For over 500 years native peoples in the Americas have fought for their homes against people from far away lands. Now, in Alberta, Canada, they are fighting against a gooey, black substance that sits underground: the oil sands.
The Athabasca oil sands, located in northeastern Alberta near the boomtown of Fort McMurray (1971-81), covers an area about 54,000 square miles, which is characterized by boreal forest and muskeg (peat bogs).
The indigenous people of the Beaver Lake Cree Nation live in this region, which is the size of Switzerland and 65 miles northeast of Edmonton, Alberta. Because of the Canadian Treaty of 1876, they have enjoyed legal rights to hunt, fish and trap in their territory, as their ancestors have done for generations. The pristine forests have provided the native people with their homes, food and medicines. However, the oil sands industries in Alberta are displacing the people through deforestation and pollution of the air, land and water.
Crystal Lameman, 34, who serves as the Beaver Creek Cree Nation’s coordinator of intergovernmental affairs and industry relations as well as manager of communications, spoke recently to an audience of over 400 people at the Aquinas College Performing Arts Center in Grand Rapids. Her visit was sponsored by the Wege Foundation of Grand Rapids.
“The Canadian government has failed in its duty to consult us,” said Lameman. “It has leased out land to every major oil company. There is an urgent need for the government to recognize the land rights of indigenous people who developed their own laws and practices thousands of years ago.”
On May 14, 2008, the Beaver Lake Cree released their Kétuskéno Declaration asserting their role as caretakers of their traditional territories and started a legal action to: a) enforce recognition of their Constitutionally protected rights to hunt, trap and fish, and b) protect the ecological integrity of their territories.
Canada’s 1982 Constitution also provides for First Nation’s Rights, said Lameman, which the nation is using as grounds for a legal challenge against the Canadian government.
“They made their law. The companies come to our land without our consent. We have treaty rights. We can’t be economic hostages in a game of roulette where someone always loses. For us, it’s our next seven generations who lose.”
The Beaver Lake Cree Nation is suffering from significant changes on its land like major migrations of wildlife, which in turn affect the nation’s food supply, said Lameman. Many animals are contaminated. Caribou are dying or diseased and less than 300 are still alive. Dear meat is green. Traces of arsenic in moose are 450 times higher than normal. Fish and waterfowl are high in mercury and often found with tumors. The people who eat this game are getting cancer and dying. Others just get sick, like Lameman’s son who has nosebleeds and her niece who has asthma attacks. The young feel hopeless about the future. One year, there were five suicides in Lameman’s band of 1200.
“The old people remember when they could drink pure water from the rivers and lakes, but now that water is disappearing or it’s polluted from these extreme resource extractions,” she said. “As a woman raised by my aunties, uncles, grandma and old people, I learned to be responsible to the water because it was considered a gift, and we had the responsibility to protect it. We carry life in water. It connects all of us. I also have the understanding that Mother Earth is our grocery store as it provides all the things we need to survive.”
In addition to the oil wells that take up one hectare (2.47 acres) of habitat loss are the processing plants or SAGDs (Steam Assisted Gravity Drainage), which is an enhanced oil recovery technology for producing this heavy crude oil and bitumen. It is an advanced form of steam stimulation in which a pair of horizontal wells is drilled into the oil reservoir, one a few meters above the other. High pressure steam is continuously injected into the upper wellbore to heat the oil and reduce its viscosity, thus causing the heated oil to drain into the lower wellbore where it is pumped out. The SAGD plants occupy 400,000 hectares or nearly one million acres of deforested land.
“SAGD leaves a larger environmental footprint than open-pit mining because it also requires technical support roads and infrastructure,” said Lameman. “It is impossible for wildlife to live in this kind of environment.”
Deforestation has occurred throughout these lands and that includes making additional space for natural gas extraction, including fracking. Taking natural gas requires the use of dangerous chemicals and heat injection passing through a series of pipes.
Lameman showed the audience a map of the network of pipes with little black dots indicating places where there were spills. The map was nearly covered with black dots.
“In Michigan [whose gasoline comes from the oil sands] it is believed that this oil should pass through thicker pipes,” said Lameman. “In Alberta, we have a new kind of pipe that allows the oil to flow through, however, eventually these pipes will leak.”
