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  • Indigenous Climate Action

I Feel Betrayed - by the government and a system that has destroyed the spirit of my people


The struggle over the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain Pipeline Expansion has been heating up over the past month and has reached new levels of intensity in recent weeks. Politicians are launching threats at each other while land defenders and water protectors in Coast Salish territory are now facing possible criminal charges for protecting the land, waterways and ecosystems. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Alberta Premier Rachel Notley are offering to “buy the pipeline outright” and “pledged federal financial backing”. Now the province of BC is threatening to sue Alberta if they make good on a promise to restrict fuel exports.


The latest element to be added to the current political pile is that Dene, Cree and Métis leaders in Alberta are now expressing interest in becoming business partners in the pipeline industry. As a member of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, one of the Nations now throwing their name behind this recent development, I felt compelled to add my own thoughts on the recent affairs.

The other day I was asked if I felt betrayed by Chief Adam’s seemingly sudden change of heart on issues in the Alberta tar sands. This questions came at me because for six years I worked alongside Chief Allan Adam, and two separate councils, and a great number of committed employees that love their community, their culture, their lands and territories. I was part of international financial sector and shareholder meetings, international political lobbying at UN conferences and in the EU and UK, part of connecting countless visitors, reporters, photographers, documentary film makers, celebrities and concerned environmental organizations with my people, to talk to the leaders that had taken on this modern day David and Goliath challenge to stop expansion into our territory. Over the years I learned that my people are strong, but we are not invincible. Just like anyone else we can lose hope and our spirits can we be weakened. So, when presented with this question of betrayal my answer was a resounding no.

I said no because I didn’t want to be baited into fighting my own people. This is bigger than what Chief Adam has just said or done. This is a symptom of the neo-colonial agenda. My community, just like the other Cree, Dene and Métis communities that have stepped up in support of this atrocious industry, have been forced into a corner through years of concerted pressure by oil and gas companies in collusion with government to accept the tar sands as our fate.

noun: neo-colonialism

  1. the use of economic, political, cultural, or other pressures to control or influence other countries

Drill, baby, Drill - The status quo of Business as Usual

Today there are 176 tar sands projects in Alberta (in operation, under construction, approved, in application, or announced) that have resulted in disturbing over 500 square kilometres of forests, rivers, and land; the withdrawal of 111.5 million cubic metres of water annually; the creation of toxic tailings that cover 250 square kilometres; and the creation of 66 Mega tonnes of GHG’s annually - making them Canada’s fastest growing source of GHG emissions. All of this has lent to the degradation and contamination of the Athabasca Peace Delta and the communities that rely on it, paving the way for skyrocketing rates of cancer and other autoimmune and respiratory diseases. Alberta plans to allow continued growth in the sector, up to 100 MT GHG’s until 2030.

Each new energy project comes with an extensive application process that requires Nations to review countless documents, obtain experts and lawyers, and when necessary compile the necessary evidence to bring forward any concerns or rights violations the projects may cause. For years, many of the communities did not have adequate resources, human or financial, to effectively intervene or raise concerns with project applications. This caused runaway development where projects were approved without due process or consultation with communities. Hence, the Alberta tar sands economy was born, without the consent or participation of Indigenous communities.

Consultation practices have changed since development began in 1964, however, even when communities are consulted and raise concerns and rights violations, projects are still approved despite admissions of irreversible and adverse impacts on the people and the land. Furthermore, no tar sands project in Alberta has ever been denied, except one proposed by a First Nation community, regardless of legal challenges, direct action, celebrity involvement or anything else for that matter. This can destroy the spirit of the people.

"The fact is I am tired. I am tired of fighting. We have accomplished what we have accomplished...Now let's move on and let's start building a pipeline and start moving the oil that's here already." Allan Adam, Chief of Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation Yahoo News

We should be concerned about what Chief Adam is saying. He isn’t saying this is the golden ticket our community has been waiting for, but rather, that he has tried and his spirit is broken. This is what 54 years of continued denial of Indigenous rights for oil and gas profits looks like. This is white supremacy at work.

