Tar Sands and Resource Development on Indigenous Land – the Historical Context

Genocide of people and cultures by the Canadian state is a touchy subject, but one that must be addressed.

by Daniel T’seleie

A few years ago two of my elders from Fort Good Hope told me a story of their childhood. They were playing on the shore of the River when a priest and RCMP officer cruised by in a small boat with a motor. In these days outboard motors were still rare, and quite the novelty.

They had never been in a boat with an outboard motor, and jumped at the chance when asked to go for a ride.

Hours later they were hundreds of kilometres down the River, being dropped off at the residential school in Aklavik. The priest and RCMP never told them where they were going or gave them a chance to get out of the boat.

They described this to me as an “abduction.” Today, people would be charged and jailed for this, but less than a century ago it was government policy.

Residential schools were supposed to assimilate Indigenous populations. They were supposed to make us all part of the mainstream Canadian culture.

The stories of sexual abuse and extreme physical violence are becoming told more often in Canada, but what is lost is the absolute depravity of the “normal” residential school experience; even the students who were not abused in the worst ways had their basic human rights trampled on.

They were not allowed to speak their languages, and were forced to learn French and English. Brothers and sisters in the same school were not allowed to speak to each other due to gender-based segregation. Students were served rotten fish, and any food they did not finish at one meal would be saved and presented back to them at the next meal time. They had to be in bed by 8 p.m., and were not allowed to get up for anything until 7 a.m. Those students who could not last the night, and wet their beds, were forced to stand in closets with their own soiled underwear on their heads for the duration of the day.

These are stories I’ve heard from my elders about residential school, and I believe every word of it because these sorts of abuses are in line with the Canadian government’s policies of subjugating Indigenous people, taking away our nomadic culture and forcing us into communities, and making us into regular “Canadians.”

In the Eastern Arctic a systematic policy of culling sled dogs was used to force the Inuit into settlements. Policies of relocation were also used to take people away from their traditional lands and make them dependent on support systems in communities.

Why, you might ask, would Canada’s government be so intent on assimilating Indigenous Peoples’ and forcing us into communities and mainstream Canadian culture?

The answer, in one word, is “resources.”

As Indigenous Peoples, our traditional lifestyles involve living in communion with nature, respecting the natural balances of ecosystems, and nomadic hunting and gathering over vast areas throughout the year.

More importantly, our spiritual and cultural connections to the land, and our traditional laws, prevent us from destroying the land for short-term profit (especially for useless shiny things like gold and diamonds).

Taking away our cultures and assimilating us into mainstream Canadian culture enables the development of destructive resource extraction on our land. Taking away our abilities to provide the basic necessities of life, like food and clothing, for our families and communities through our traditional economies forces us to be slaves in the wage economy.

Some would say that the days of these oppressive policies are over, but I disagree.

The government’s goals, although not explicitly written out in any policy or legislation, remain the same; to profit from resource extraction by taking away our ability to live off the land, forcing us to participate in the wage economy, and destroying our cultural and spiritual links with our land through assimilation.

Despite the token actions of the government towards reconciliation – like the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, federal apologies for Inuit relocation and Indian residential schools, and RCMP inquiries into slaughter of Inuit sled dogs and participation in Indian residential schools – their unwritten mandate remains the same.

Why is it that nearly 20 years after my people signed a comprehensive land claims agreement (called a “modern Treaty”) with the federal government we have still not been able to finalize a Land Use Plan with them under this agreement – a plan that allows us to develop a Protected Areas Strategy so we can ensure our productive hunting grounds and sacred areas remain undisturbed?

Why is there not more focus on the serious threats to food and water security posed by climate change and toxic tar sands tailings – which one of my friends from a downstream community has referred to as “cultural genocide”?

Why are our youth still legally mandated to attend school for 200 days a year to learn about other peoples’ culture and history, instead of going out on the land to learn about our own cultures and ways of life?

Why do youth from small, predominantly Dene communities in the Northwest Territories graduate from high school without the requisite courses to attend university or college? Why are these high-school courses not even offered in our communities?

Why, when you open a newspaper in the Northwest Territories, are the vast majority of the advertisements for training opportunities and scholarships given out by mining companies and the fossil fuel industry, often for, “studies relating to the oil and gas industry”?

Why does the system not tell our youth they can do more than work at a mine or an oil rig? Why are there not job opportunities outside these industries for First Nations and Aboriginal youth in Canada?

