We Speak for Ourselves: Indigenous Peoples Challenge the Fossil Fuel Regime In Alberta

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by Clayton Thomas-Muller

Clayton Thomas-Muller, of the Mathais Colomb Cree Nation (Pukatawagan) in Northern Manitoba, Canada, is an activist for Indigenous Rights and Environmental Justice. He has worked across Canada, Alaska and the lower 48 states with grassroots Indigenous communities to defend their Inherit, Treaty and environmental rights against unsustainable energy development and transnational energy corporations.

Over the span of 38 years, Northern Alberta has changed from a pristine environment rich in cultural and biological diversity to a landscape resembling a war zone marked with 200-foot-deep pits and thousands of acres of destroyed boreal forests. Lakes and rivers have been contaminated and groundwater systems drained. The impact of the tar sands industry is what I am talking about. This industry has also resulted in the disruption to the Dene First Nations and their treaty rights, including the cultural disruption to the Cree and Metis communities.

The areas of concern are under Aboriginal Treaties 8 and 11. These are treaties that ensure lands of First Nations not be taken away from First Nations by massive uncontrolled development that threatens their culture and traditional way of life.

The de-watering of rivers and streams to support the tar sands operations, and the destruction of the boreal forest, have threatened the cultural survival of the First Nations peoples.

An anticipated $25-billion expansion of the Athabasca oil sands in Northern Alberta is underway. First Nations leadership of the Athabasca Tribal Council (ATC) have been partnering with the world’s largest corporations involved in tar sands development. Some of these giant developers are Mobil Oil, Shell, Gulf, Syncrude Canada, Petro-Canada and Suncor Energy. However, many First Nations and Metis grassroots people have not been part of these negotiations and are silently opposed to tar sands expansion. These people feel disenfranchised by a lack of knowledge and skills necessary for organizing policy for energy- and climate-related issues.

Most Canadian and American campaigns against tar sands development have been initiated by non-Indigenous groups or environmental non-governmental organizations (eNGOs). Although these tar sands lie within the traditional territories of First Nations and Metis peoples, these campaigns lack Indigenous involvement.

In the words of many elders and land-based community members living in the tar sands area, concerns for jobs, housing, income and economic development have taken priority over the traditional Indigenous values of respecting the sacredness of Mother Earth and protection of the environment.

“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,” said Elsie Fabian, 63, an elder in a First Nation community along the Athabasca River.

Some First Nations leadership, such as the Deh Cho Dene First Nations in the Northwest Territories and the Mikisew Cree and Athabasca Chipewyan First Nations in Fort Chipewyan have called on Canada and Alberta to support a moratorium on further tar sands development.

Organizations opposing the expansion of tar sands development must recognize the First Nations who share that opposition. As a member of the Indigenous Environmental Network and the Chair of the IEN Native Energy and Climate Campaign, we are identifying, and will be working with, Dene, Cree and Metis community members who are concerned about the Alberta tar sands expansion, as well as the broader fossil-fuel regime in Canada.

The rationale behind this approach is that the government of Canada and the courts recognize treaties between the Crown and Aboriginal peoples. As Aboriginal peoples with long-standing use and occupation of the land as descendants of the original inhabitants of Canada, we are not merely “concerned citizens.” Our Aboriginal title and treaty rights in Canada legally supercede the rights of the province of Alberta and corporations and their operation in the region.

Dene, Cree and Metis communities and their leadership must look beyond a dependence on a fossil-fuel regime and be visionaries and doers, supporting the development of clean production and clean renewable energy within their lands. There needs to be a clear strategy to motivate First Nations leadership and their grassroots communities to get active in energy and climate change policy, at the provincial, federal and international levels. Capacity development must be strengthened. There is a need for informed Aboriginal and Indigenous organizations to take the lead in organizing strategy, advocacy and training for First Nations. Our Dene, other First Nations communities and Indigenous support organizations must be more visible locally and in national campaigns.

Information is power. This is the reason that there must be a major focus on “building the base” with members of the First Nations and the Metis settlements, on starting with the grassroots. The Indigenous Environmental Network (www.ienearth.org) an Indigenous-run environmental justice non-profit organization based in the States, along with our Canadian allies, is working on this level. IEN will be launching the Canadian Indigenous Tar Sands Campaign (CITSC). This campaign aims to develop mechanisms for Dene, Cree and Metis grassroots peoples to have meaningful participation in decision-making, to make informed decisions, to speak for themselves on energy and climate issues and to link front-line climate and energy impacts to policy development.

The CITSC campaign will work towards the establishment of a sustainable energy and economic platform for First Nations and Metis. The platform will include both a moratorium on “new” fossil fuel development, large-scale hydropower and nuclear energy and, as an alternative to the tar sands, a call to prioritize the development of clean, renewable energy on First Nations and Metis land in Alberta. The campaign will build a broad-based regional coalition of First Nations and Metis grassroots–made of provincial-, regional- and community-level First Nations and Metis organizations and Band Council leadership–which will advocate for, and realize, sustainable energy and climate policies. The IEN recognizes, supports and promotes environmentally sound lifestyles, economic livelihoods and healthy, sustainable communities. As Indigenous peoples, we have a sacred responsibility to protect our human rights and to practice our cultural and spiritual beliefs.

From The Dominion, October 22, 2007