands developments near Fort McMurray, said, “the integrity of creation in the Athabasca oilsands is clearly being sacrificed for economic gain.”
In his pastoral letter to the diocese’s 55,000 Catholics, the bishop wrote that the exploitation of the huge resource is environmentally unsound and challenged the “moral legitimacy of oilsands production.”
Bouchard’s letter said development has damaged the region’s boreal forest and reduced the habitat of wildlife and birds, while the toxic tailings ponds from oilsands mining projects are a threat to aquifers and the water quality of the Athabasca River, which flows through the region.
He called for the oil industry and government to halt further development until there are adequate environmental protection measures.
Gauthier said the pastoral letter is a necessary critique that rightfully calls on everybody to take responsibility for the environment.
Bouchard could not be reached for comment but he told the recent assembly of the Western bishops that reaction to his letter has been mostly positive.
“He had a very positive reaction,” said Regina Archbishop Daniel Bohan, president of the Western Conference of Catholic Bishops.
“He is very pleased with that. He said he’s received many, many letters and emails that were very positive and supportive.”
Charles Weckend, religious education coordinator for the Fort McMurray Catholic school district, forwarded a copy of the letter to about 250 teachers and has received only three or four responses, all of them critical of Bouchard’s pastoral letter.
Some respondents called the letter too one-sided and others simply didn’t agree with it.
Weckend said he forwards Vatican documents and bishops’ letters to district employees three to four times a year and this is the first time he has received a critical response.
“What I’m thinking of is this touches people personally here,” he said. Many people have a family member or a spouse who works in the oilsands industry.
“Some might think, ‘I’m aware of the efforts that the oil companies are making and they don’t seem to be mentioning their environmental efforts” or some may just say that the bishop and the Church really don’t know much about what they are talking about here,” the religious ed coordinator said.
“That would be my guess but those are just guesses.”
Guesses aside, Weckend said the bishop’s letter was long overdue and called it “an important contribution to the debate.”
“I don’t think he is saying anything new other than adding Catholic principles of ecology,” he said. “And I think what it does is it provokes one side of the debate that really needs to be heard and that’s the environmental side and the theology of creation side.”
The problem is “we are not used to hearing this (message) from our own bishop so I think it’s going to take time to digest it.”
Weckend also thinks it’s hard for Catholics to hear this kind of intervention “because it touches their work, it touches their way of life and puts the bishop’s teaching authority into their lives in a way which is more direct than usual.”
Moreover, it’s difficult for people to accept criticism of oil companies that have contributed a lot to the well-being of the town as well as the school system. “The oil companies have been very good citizens and the bishop recognizes that in his letter.”
Weckend said the Catholic school district receives a lot of support from the oil companies, especially for its aboriginal program. “And so we do good things because of their support,” he said, noting Syncrude is helping the district build an arts centre in its new high school.
Letter to the Editor - 03/23/09