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Tar Sands: Environmental justice, treaty rights and Indigenous peoples

EnvironmentIndigenous Politics

Syncrude’s Mildred Lake plant in the Athabasca Oil Sands of Alberta, Canada. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

The application of treaty rights as a legal strategy implemented by the First Nations themselves must be the key focus in efforts to challenge Big Oil in Alberta. Resources and effort must be placed into building the knowledge and capacity amongst First Nations and Métis leadership, including grassroots, elders and youth, to engage in both an indigenous-led corporate-finance campaign and in decision-making processes on environment, energy, climate and economic policies related to halting the tar-sands expansion. Canadian policy makers need to understand that there is an inextricable link between indigenous rights and energy and climate impacts.

The Tar Sands: What, How, For Whom?

The tar sands lie beneath more than 141,000 square kilometres (54,000 square miles) of northern Alberta forest. In 2003, thirty square kilometres (160 square miles) of land had been disturbed by tar-sands development. By the summer of 2006, that number had grown to 2,000 square kilometres (772 square miles) – almost five-fold within three years. These tar sands are the second-largest oil deposit in the world, bigger then Iraq, Iran, or Russia, and exceeded only by Saudi Arabia. If current, approved projects go forward, 3,400 square kilometres (1,312 square miles) will be strip-mined, destroying a total area as large as the state of Florida. The current process limit of 2.7 million barrels of oil per day is estimated to increase to six million barrels per day by 2030. Current and future high oil prices make the extraction and processing of bitumen very profitable.

Tar sands are a mixture of sand, clay and a heavy crude oil or tarry substance called bitumen. To get the oil out of the ground, the tar has to be superheated with steam in “cookers” to make the oil flow. For each barrel of tar-sands oil produced, between two and 4.5 barrels of water is required. In 2007, Alberta approved the withdrawal of 119.5 billion gallons of water for tar-sands extraction, with an estimated 82 per cent of this water coming from the Athabasca River, a major tributary in northern Alberta.

The extracted bitumen is later processed in industrial facilities called “upgraders” into synthetic crude oil to be piped to the U.S. for refining. These upgrader facilities look like “refinery cities,” with smokestacks bellowing polluting emissions and wastewater emptied into toxic tailings ponds. Recently, in sutu technology is being used to pump steam under the earth in order to make the bitumen flow through wells. By 2010, the industry is projected to generate eight billion tons of waste sand and one billion cubic metres of wastewater – enough to fill 400,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools. Some of these toxic tailings ponds are located next to the Athabasca. The tar sands are also a major source of greenhouse-gas emissions and a major contributor to climate change and global warming.

The oil from the tar sands is going south in order to satisfy U.S. energy needs. The U.S. has reorganized its long-term plans for petroleum energy: It has set a new goal that requires satisfying up to 25 per cent of its daily oil needs from tar-sands operations. This involves massive pipeline construction and expansions running from northern Alberta down through Minnesota to refineries in Wisconsin and Chicago, through North Dakota, South Dakota, down to Oklahoma and Texas. Pipelines will also go through British Columbia to ship the oil overseas.

Blue River, Brown River

The exploitation of the tar sands is a human-rights issue, an environmental-justice issue and an Indigenous treaty-rights issue. For the most part, however, the public in Canada and the U.S. has not been made sufficiently aware of what is going on in northern Alberta. The public still does not understand that the Indigenous First Nations communities are the populations most negatively affected. Dene and Cree First Nations and Métis live close to or actually in the midst of these tar-sand deposits, mostly along the Athabasca River basin area. These are the Indigenous communities of Fort McMurray, Fort McKay and Fort Chipewyan.

The tar-sands development around Fort McMurray and Fort McKay is located upstream along the Athabasca River basin. Current tar-sands development has completely altered the Athabasca delta and watershed landscape. This has caused de-forestation of the boreal forests, open-pit mining, de-watering of water systems and watersheds, toxic contamination, disruption of habitat and biodiversity, and disruption of the Indigenous Dene, Cree and Métis trap-line cultures.

“The river used to be blue. Now it’s brown. Nobody can fish or drink from it. The air is bad. This has all happened so fast,” says Elsie Fabian, 63, an elder in a Native Indian community along the Athabasca River.

