Fw: Big Oil vs. Native Community: Canada's First Nations Challenges Shell's Plan to Mine Tar Sands
- A treaty signed in 1899 enshrined First Nations' right to practice
traditional life, and is now being used for a legal challenge to Shell
Oil’s mining of tar sands.
October 30, 2012 |
Photo Credit: rook76 / Shutterstock.com
Chipewyan is a small indigenous community on the edge of vast Lake
Athabasca in Alberta’s remote north, accessible only by plane in summer
and by snow road in winter. The town is directly downstream from the
Alberta tar sands—Canada’s wildly lucrative, hotly debated, and
environmentally catastrophic energy project.
Residents say that
tar sands mining is not only dangerous but illegal because it violates
the rights laid out in Treaty 8, an agreement signed in 1899 by Queen
Victoria and various First Nations. Their legal challenge to the tar
sands project could have a powerful impact on the legal role of treaties with First Nations people.
It should come as no surprise that
Fort Chip’s relationship to the tar sands industry is a contentious one. Being first in line downstream means that residents are the first to
feel the effects of pollution: poisoned water, air, and animals. Thedeformed fish with bulbous tumors that residents pull from Lake Athabasca are legendary,
as are the stories of Fort Chip’s abnormally frequent cases of rare
forms of cancer.
The Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation (ACFN), many of whose members live in Fort Chip, responded on October 1 with a
landmark constitutional challenge to Shell Canada’s expansion of its Jackpine tar sands mine. The challenge states that the expansion would be a further assault on
their rights as First Nations people, which are federally protected
under Treaty 8.
The Jackpine expansion, which will be reviewed at
the end of the month, would destroy over fifty square miles of land and
begin mining portions of the Muskeg River in Canada’s most important
watershed. AFCN members point out that both the federal government and
Shell have ignored their legal duty to consult with them. This time,
they’re going to fight back.
“As long as the sun shines”
As indigenous people, the relationship with the land sustains the
Chipewyan: the plants and medicines they gather, the moose and fish that form the basis of the traditional diet, the water from the lake, and
the deep spiritual connection with this particular place. Land is the
basis for culture and identity; when the land is destroyed, so are the
When the threats to health and traditional ways of life associated with tar sands mining are lamented, what’s often
missing is the recognition that the mining is also in violation of Treaty 8. The Treaty, which covers an area twice the size of California within
northern Alberta and neighboring provinces, guarantees basic rights such as health care and education, as well as the right to pursue
traditional ways of living, including trapping, hunting, and harvesting. If the government does decide to reduce the amount of land used for
these activities, it has a duty to consult with and accommodate the
affected First Nations. According to the treaty itself, this agreement
will remain valid “as long as the sun shines, the grass grows, and the
rivers flow.” So, forever—in theory.
Treaty 8—along with the ten
other treaties that were signed a hundred years ago and supposedly
guarantee the continuation of native ways of life—isn’t supposed to have an expiration date. But the treaty’s language begs the question: what
happens when the sun no longer shines because it’s obscured by smog?
When the grass has been turned into an open pit mine, and when the
rivers no longer flow because that water is siphoned off for bitumen
processing? If the original signatories had known that this remote
outpost would be turned into a smoke-belching Mordor, it would probably have raised some eyebrows. On both sides.
Wide repercussions for native land rights
Chelsea Flook of the Sierra Club, which works closely with AFCN, is hopeful
about the case. No constitutional challenge based on Treaty 8 rights has ever been fully argued before a judge, she says. It’s a test case that, if successful, could set a precedent for stricter enforcement of treaty rights and change the way industrial development is regulated. More
importantly, though, it would embolden indigenous groups all over the
Canada to fight abuses by both industry and government.
For those of us in the United States, the gains and losses of a tiny native community, closer to the Arctic circle than most of us will ever get,
may seem remote. But what’s at stake here isn’t just a few hundred
people’s ability to hunt moose and conduct ceremonies in a particular
spot. Both the U.S. and Canada share a history of colonizing what is
essentially stolen land; our societies were built on a common system of
Honoring the treaties means honoring the most
basic of agreements: the protection of a way of life—and, by extension,
life itself. In the years since that day in 1899 when Treaty 8 was
signed, every attempt to erase or assimilate indigenous people has been
made, regardless of any commitment on paper. Native language and culture have been criminalized, children have been relocated to residential
schools, and genocide has been a government policy. Industrial
destruction of land is one final assault.
It’s a brutal and
violent history, one that’s not taught in school. Coming to terms with
our own past—as Canadians, as Americans, as colonizers—is unpleasant. It means seeing ourselves, here and now, in an unflattering light.
Honoring agreements such as Treaty 8 means acknowledging all the ways
these documents have been violated.
With this constitutional
challenge, AFCN is forcing the Canadian government to look in the
mirror. It’s a small step with huge implications, and a starting point
for redressing more than a century of broken promises.
Kristin Moe wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas and
practical actions. Kristin is a writer and climate justice activist from the U.S., spending three months in Alberta writing about the social and cultural impacts of the tar sands.
* A Walk to Heal the Tar Sands
an 8-mile trek with indigenous groups through one of the world's
largest ecological dead zones, and you might find something lifegiving.
* Will Tar Sands Drain the Rockies Dry?
snow to glacier, from river to delta, and back again. Now, that
centuries-old cycle has been interrupted by the tremendous volume of
water required to extract oil from the Alberta tar sands.
* In Photos: The True Cost of the Tar Sands
Conservation photographer Garth Lenz’s exhibition seeks to show the impact of tar sands oil extraction.
Kristin Moe is a writer and climate justice activist from the U.S., spending three
months in Alberta writing about the social and cultural impacts of the
Big Oil vs. Native Community: Canada's First Nations Challenges Shell's Plan to Mine Tar Sands
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