If it wasn’t for the cannons, the pond might be a tranquil sight: its rippling surface reflects the blue of the sky, diffusing the harsh midday light. But the cannons fire sporadically, a warning to migrating ducks not to land in this toxic soup of arsenic, mercury and carcinogenic hydrocarbons—1,600 ducks died after landing in one of these tailings ponds in 2008.
This is the epicenter of the Athabasca Tar Sands operation in northeastern Alberta, Canada, just outside the oil boomtown of Fort McMurray. It’s the third-largest proven deposit of crude oil and the largest industrial project on earth—so costly and environmentally destructive that it’s considered a frontier resource, viable only because conventional oil sources are in decline. I visited in late June as part of the Tar Sands Healing Walk, in which First Nations activists led 250 participants on a fourteen-kilometer loop of the oil producer Syncrude’s operations there. The air was noxious and the scale of the destruction nearly impossible to take in, but the Dene drummers steadied us with their constant beat.
Tailings are a byproduct of tar sands processing, a wastewater residue left to collect in pools so vast and numerous that they can be seen from outer space. These tailings ponds are not secure: an Environment Canada study from February confirmed that the ponds are leaking into the Athabasca River, which flows into the Mackenzie—the largest river system in Canada—before discharging into the Arctic Ocean. Fort Chipewyan, a remote hamlet downstream from Fort McMurray, emerged in the national consciousness in 2006 when its only doctor, John O’Connor, went public about the high rate of rare cancers in the community. Health Canada accused him of misconduct when O’Connor suggested that this might be connected to tar sands pollution.
Shell has now proposed the Jackpine Mine Expansion and the Pierre River Mine on the traditional territory of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, which includes Fort Chipewyan. “You’d be kidding if you thought that Shell hasn’t been offering sweet deal after sweet deal to our nation,” said ACFN spokeswoman and Fort Chipewyan resident Eriel Deranger. “But instead of making money, we’ve spent close to $2 million already to challenge these projects.” The ACFN asserts that the projects will destroy its cultural livelihood along with the ecosystem itself.
“We have a line that shouldn’t be crossed, as per our elders’ council, and we’re holding it,” Deranger continued. “It’s not about money. It’s about the protection and preservation of our land, culture and identity.”
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This is the front line in the fight against tar sands development. When most of Canada’s First Nations ceded their territories to the British crown in the late nineteenth century, they did so in exchange not only for reserves but also for the right to hunt and fish on their traditional lands in perpetuity—lands which many of these nations now say are threatened by rapid resource development.
The last few years have seen an onslaught of lawsuits against tar sands development based on these rights, with the ACFN currently challenging specific projects like the Jackpine expansion and the Pierre River Mine, as well as government policies like the Lower Athabasca Regional Plan. Some of the lawsuits seek compensation for the damage already done, but most are seeking the recognition of native rights on these traditional territories (not merely on their reserves), including a say over project approval and development.
In fact, native communities across Canada are on a legal winning streak against the resource sector. And these courtroom challenges are not only significant for indigenous communities: the conservative Stephen Harper administration’s ongoing dismantlement of federal environmental protections have left native treaty rights as one of the most powerful lines of defense for the food and water sources that everyone needs to survive.
This rollback of environmental safeguards set off Idle No More, an indigenous grassroots movement launched in 2012 as a protest against Harper’s Bill C-38, which imposed business-friendly provisions in dozens of pieces of legislation, ranging from changes in environmental regulations to the outright repeal of the Fair Wages and Hours of Labour Act. Crucially, it also violated indigenous treaty rights and threatened the environment in traditional First Nations lands. Within weeks, what began as a hunger strike by a single chief in Ontario had snowballed, Occupy-like, into a nationwide movement, thanks to a social media campaign that spread images, inspiration and news of the protests across Canada, reaching far beyond the metropolitan centers to remote rural communities, including the subarctic. Solidarity actions occurred throughout the United States, and even in London, Berlin, Stockholm and Cairo.
“Our nation stands by this: we need a moratorium on all new project development until we determine the impacts of these projects on treaty and aboriginal rights,” Deranger said. “We don’t know what the baselines are for First Nations to be able to continue duck hunting—what river flows, climate, ecosystem and thresholds are needed in order for that activity to continue. Same with fishing, caribou hunts, bison hunts—no one’s done that yet. The thresholds that are being proposed by the government and the energy industry are for ecosystem stabilities, not for the sustainability of cultural rights.”
The ACFN has emerged as the highest-profile nation to oppose the development, becoming the subject and beneficiary of Neil Young’s “Honor the Treaties” benefit tour last year, but it is only one part of a growing movement. The range of Healing Walk participants was a testament to this: it included not only First Nations people throughout Alberta but also activists along the veins of the tar sands infrastructure, from the British Columbia coastline (connected to Alberta via the Kinder Morgan pipeline and, potentially, the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline) to Toronto (through which the aging Enbridge Line 9 pipeline passes). Also present were nonindigenous activists from the Gulf Coast and Bay Area, who are battling the transportation of tar sands crude to refineries in their regions via the Keystone XL pipeline and by rail.