These and myriad other systemic barriers, held up by government and industry, continue to force our people off the land and into the wage economy.

This is not the whole story, and there is plenty more evidence to support this view, but you now have an idea of the recent history that has defined the current state of our Indigenous communities. We are not just trying to heal from the colonial impacts of the past; we are still fighting against the current forms of colonialism being practised in Canada.

So the next time you catch yourself thinking, “I thought Natives supported that mine/pipeline/fossil-fuel project,” keep in mind the historical context, and remember that the issues cannot be described with such a simple statement or understood with such a simple point of view.

4 Responses to “Tar Sands and Resource Development on Indigenous Land – the Historical Context”
  1. Micheal says:

    Thank you Daniel!!!

  2. Owain says:

    Very interesting article. I don’t know much about the culling of huskies or other specific details but the idea of linking forced reservations to resource use is an interesting one. Forcing communities into a way of life that they are not familiar with and then telling them that they are responsible for their hardships is pretty sickening. It makes sense from a resource perspective to limit the native people’s land use especially in the far North where the only use the government would have for that land is resource extraction.

    I would love to hear more on this subject. Keep the articles coming!

  3. John Webster says:

    How did this paragon of Indian virtue get to Durban? Did he paddle his canoe, or fly in a jet plane, crafted and powered by all of this dreaded and resource extraction the writer feels was done on the backs of poor natives? After all, being so connected to the land and communing with nature all the time makes those naive natives gullible suckers to the machinations of those looking to exploit resources from “Mother Earth”. Whenever anybody suggests that his or her opinion about the environment is more thoughtful, or heartfelt, or informed because of his or her ancestry, I immediately dismiss it as condescending bigoted malarky. This moron should investigate how many Canadians (aboriginal Canadians included) are earning a living from the resource extraction business before he pens more screed like this. Pathetic.