From the perspective of many concerned First Nations and citizens of northern Alberta, the government has given over the responsibility of environmental monitoring and enforcement to the corporations. But the tar-sands development has completely outstripped the ability of the corporations and the provincial and federal governments to provide either management or protection.

A recent health study commissioned by the Nunee Health Authority of Fort Chipewyan provides evidence that the governments of Alberta and Canada have been ignoring the evidence of toxic contamination on downstream Indigenous communities. The people most at risk of health effects are those who eat food from the land and water. The Dene, Cree and Métis communities continue to subsist on a diet of fish and wild game. The remote Fort Chipewyan community, for example, has an eighty-per-cent subsistence diet. According to many Fort Chipewyan residents, the tar-sands mining is the principle cause of both the toxins in the water and the recent dramatic increases in the number of cancers and other diseases.

The Mikisew Cree First Nation is located within Fort McKay and Fort Chipewyan. Chief Rozanne Marcel of the Mikisew Cree has declared, “Our message to both levels of government, to Albertans, to Canadians and to the world who may depend on oil sands for their energy solutions, is that we can no longer be sacrificed.” But the governments of Alberta and Canada have so far refused to listen.

The areas of concern fall under Aboriginal Treaties 8 and 11. These are treaties that ensure that lands of First Nations should not be taken away from them by massive, uncontrolled development, threatening their culture and traditional way of life. But the de-watering of rivers and streams to support the tar-sands operations now poses a major threat to the cultural survival of these Indigenous peoples. The battle over the tar-sands mining comes down to the fundamental right to exist as Indigenous peoples.

“If we don’t have land and we don’t have anywhere to carry out our traditional lifestyles, we lose who we are as a people. So, if there’s no land, then it’s equivalent in our estimation to genocide of a people,” says George Poitras of the Mikisew Cree First Nation.

Big Oil vs. Indigenous Rights

The first tier of tar-sands development came into a region mostly inhabited by Indigenous peoples. As with many historical instances of the colonization of Indigenous peoples and their lands, the Alberta and Canadian governments enticed First Nations governmental leadership to lease their treaty reserve lands to the tar-sands industry as a means for economic development.

Now, however, the oil industry and the Alberta government want to expand even further. With an anticipated $25-billion expansion of the Athabasca tar-sands underway, First Nations leadership and community members are being pressured by Canada, Alberta and the oil industry to partner with the world’s largest tar-sands corporations. These giant developers include Mobil Oil, Shell, Syncrude Canada, Petro-Canada and Suncor Energy.

Many grassroots First Nation members have not been part of these negotiations, however, and most silently oppose tar-sands expansion. The problem is that most of these members feel disenfranchised. They lack knowledge and skills in organizing on energy- and climate-related issues. Many of the elected First Nations leaders are also feeling torn between the need to bring economic prosperity to their people and the need to protect the health and environment of their communities. The stakes have been set high by petro-politics and the money that flows from it.

The ability of First Nations to retain their inherent sovereignty rights to protect their lands and culture, and to maintain economically sustainable and healthy communities has been hampered by the Canadian and Alberta governments. According to many elders and land-based community members in the tar-sands area, concerns for jobs, housing, income and economic development are being prioritized over the traditional Indigenous values of respect for the sacredness of Mother Earth and the protection of the environment.

A moratorium on further tar-sands expansion must be implemented in northern Alberta. Since the tar-sands expansion is within First Nations’ territories, any effective strategy must acknowledge Aboriginal title and treaty rights. This will require an urgent, coordinated, collective response, led by First Nations and Métis.

A moratorium on development is required until the concerns of First Nations and Métis regarding the many serious issues that have been raised by this breakneck industrial development are addressed. These include the human-rights abuses; the human and ecological health crisis; the climate-change implications; the water- and air-quality implications; the treaty-rights implications; the tribal sovereignty and self-determination implications; as well as the cumulative socioeconomic impacts on the health and way of life of Indigenous peoples. Each of these serious issues must be responded to, respected and protected in a permanent, traditional, Indigenous framework, in compliance with the spiritual and natural laws, treaties and inherent rights of Indigenous peoples.

Clayton Thomas-Müller is a member of the Treaty #6 based Mathias Colomb Cree Nation also known as Pukatawagan located in Northern Manitoba, Canada.

This article appeared in the Indigenous Lands and Rights issue of Canadian Dimension .


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