Indigenous communities in the path of the oil sands and its pipelines have been left with no good options.
IN NORTHERN ALBERTA AND BC, anger at environmental damage and fears that traditional cultures are disappearing are competing with economic pragmatism as Indigenous leaders struggle to decide where the future lies. Is it more beneficial to fight, or take a place at the negotiating table in hopes of mitigating damage? It’s a complicated and sometimes soul-crushing balancing act. First Nations have little faith that their objections will have any effect on development decisions, given the history of approvals.
In Alberta, out of more than 170 oil sands projects, almost none have been turned down, despite First Nations investing years of research and spending millions of dollars on court cases. “There has been 50 years of mining and there is still no protection of our rights. Governments don’t seem to care,” said Lisa Tssessaze, Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation lands and resource management director.
Around Fort Chipewyan, a hamlet on the banks of Lake Athabasca, the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation and Mikisew Cree are preparing to fight the massive Teck Frontier project.
The Teck Frontier mine is a $20-billion development, which the company says would provide 7,000 construction jobs and 2,500 permanent jobs.
Buffalo in northern Alberta (Photo by Louis Bockner)
It would sit 110 kilometres north of Fort McMurray and 30 kilometres south of Wood Buffalo National Park, a World Heritage Site which a UNESCO report says is already under threat from rampant oil sands development and other pressures.
If approved after joint federal-provincial review panel hearings this fall, Teck Frontier would rip up 292 square kilometres, with much of the development on land where the buffalo roam.
Not just any buffalo, emphasized elder Roy Ladouceur, who, for more than half a century, has lived off the land at the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation’s Poplar Point reserve, which is 16 kilometres from the Teck site. The area, explained Ladouceur, includes calving grounds for the Ronald Lake Bison Herd, the only disease-free, genetically-pure wood bison herd in the area. The herd is already in trouble because of proximity to the oil sands and poaching. He believes that, if Teck goes ahead, it will be the end of the Ronald Lake Bison Herd.
Roy Ladouceur (Photo by Louis Bockner)
“They say they can find ways and means of preserving the habitat and I just can’t see it happening, no way, no how,” said Ladouceur. Ideas of relocating the buffalo and caribou make no sense and are likely to result in the animals contracting diseases, he said. “You can’t do that to any animal. You are breaking Nature’s law and Nature has its own way. It’s not their home,” Ladouceur said.
Freddie Marcel, another Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation elder, concurs with this judgement. He talks with sad resignation about the future of the land where generations of his family have hunted, trapped and fished. “That Teck Frontier development is going to happen regardless of what we say and whether we fight. The buffalo are there and the caribou are there, but that’s right where the mine is going to be,” shrugged Marcel.
THE AREA HAS BEEN EXPERIENCING the environmental impacts of industrial development for decades now. Around Wood Buffalo National Park and the Peace-Athabasca Delta, pollution and dropping water levels are evident and problematic. Much of the pollution is traceable to oil sands development. The dropping water levels are largely attributable to dams on the Peace River, climate change, and industry withdrawing water from the Athabasca River. Together they have changed centuries-old lifestyles that relied on the land and water for food, medicines, clothing and shelter.
Simultaneous with the environmental damage, however, has come a steady flow of oil money into communities, which is altering attitudes and forcing First Nations communities to examine priorities.
Indigenous communities in both provinces are increasingly looking at benefit agreements with companies in hopes of having their voices heard and bringing injections of cash and jobs to their bands. Fort Chipewyan Metis Local 125, for instance, has already signed a participatory agreement with Teck Frontier in return for economic benefits and opportunities to negotiate traditional land use and environmental stewardship.
Teck Frontier spokesman Chris Stannell said the company has signed similar agreements with 11 Indigenous groups. “These agreements identify economic and social benefits and opportunities—such as employment, contracting and training—and include environmental stewardship planning,” Stannell said in an emailed response to questions.
Even Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, though offically opposed, is involved in talks with the company on topics such as buffer zones and protection for wildlife.
Matt Hulse, the Nation’s regulatory affairs coordinator, admits the question of how to deal with projects such as Teck Frontier is complicated. He said, “There’s a lot of grey. Everyone realizes the jobs are down there [in the oil sands] and that’s where the money comes from. People don’t want the [Teck Frontier] mine to go ahead, but, because we have so little confidence in the regulatory process, Indigenous communities are forced to find ways to benefit from the project to offset the impacts. There isn’t any good option.”
THAT AMBIVALENCE IS UNDERLINED by a surprise announcement last month that Athabasca Tribal Council—made up of five First Nations, including Athabasca Chipewyan and Mikisew Cree—is considering buying a stake in the Trans Mountain pipeline in an effort to obtain Indigenous control and ensure the environment is safeguarded.
The controversial pipeline, opposed by many British Columbians, was purchased by the federal government from Kinder Morgan for $4.5 billion to ensure a planned expansion goes ahead.
The Athabasca Tribal Council move caught pipeline critics and some community members off guard, particularly as Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation Chief Allan Adam, who is also president of the Tribal Council, has been known for campaigning against the pace of oil sands development alongside such celebrities as Jane Fonda, Leonardo DiCaprio and Neil Young.
