Tag Archives: First Nations

Canada’s High Court Hands First Nations Keys to the Tar Sands

One hundred and fifty years ago, five leaders of the indigenous Tsilhqot’in Nation in British Columbia were lured into peace talks with the British Crown, and then promptly arrested and hanged.

That brought to an end the Chilcotin War of 1864, which had broken out in response to a flood of gold-rush settlers in the Canadian west.  Like most other native nations in British Columbia, the Tsilhqot’in (or Chilcotin) did not surrender their land under a treaty, but were slowly marginalized under the pressure of settlement and development. Their lands were exploited for gold, minerals and timber, and they were recognized as having title to only a small fraction of their historical range.

But two weeks ago, much of that changed overnight. In a 25-year-old legal case, Canada’s Supreme Court ruled unanimously on June 26th in favor of the Chilcotin Nation’s claim to some 675 square miles of land that had previously been contested. The court found that aboriginal title does not just apply to land where First Nations live, but to the lands they have historically used for hunting, trapping and fishing.

Grand Chief Derek Nepinak leading Healing Walk in the tar sands

Grand Chief Derek Nepinak leading Healing Walk in the tar sands

The day after the decision was handed down, I arrived in northern Alberta for a gathering of First Nations leaders and their friends, in the heart of tar sands mining country. And despite the flood of terrible news facing native people from the tar sands pollution, the mood that day was happy – even jubilant.

That’s because the Chilcotin decision for the first time provides a clear basis to establish First Nations’ title to un-surrendered lands, and strengthens the hand of indigenous people in dealing with companies seeking to exploit mining, logging and fossil fuel development on those lands.

“This decision . . . will be a game-changer in terms of the landscape in B.C. and throughout the rest of the country where there is unextinguished aboriginal title,” said First Nations Regional Chief of British Columbia Jody Wilson-Raybould.

Others would go even further, claiming that it gives indigenous people “a veto” over resource development proposals on their now-expanded lands. And while that’s probably an overstatement, the court’s ruling certainly increases the amount of Canadian land over which the First Nations will now exercise significant control. Now, timber companies, miners, and pipeline operators will have to solicit consent from indigenous peoples before pushing ahead.

Ah, pipeline operators. Now there’s a timely topic. Continue reading

Canada’s Petro-State: Fox Guarding the Henhouse?

We Americans don’t have all that much regard for foreigners, do we? Some countries seem to be brimming with jihadists. Others might bring to mind illegal immigrants. Perhaps others are stealing our jobs with their cheap labor. But Canada is different. For many Americans, Canada is almost like us. We may demand secure borders, but we don’t really mean that border.

And that’s why it would be so surprising if we were to find Canada behaving like a petro-state dictatorship.

But that’s just about what I found during my recent visit to the tar sands region of Alberta last week. It looks as though the federal and provincial governments have become so dependent on oil money that basic elements of just governance now seem like quaint throwbacks to a more innocent era.

I began to suspect this at last week’s Healing Walk in Fort McMurray, Alberta, when First Nations leaders repeated again and again the nearly identical chorus: Our land and water is being destroyed by industrial contamination, our native people are faced with de facto genocide, and the government refuses even to acknowledge our peril. In fact, the government actively suppresses evidence of our suffering.

It sounded bad. But then I heard from a doctor named John O’Connor, and his story removed all doubt.

Dr. O’Connor is a family practice physician from Fort McMurray, in the heart of the tar sands district of Alberta. In 2006, he began treating patients in the tiny indigenous community of Fort Chipewyan, 150 miles downstream from “Fort Mac” and the tar sands operations. No sooner did he arrive than he began to hear stories from the community elders of ominous changes in the environment. In stark contrast to what they grew up with, they could no longer drink the water; fish and wildlife routinely showed grotesque deformities; game and fish were becoming scarce; their own people were suffering from  mysterious illnesses.

Dr. John O'Connor, Fort Chipewyan

Dr. John O’Connor, Fort Chipewyan

In no time, O’Connor began to see alarming patterns in those illnesses. Relatively rare cancers were appearing regularly – blood and lymphatic cancers, bile duct cancer, biliary tract and thyroid cancers. Added to those were auto-immune diseases – Lupus and rheumatoid arthritis, skin disorders and intestinal disorders. Continue reading

My Healing Walk Through the Tar Sands

The sun moves slowly in these latitudes. It gradually arks, from its rising on the northwest tree line, in a long southward loop, and back northward to its rest below the edge of the northwest summer sky.  At 11:00 last evening, we were burying the day’s compost in the pale evening light. By 3:30 this morning, the sky over the lake was already silver and rose. And so at 4:00 AM, I am up to greet the orange Alberta sunrise.

An old hymn courses through my mind: “When morning gilds the skies … may Jesus Christ be praised.” My heart is surprisingly willing this chilly Canadian Sunday. I think of my home church, soon to meet, a couple of worlds – and as many times zones – away to the southeast. I read by the lakeside J.B. Phillips’ version of the prayer of Jesus: “Father, may your name be honored – may your kingdom come!”  I think of that kingdom, with longing and hope, mixed with lament.

Willing heart, yes. But my joints are stiff, and my feet are blistered. No doubt, three nights sleeping on the ground is catching up with my pampered frame. But yesterday’s Healing Walk through Alberta’s toxic tar sands tailing lakes has done a job on my lungs and my tender feet, and I hobble around the campsite like a man twenty years older than my threescore.

Like this morning, it was a beautiful sunrise yesterday. About three hundred of us from Canada and beyond waited for a caravan of yellow school buses to take us to the Syncrude tar sands processing complex. Led by Cree, Chipewyan and Dene tribal elders, we came to pray, to recognize, and to mourn together – to bear witness to the devastation wrought in these boreal forests and indigenous homelands – by the destructive economy of which we all share some part.

For two days, we have listened to stories from native people whose families have cared for this land for millennia, and for whom the land has provided generously in return. When they call it their “mother,” they express a connection that is simply beyond the grasp of us “visitors.” There is a profound love in this community – for the water, the air, the land; and the fish, animals and people who depend upon it. People – not just the living, but those who preserved it for us long ago, and those who are yet unborn. You can feel the sense of belonging and responsibility to those who will follow “to the seventh generation.”

In due course, we are headed northward, following the flow of the Athabasca River, in our yellow bus caravan, toward the tar sands. No one calls them “oil sands” in this community. The industry PR campaign has won over much of Canada, but it’s had no effect on these people of the land.

And as we travel, the murky yellow sky ahead grows thicker. We wish to each other that we had brought bandanas for some defense against the foul air. But it’s not the air that brings us here.

It’s the water.

Take a look at a map of Canada. The pristine Athabasca flows north through Alberta, passing through the Fort McMurray tar sands region in the northeastern corner of the province.  And as it continues northward, it opens into a broad inland delta before spilling into the enormous Lake Athabasca, from which it feeds the mighty Mackenzie River. The Mackenzie, exceeded in North America only by the Mississippi. Everywhere you look on the map around here, you see water. You can’t travel overland up to Fort Chipewyan at this time of year, because there’s nothing frozen to drive on.

So you’d think, in this land blessed by God with unfathomable riches of fresh water and aquatic wildlife, surely healthy water would be enjoyed with glad and thankful hearts. Wouldn’t it? Continue reading