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  1. […] Tar Sands and Resource Development on Indigenous Land – the Historical Context by Daniel T’seleie (Canadian Youth Delegation) The government’s goals, although not explicitly written out in any policy or legislation, remain the same; to profit from resource extraction by taking away our ability to live off the land, forcing us to participate in the wage economy, and destroying our cultural and spiritual links with our land through assimilation. Despite the token actions of the government towards reconciliation – like the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, federal apologies for Inuit relocation and Indian residential schools, and RCMP inquiries into slaughter of Inuit sled dogs and participation in Indian residential schools – their unwritten mandate remains the same. 29 November Canadian tar sands project carries huge risks, warn environmental activists Environmentalists say plan to pipe crude across Alberta and load it onto supertankers bound for Asia could lead to ‘catastrophe’ (The Guardian) A new report from environmental groups in the US and Canada warns that plans to pipe the crude across the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific coast in British Columbia, and then load it onto supertankers bound for Asia, carries enormous risks. 13 November Canada Eyes Asia After U.S. Delays Keystone Project (Reuters/Planet Ark) Canada will try to sell more of its energy products to Asia after Washington delayed a decision on whether to approve the Keystone XL Canada-to-Texas oil pipeline project, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said. “This does underscore the necessity of Canada making sure that we are able to access Asia markets for our energy products,” Harper told reporters on Sunday at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation leaders’ meeting in Hawaii. “That will be an important priority of our government going forward and I indicated that yesterday to the president of China.” 11 November Keystone delay could kill project, Flaherty says (CBC) Finance Minister Jim Flaherty says the decision to delay approval of the Keystone XL pipeline may kill the project and could add momentum to efforts to open up the Asian market for Canadian oil. Flaherty was referring to another pipeline, the Northern Gateway project proposed by Calgary-based Enbridge, to carry oilsands crude from near Edmonton through the Rocky Mountains to a terminal at Kitimat, B.C., where it would be loaded aboard tankers. 17 October Would Slowing Oil Sands Development Make us Richer, Cleaner and More Powerful? By Taylor Owen, Senior Editor of opencanada.org The development and management challenges of the Canadian oil sands strikes at the heart of some of Canada’s most vexing policy challenges: interprovincial relations, climate change policy, global environmental responsibility, US relations, Asian trade expansion. At the root of this policy quagmire is a perceived conflict between being an energy superpower and living up to our climate responsibility. But is this a false choice? What if we could both gain international power and assist the world in meeting its carbon reduction goals. And get richer by doing it. 14 October Oil Sands: Canada’s 10 Ethical Challenges ENERGY & EQUITY: How we turned a blessing into a curse, and ways to atone. Part one. By Andrew Nikiforuk, 4 October Oil sands imports could be banned under EU directive Fuel from oil sands projects may be banned under EU proposals, though UK among member states who may oppose the plan (The Guardian) Oil from controversial and environmentally destructive tar sands is likely to be all but banned from Europe after a decision on Tuesday. The move also casts doubt on the future of other controversial energy sources such as shale gas. 28 September Nobel laureates press Harper to oppose Alberta oil-sands expansion (Globe&Mail) Archbishop Desmond Tutu is one of eight Nobel Peace Prize winners who have signed a letter asking Prime Minister Stephen Harper to do what he can to stop the growth of Alberta’s oilsands. The letter comes three weeks after several peace prize laureates wrote a letter to United States President Barack Obama asking him to block the proposed Keystone XL Pipeline, which would increase oil sands exports to the United States. 23 September The Keystone debate: Forget the pipeline, this is about the oilsands Leave aside the fierce debate over the pipeline itself, there is another issue at stake here: the future of the northern Alberta oilsands that need an outlet for their heavy bitumen-laced oil that those refineries on the Gulf Coast can provide. (CBC) When supporters of the Keystone XL pipeline tout the benefits of TransCanada’s $7-billion plan to ship crude oil from Alberta to Texas, they have a long list. The extended artery will provide energy security within North America, they say. It would be the safest pipeline ever built and will take crude that Canada doesn’t have the capacity to refine to Texas refineries looking for it. And then there are the jobs the pipeline could spawn: thousands and thousands of them. In a time of economic downturn, it would be a bright light. Much opposition toward TransCanada’s Keystone XL project focuses on the routing of the proposed pipeline extension over the Ogallala aquifer and the Sandhills in Nebraska. The aquifer supplies water for drinking and agricultural irrigation to parts of eight U.S. states. 22 September Oil Sands Controversy: U.S. Groups Use Obscure Trade Law To Push For Sanctions Against Canada (HuffPost) Conservationists on both sides of the border are using an obscure American trade law normally used against whalers to pressure Canada over its management of the entire industry. The push comes as protesters continue to fight a pipeline that would bring more oilsands crude from Alberta into the United States. A coalition of American and Canadian environmental groups has filed an application under what’s known as the Pelly amendment, which empowers the U.S. president to impose trade sanctions against any country weakening international efforts to conserve endangered species — in this case woodland caribou, whooping cranes and dozens of other species of migratory birds. 