Nevertheless, so far it does not appear that the protection of either the environment or the Beaver Lake Cree Nation’s treaty rights will get in the way of economics.
The oil sands are a lucrative investment in energy production. They provide about 170 billion barrels of oil, or about 13 percent of total global oil reserves, according to Alberta’s Oil Sands, a government website. Nearly 2 million barrels of crude were produced every day in 2011, and the energy sector (oil and gas mining) accounted for over 22 percent of Alberta’s GDP in 2012. As of July 2013, there were 114 active oil sands projects in Alberta. Of these, six were producing mining projects (three more are under application); the remaining projects used various in-situ recovery methods.
The benefits of the oil sands to Albertans are unmistakable. In 2012, approximately 121,500 people were employed. Royalties from the oil sands were $3.56 billion in 2012-13, which helps fund many public services. According to the Canadian Energy Research Institute (CERI), Alberta can expect $350 billion in royalties and $122 billion in provincial and municipal tax revenue over the next 25 years.
The oil sands also affect the jobs of 112,500 people across Canada outside the province of Alberta, which is expected to grow to more than 500,000 jobs over the next 25 years in six broad sectors: professional services, oilfield services, manufacturing, wholesale trade, financial services and transportation.
Alberta’s economy has vastly improved with exports of goods rising about 50 percent from 2002 to 2012 to $95 billion, which includes almost $68 billion in energy exports. Alberta businesses also have the lowest tax regime in Canada where they do not pay general sales taxes, capital taxes or payroll taxes. The general corporate tax rate is 10 percent, and the small business tax rate is three percent. Alberta also has the lowest gasoline tax among the provinces.
About 10 percent of the oil sands workforce is comprised of indigenous peoples. In 2011, the value of contracts between oil sands companies and indigenous companies was over $1 billion.
However, as lucrative an economic venture the oil sands are for Canada, the Beaver Lake Cree Nation is left out and suffering social, environmental and spiritual damage. As a result, in 2008, the Nation launched Treaty Rights litigation against the Canadian government, claiming that the 19,000+ fossil fuel projects in their territory violate their treaty rights and threaten to destroy their way of life by polluting and fragmenting the land and water that have sustained them for centuries.
“This is about the air that we breathe and the water that we drink,” said Lameman. “No matter your race, color or creed, this challenge is about you. The government fought hard to have our case thrown out of court because the legal precedents weigh heavily against them. Now, with a judgment that this will go to trial, the government hopes we’ll be defeated either by the cost of the litigation or by the time it takes to gather the necessary resources to get this case in front of the judge before the health of our land is irreversible.”
Lameman also referred to Article 32 of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), which was meant to determine and develop strategies for the use of native people’s lands. It was adopted on Thursday, September 13, 2007, by a majority of 144 states in favor and 4 votes against (Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United States).
As a General Assembly Declaration, it is not a legally binding instrument under international law, cites a UN press release, but it does “represent the dynamic development of international legal norms, and it reflects the commitment of the UN’s member states to move in certain directions.” The UN describes UNDRIP as setting “an important standard for the treatment of indigenous peoples that will undoubtedly be a significant tool toward eliminating human rights violations against the planet’s 370 million indigenous peoples and assisting them in combatting discrimination and marginalization.”
UNDRIP codifies “indigenous historical grievances, contemporary challenges and socio-economic, political and cultural aspirations,” and it is a “culmination of generations-long efforts by indigenous organizations to get international attention, to secure recognition for their aspirations, and to generate support for their political agendas.”
Ken Coates, Canada research chair and faculty member at the University of Saskatchewan, argues that UNDRIP resonates powerfully with indigenous peoples, while national governments have not yet fully understood its impact.
Lameman’s talk was sponsored by the Wege Foundation. Founded in 1967 by Peter M. Wege, son of Peter Martin Wege, who started what is now Steelcase, Inc. The Wege Foundation focuses on funding good works that enhance the lives of the people and preserves the health of the environment in West Michigan. The Wege Foundation’s Five Pillars, or areas of interest include: education, environment, arts and culture, health care and human services.