Eriel Deranger, an activist and spokesperson for the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, doesn’t live in her community in northern Alberta. “I don’t live in my community because I have children,” she told a rapt audience at the Conservation Law Foundation offices in downtown Boston last week. “And I can’t bear the fact that if I lived in my community, I would be putting their lives at risk.”
Deranger was speaking in Boston as part of the Tar Sands Exposed Tour along with photographer Garth Lenz, who has documented not only the stunning beauty of northern Alberta’s natural landscape but the biblically-proportioned devastation and dire human cost of industrial tar-sands oil extraction—a form of strip-mining considered the most ecologically destructive resource extraction project on the planet, and the source of the viscous, toxic tar-sands crude, or diluted bitumen, that will flow at a rate of more than 800,000 barrels a day through the full length of the Keystone XL pipeline if the remaining northern segment is approved by John Kerry and Barack Obama. The tour was organized by the grassroots climate group 350 Maine, which is fighting to prevent tar sands oil from flowing via an existing pipeline from Montreal to the Atlantic coast at Portland. But the stuff is already flowing through a cumbersome network of pipelines and rail across the United States—and has already spilled disastrously in Mayflower, Arkansas, and the Kalamazoo River in Michigan (where three activists with Michigan Coalition Against Tar Sands were convicted on January 31 and now face a two- to three-year jail sentence for nonviolent direct action to oppose expansion of the Enbridge pipeline there). And it may already be flowing through the southern segment of Keystone XL—from Cushing, Oklahoma, through East Texas, to refineries on the Texas Gulf Coast—which was fast-tracked by Obama in 2012 and went into operation on January 22.
What Deranger wanted her Boston listeners to understand is that the massive tar sands extraction projects in Alberta are not only ecologically devastating and life-threatening but culturally devastating, threatening the ability of her people and other indigenous communities to maintain their way of life and their traditional, sacred connection to the land and water—even as that land and water is poisoned, posing lethal threats to their health. The Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation (ACFN) has started fighting back, launching legal challenges to the oil companies and the Canadian government, arguing that approval of tar sands projects violates the terms of Treaty 8, signed in 1899, guaranteeing their First Nations rights.