If we are truly concerned about stopping tar sands pipelines, we need to find a way to breath new life back into the spirit of the people and support the struggle that has been going on for decades. For the last 10 years the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation has been at the forefronts of this international debate, and even in the face of recent announcements they continue to hold the line intervening on the largest ever proposed tar sands mine, the Teck Resources Frontier Mine, slated to be located 16km from the boundary of one of their settlements on the Athabasca River, Poplar Point. This project would disturb over 292 square kilometres (overlapping with critical habitat for caribou and bison) along the Athabasca River, create 4 MT of GHG emissions annually, and contribute to the further diminishing of our inherent, treaty and international rights as Indigenous peoples.


The Teck Frontier Mine has already been approached to fill a portion of the capacity of the Kinder Morgan TransMountain pipeline. Teck Resources headquarters is located in Vancouver. This is not just a pipeline carrying tar sands but a pipeline that connects our struggles through the continued attempts to erase Indigenous rights from the conversation and pit our rights against the economy. If we want to stop the pipeline, we have to talk about not just the oil that pumps through it, but the systems that have allowed these projects to continue unabated for the last five decades.

Economic Hostages in our Homelands

From the rising cost of living in the once sleepy towns of Fort Chipewyan and Fort McMurray, to the domination of the employment and business sectors, to the extension of this industry into corporate sponsorship and philanthropic giving that supports everything from health, recreation, cultural and education facilities in the region - the tar sands are everywhere. My community, like everyone else in the province, has been forced into an economic relationship with an industry that asks us to compromise and sacrifice our lands, waterways, culture and rights so that our people can put food on the table and keep a roof over their heads.

This economic hostage situation is further exacerbated by the intimidation and coercion of government and industry buzzing in the ears of our leaders saying “everyone else has said yes, don’t you want to be a part of this?” Or “these projects are moving ahead with or without you.”

The capitalist models that dominate modern society have created a perfect scenario for oil and gas corporations. Even in the midst of the climate crisis, it appears that stabilizing the economy (ie. money) is above all else - human rights, Indigenous rights, environmental protection or climate change have simply become obstacles to be conquered by capitalism. In large part, Indigenous rights and culture have become one of the largest barriers and the battle over pipelines, tar sands and climate change continues to miss the mark - this is a part of the neo-colonial agenda to erase Indigenous peoples and further divide our connection to mother earth, it's not about jobs and the economy.

United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People - Consent?

This all brings us to today. Current government leaders, Notley and Trudeau, were both elected on platforms of environmental reform, action on climate and the recognition of the rights of Indigenous peoples (including the implementation of the UN Declaration on the Right of Indigenous Peoples UNDRIP). However, since taking office their election promises have fallen flat. In fact, the national environmental reform could possibly exclude future tar sands projects from federal environmental review. The Alberta Climate Leadership plan allows for tar sands emissions to increase 47.5% above 2014 levels, and no one has moved on the implementation of UNDRIP.

The problem is, Canada seems unwilling to talk about UNDRIP because the entire declaration is built on a premise of Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC) which would require a deep overhaul of current models of consultation. There cannot be FPIC without practices of FREE, of coercion or intimidation, PRIOR, to decisions being made and INFORMED, by providing access to ALL available information with enough time to evaluate the processes. Canada has put an emphasis on Consent, and the more watered down version, consultation. The consent process that these energy companies claim to make (Teck and Kinder Morgan) are done through intimidation and coercion which brings our leaders to make ill-informed decisions or wears them down through continued denial of rights over the ‘national interest’ and jobs. What is happening in my community is a perfect example of this.

We should be talking about creating processes that effectively allows for true Free, Prior and Informed Consent from all parties, not processes that allow for continued concessions to the oil and gas sector for profits that only last until the end of the quarter. They are building unsustainable systems that require the rights of Indigenous peoples to be forfeited, lock us into a continued petrol economy and leave little for future generations.


Conclusion

Did these leaders sell out? Yes. But it is not surprising, nor is it a reason to feel betrayed. They are being blamed when truly the betrayal is systematic. The whole system has created this perfect storm of extreme oppression, denial of Indigenous rights, disregard for the environmental impacts caused by the oil and gas industry in collusion with governments, and it’s our communities who are made to look like the bad guys, over and over again.

We should feel betrayed by a system that doesn’t regard environmental issues and its impacts on human life as important or equal. A system that puts the rights of companies and industry above the rights of Indigenous peoples. This shows how far from true reconciliation we really are.

Now we have to fight harder for the land, the water and for those that cannot speak. We cannot get tired, we cannot give up, we must take this as a setback and keep going.


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