Athabasca Chipewyan elder Alice Rigney, who has lived off the land all her life, blames the oil industry for destroying the delta and the lifestyle that has sustained her family for generations, and she wants no part of a pipeline. “I could not believe that my community wants to be part of this pipeline. They have forced us into a corner where we have nowhere else to turn,” Rigney said sadly. “Just think 100 years from now what this planet will look like. They are destroying the land.”
Ironically, the Trans Mountain pipeline is likely to transport oil from the Teck Frontier development, although Stannell said that, if the project is approved, the first oil is not expected to flow until 2026, so shipping plans have not yet been determined.
So why would First Nations, who are continuing to fight oil sands projects, want to buy a piece of pipeline?
Winds of change are blowing through First Nations communities, said Mikisew Cree Chief Archie Waquan. In Fort Chipewyan, where many young people take fly-in-fly-out shifts in the oil sands, a new affluence is taking hold and traditional activities, such as a moose-hide tanning workshop, are failing to appeal to the new generation.
Waquan, who describes himself as a former tree-hugger, believes he must lead efforts to modernize the economy for the sake of the younger generation. “Do we remain the same and be anti or get on the boat and deal with industry and be able to be part of what is happening there? I look at what is happening south of us in the tarpits and the oil sands and, if we don’t partake in it, we will be left behind and I will be to blame,” he said.
Chief Archie Waquan (Photo by Louis Bockner)
If the pipeline purchase plan goes ahead, it will be the second foray into the industry for Mikisew Cree, who, last year, together with Fort McKay First Nation, bought a 49 percent interest in a Suncor Energy storage facility.
A pipeline share is a logical next step, said Waquan, acknowledging that there are continuing concerns, but insisting that participation will help mitigate problems. “I have to look to the future, beyond my time on Earth. Times have changed and we have to realize that. We need to go to a modern lifestyle—which I think my First Nation wants—and that means we have to deal with industry. We have to keep them in check,” he said.
Waquan believes that, despite the scars left by oil and gas extraction, the land is resilient enough to recover. “You can’t reverse it now, but in time, when all the development is gone from this territory, our land will always come back to where it used to be,” he said.
Others see it differently and say Indigenous communities are being coerced into deals. Eriel Deranger, Indigenous Climate Action executive director, believes that economic benefit agreements, with companies promising to transfer millions of dollars to communities, amount to bribes.
“I have watched government and industry work very diligently to wear down the leadership—the way we are allowing this to happen is absurd,” she said. “Our communities are not making decisions freely, free of intimidation and free of coercion and free of bribery. Let’s be real, these impact benefit agreements are bribes,” she said.
Projects are approved despite admissions of irreversible and adverse impacts on the people and the land, and that can destroy the spirit of the people, Deranger said. “They are saying, in order for you to survive in the economic system we have imposed on you, you have to join us. There’s no choice any more. The rights of industry and corporations have taken precedence over Indigenous rights,” she said.
Judith Sayers, Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council president, said the same story plays out in BC, and companies regularly try to coerce First Nations into signing agreements by telling them that they will get nothing if they don’t sign on. “So you sign on to make sure you get money and jobs and benefits for your community,” she said.
But communities should realize that they do not have to sign agreements, especially given the adoption of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) by the federal and BC governments, and recent emphasis on the need for free, prior and informed consent, Sayers said. “Losing your right to fish and hunt as opposed to having a job is no contest. There are other ways of making money and having meaningful economic development without selling your soul,” she said.
When Kinder Morgan owned the pipeline, the company signed 43 mutual benefit agreements with Indigenous groups in BC and Alberta, but some chiefs have since said that they do not support the pipeline expansion project and felt signing the agreement was the only way to either get benefits or ensure there was funding to clean up spills. “It’s not really support. If we opposed it, we would have no way of addressing spills because we would be disqualified from funding from Trans Mountain,” Ditidaht Chief Robert Joseph told the Times Colonist in 2016.
Chief Bob Chamberlin, Union of BC Indian Chiefs vice-president, said the history of Canada is that government makes the final decision over lands Indigenous people have never given up. That, he said, has resulted in a sense of resignation that, whatever you do, someone else is going to make the decision. “As much as we object, as much as we point at case law and the constitution, Canada’s long history of disregarding all that is still alive and well,” Chamberlin said. “We are waiting for free, prior and informed consent to become real, but, until it’s real, First Nations are still faced with ‘the government’s going to do what it’s going to do. We might as well get what we can.’”
Now, with the underpinning of UNDRIP, it is up to Indigenous communities to shed those feelings of resignation, and for other Canadians to educate themselves on those rights, Chamberlin said. “We are talking about human rights and that’s a big evolution for Canadians to understand,” he said.
Judith Lavoie spent eight days in June in the communities of Fort Smith and Fort Chipewyan reporting for The Narwhal on how Alberta oil sands projects and the Site C dam are affecting the Peace-Athabasca Delta and Wood Buffalo National Park. An overflight of the delta was funded by Sierra Club BC.