The irony is that the Keystone XL pipeline is crucial for tar sands expansion precisely because of this movement. For a real return on government and energy industry investments, tar sands oil must be transported to the coasts and sold on the global market—but Canada’s existing tar sands infrastructure is already at capacity, and the growing success of indigenous-led resistance makes the construction of mega-pipelines increasingly unlikely. The Keystone XL pipeline expansion, acting as a pressure valve, would enable further development. But at the same time, tar sands oil is already being shipped via rail to other refineries throughout the United States—and while rail is a far more dangerous means of transport (as evidenced by the catastrophic derailment in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, last year, which destroyed the town center and killed forty-two people), its use will likely increase if the Keystone XL pipeline expansion isn’t approved.
Because the infrastructure of extraction sprawls beyond national borders, resistance has followed suit. Activists and residents all along the Keystone XL route regularly converge on Washington, DC, while 210 Bay Area protesters were arrested on the one-year anniversary of a 2012 fire at Chevron’s Richmond refinery, a location in the Bay Area already receiving tar sands oil. But this isn’t simply a case of NIMBY. US activists recognize that resisting the giants of finance and oil requires an international approach: every major US oil corporation has a stake in the Alberta tar sands, and the Koch brothers are the largest non-Canadian stakeholders. Meanwhile, the indigenous residents of Ecuador’s Amazon jungle are pursuing a lawsuit against Chevron for environmental damages in a Canadian court.
“We have alliances across the country, we have treaty territories that are interconnected, and we’re facing a government that wants to bring this toxic commodity to the ports. It’s got to pass through our territory and cross our lands—but they’ve got to get past us first,” said Grand Chief Derek Nepinak of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, when I spoke to him on the sidelines of the walk. Nepinak, somber and burly, is the leading figure behind the new National Treaty Alliance, whose agenda is to assert native treaty rights in the service of indigenous sovereignty.
“The reality is that political representation is not out there anymore,” Nepinak said. “The time is now to rekindle the alliances.”
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Several hours south of the Athabasca tar sands are the Cold Lake deposits, which overlap the traditional territory of the Beaver Lake Creek Nation in central Alberta. BLCN member Crystal Lameman led the Healing Walk caravan along with women from various Alberta nations, offering prayers to heal the land and spirits along the way. “I remember seeing it twenty-five years ago, but that’s when it wasn’t so bad,” Lameman said of the development on BLCN territory. Her uncle Al Lameman, the BLCN’s chief for thirty-five years, took her to see the seismic lines when she was a little girl. “No one knew it was as bad as it’s gotten in the last ten or fifteen years,” Lameman added.
The Cold Lake tar sands are one of the frontiers of Alberta’s tar sands development. Unlike the extraction in the Athabasca region, most of the Cold Lake deposits are part of the 80 percent of Alberta’s tar sands that cannot be extracted through mining, instead requiring in situ (on-site) drilling methods that—at least for now—involve injecting high-pressure steam into the ground. The energy industry claims that these methods are safer and less environmentally destructive, as they forgo the need for open-pit mines, energy- and water-intensive upgrading facilities, or tailings ponds. But they are far from fail-proof: Canadian Natural Resources Limited (CNRL) still hasn’t plugged a leak that began on its Primrose site, in BLCN traditional territory, in May of 2013.
Because in situ development occurs largely out of sight, it doesn’t elicit the same visceral reaction as the devastation caused by mining. Its residual effects linger, however. The CNRL leak killed many dozens of animals, but well before it occurred, members of the BLCN had already noticed a decline in the number of animals they hunted and trapped. A 2010 University of Alberta study showed that caribou herds on the BLCN’s traditional hunting grounds had dropped by 70 percent since 1996.
As Lameman noted, “2008 was the turning point in the whole Treaty 6 and 8 area [which covers much of Alberta], because that was the time that the ACFN filed their lawsuit.” It was also the year that the BLCN initiated its own lawsuit against the federal and provincial government and the British crown for issuing over 20,000 permits on its traditional territory, which the BLCN argues violated its treaty rights. In 2010 or 2011, “everyone really started to talk about all of this together,” Lameman said, adding that she began working with Deranger in 2011. “And then, thanks to Harper—well, really, he signed his own warrant.”
The BLCN lawsuit is set to go to trial and will take on the cumulative effects of tar sands development (not merely the soundness of individual projects), along with the government’s lax regulatory mechanisms and lack of transparency around project approval and development. “We have a right to give our informed consent,” Lameman said. “Our consent means our permission, and we will define what that consent looks like.” Already, the community has started to see some results: “Since we launched the litigation,” Lameman added, “industry comes to us [sooner] because they don’t want to deal with us later.”
The energy industry has also begun to recognize the advantages of consulting First Nations at earlier stages, rather than investing in projects that could ultimately be shut down. “My Uncle Al said, ‘I’m not only going to take the federal government to court—I’m going to take them all to court! Nobody is going to try to get away with anything,’” Lameman recalled. “He knew that they were going to try to pass the buck to each other.”
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The day after the Healing Walk, I drove forty-five minutes north of Fort McMurray to Fort McKay, a 500-person hamlet that is home to what many in the energy industry consider the model First Nations community. The Fort McKay First Nation inhabits the center of the Athabasca tar sands, and it is boxed in on all sides by industry development so that, despite being located right on the Athabasca River, all of the community’s drinking water must be trucked in. Nevertheless, the FMFN has grown wealthy over the last three decades by providing support services to tar sands companies through the FMFN-owned Fort McKay Group of Companies, and it is known for encouraging further development.
I met FMFN Chief Jim Boucher in his impeccable corner office in the center of town, lined with windows overlooking the river. From where we sat, Boucher pointed to a forested hill in the distance where he had lived as a child, back when there were no roads or electricity, the river water was drinkable, and everyone lived off the land. In 1963, his life began to change: Boucher, who was then 12, left his grandfather’s cabin one day to check on snares he had just set the previous day, only to find a clearing in the woods and men working with heavy machinery where his snares had been. This was where the Syncrude site is today. Needless to say, Boucher lost all his snares. Soon after, Syncrude bulldozed his grandfather’s cabin. No one informed his grandfather, as this was simply how business was carried out: the government and the energy industry struck deals between themselves and went ahead with their plans, bypassing any consideration of the community.
Before long, people began to notice the changes: something was wrong with the fish, which tasted of oil; the snow they melted in wintertime for drinking water was now covered in soot; and the river water made people sick. The community spoke out about the destruction but was ignored. As Boucher grew into Fort McKay’s outspoken young radical, he was sent to represent the FMFN at regulatory hearings, where he castigated the government and the energy industry for wantonly destroying his community’s livelihood and health without just compensation for the damage. When no one registered opposition to new projects on FMFN land, Boucher helped set up road blockades to force the energy industry to negotiate.
It wasn’t until the mid-1980s that everything changed in Fort McKay. Although two decades of development had polluted the ecosystem, making it impossible to live off the land, the community had at least been able to rely on the trapping economy to make a comfortable living. It was when animal rights activists in Europe succeeded in marginalizing the fur trade that Fort McKay found itself with no choice but to cooperate with the energy industry. In 1985, the FMFN founded the Fort McCay Group of Companies. Today, Boucher is encouraging in situ development in the region, which he considers to be safe.
“We fought for a long time to preserve our way of life,” Boucher told me. “We had a lot of discussion in our community about what our future was, and a lot of people were involved. We knew that our way of life was under threat.”
The nation’s relationship with the energy industry has not been without contention: earlier this year, the FMFN dropped a lawsuit against the Dover oil sands project it had filed two years earlier, in which the FMFN had demanded a twenty-kilometer buffer zone to protect the Moose Lake reserve, a site it considers integral to the community’s health and cultural survival. The details of the agreement have been kept under wraps, but Boucher describes it as a victory—despite not having won the buffer zone. He claims that the company has “agreed not to come within a certain distance,” and that ten other companies within the zone have agreed to consult the FMFN on all projects to ensure that their impacts will be minimal. In some cases, “the community will signal to them that they will not be allowed to proceed,” Boucher said. “We’ll be continually involved in the process for the next thirty years.”
When I asked Healing Walk participants what they thought about this Dover agreement, many argued that Boucher had sold out and was essentially providing the energy industry with a social license to operate. But not everyone felt that way.
“Don’t think they didn’t try to make a stink about it,” Deranger said. “They tried to say these projects were destructive, but tar sands were not a hot topic then. That community basically got destroyed, and no one batted an eyelash—not anyone in the environmental movement, not anyone anywhere. When consultation and accommodation first started happening in the late ’90s and early 2000s, the only thing they really had left to do was to be compensated.”
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Tar sands development may be the source of great wealth, but it was Fort McKay’s great misfortune to be located right at its epicenter, and therefore one of the first communities to have been engulfed by development. The ACFN and BLCN still lie on the frontiers of tar sands development, but even they have little choice but to engage with the energy industry, as severing ties completely would amount to economic suicide.
Like the FMFN, the ACFN also provides support services to the energy industry and has sought funding from it for green projects and cultural programs that will reduce its economic dependence on the tar sands. As the ACFN negotiates these deals, it is also trying to prevent the energy companies from capitalizing on them and framing the deals as acts of generosity. As native communities win greater power over project approval and development, the challenge will be to avoid providing the energy industry with a social license to operate.
At the same time that it is seeking funding from the energy industry, the ACFN has also rejected the core federal funding provided to all First Nations, which the Harper government has tied to their acceptance of legislation rolling back environmental protections. These are the same pieces of legislation that sparked the Idle No More movement. Cognizant, perhaps, of how Fort McKay’s current predicament represents its own possible future if it doesn’t act, the ACFN is holding firm.
“They’ve already destroyed a lot. We’re not giving them license to do more,” Deranger said. “We’re saying, ‘You should stop doing that, and you should compensate us for the damage that you’ve done, so that we can figure a way out of this.’”