29 August PBS Newshour: Tar Sands Pipeline Plan Renews Energy vs. Environment Debate The proposed Keystone X.L. pipeline would run 1,700 miles through Montana, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas and Oklahoma on its way to refineries in Texas. It’s projected to cost $7 billion and carry an estimated 800,000 barrels of oil a day. The plan has galvanized a growing opposition from those who fear it would increase greenhouse gas emissions, as well as the prospects of leaks and spills in environmentally sensitive areas. BILL MCKIBBEN, environmental activist/writer: this tar sands in Alberta is a big deal. It’s the second largest pool of carbon on Earth, after the oil fields of Saudi Arabia. Jim Hansen of NASA, who was arrested today, really the world’s foremost climate scientist, said — as he was speaking this morning, said, if we go ahead and begin tapping these unconventional energy sources, of which the tar sands are the biggest example, it is — and here I quote – “essentially game over for the climate.” Since, for once, Obama can stop a project without having Congress in the way, this has become the focal point. And these arrests have — actually now over 500 people. The numbers are just growing and growing day after day. 26 August Keystone pipeline clears major hurdle (CBC) The U.S. State Department’s environmental analysis of TransCanada’s proposed Keystone XL pipeline has given the project a thumbs up. The assessment moves the administration of President Barack Obama a step closer to a final decision on the pipeline. It now has 90 days to determine whether the controversial project is in the national interest of the United States. (Boston Globe) Obama officials back oil pipeline from Canada Groups warn of danger to environment Tar sands activists stand strong as State Department announces support for Keystone XL pipeline 22 August Tar Sands and the Carbon Numbers (NYT Editorial) This page opposes the building of a 1,700-mile pipeline called the Keystone XL, which would carry diluted bitumen — an acidic crude oil — from Canada’s Alberta tar sands to the Texas Gulf Coast. We have two main concerns: the risk of oil spills along the pipeline, which would traverse highly sensitive terrain, and the fact that the extraction of petroleum from the tar sands creates far more greenhouse emissions than conventional production does. The Canadian government insists that it has found ways to reduce those emissions. But a new report from Canada’s environmental ministry shows how great the impact of the tar sands will be in the coming years, even with cleaner production methods. It projects that Canada will double its current tar sands production over the next decade to more than 1.8 million barrels a day. That rate will mean cutting down some 740,000 acres of boreal forest — a natural carbon reservoir. Extracting oil from tar sands is also much more complicated than pumping conventional crude oil out of the ground. It requires steam-heating the sands to produce a petroleum slurry, then further dilution. 19 August Is Canadian Oil Bound for China Via Pipeline to Texas?  (See Judy Geologist Comment) (National Geographic News) The proposed Keystone XL pipeline that would ship oil from Northwest Canada south through Mid-America to the Texas Gulf Coast has drawn sharp opposition from environmentalists worried about Canadian forests, greenhouse gases, and potential leaks. But one line of attack is more about economics and geopolitics than land and water. And it strikes at pipeline proponents’ central argument that Keystone XL would buttress U.S. energy security. Opponents contend instead that the pipeline’s petroleum could largely bypass the American markets and be shipped to Asia. 10 August Welcome to Bizarro World Analysis by Stephen Leahy (IPS) – Canada and the United States are now the centre of Bizarro World. This is where leaders promise to reduce carbon emissions but ensure a new, supersized oil pipeline called Keystone XL is built, guaranteeing further expansion of the Alberta tar sands that produce the world’s most carbon-laden oil. “It’s imperative that we move quickly to alternate forms of energy – and that we leave the tar sands in the ground,” the U.S.’s leading climate scientists urged President Barack Obama in an open letter Aug. 3. 8 August Oil Sands to Raise Emissions, Canadian Report Says (NYT | Green Blog) The Canadian government has long fought efforts by politicians and environmentalists in other countries, including the United States, to characterize oil sands production as “dirty oil.” But an analysis quietly released late last month by its environmental agency indicates that the tar-like deposits will become an increasingly significant source of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions by the end of the decade. “Canada’s Emissions Trends,” a peer-reviewed report by the agency, Environment Canada, forecasts that greenhouse gas emissions from the oil sands will triple to 92 million metric tons, or 101 million short tons, by 2020 from a base level of 30 million metric tons, or 33 million short tons, in 2005. 26 July Natural resources minister tries to sway U.S. on controversial Keystone pipeline The Republican-controlled House of Representatives has passed a bill to force a decision on the Keystone XL pipeline by Nov. 1. But the legislation is now in the hands of the U.S. Senate which is controlled by Democrats, many of whom are vehemently opposed to the project. 26 July David Kilgour: Alberta Doing Business with China China is not the oil sands largest foreign investor, but the superpower is accumulating stakes in Canada’s energy sector faster than any other nation. The most recent Chinese purchase – the $2 billion acquisition of struggling oil sands firm Opti Canada. It has critics sounding the alarm about losing control of our own resources, and dealing with a country known for human rights violations and poor environmental practices. Should businesses and government consider more than money in energy deals with China? What are the implications of saying “no”? Does too much Chinese investment really threaten our control of our own resources? Joining us for this discussion is Gordon Houlden, Director of the China Institute at the University of Alberta; and David Kilgour, a former Alberta MP and Canada’s former Secretary of State for Asia-Pacific. 20 July Cnooc Agrees to Buy Opti Canada for $2.1 Billion to Expand Oil-Sand Assets Cnooc Ltd, China’s biggest offshore oil producer, agreed to acquire Opti Canada Inc. (OPC) for $2.1 billion in cash and debt to increase its oil-sands reserves, and pledged to buy more energy assets globally. Cnooc will pay $34 million in cash for the Canadian company’s shares, $1.18 billion for some notes and assume $825 million of debt, Opti said in a statement today. A shortage of cash to fund the extraction of heavy oil embedded in sand forced the Calgary-based producer to seek bankruptcy protection on July 13. … China Petrochemical Corp. and Cnooc are among companies that have invested more than $200 billion in ventures in Alberta to tap the world’s third-largest oil deposits after Saudi Arabia and Venezuela. Chinese companies have bid more than $88 billion for oil, natural gas and power assets overseas in the last five years to meet demand in the world’s biggest energy-consuming nation. 28 June Oilsands wealth grew 23-fold since 1990 (CBC) The value of Canada’s oilsands grew 23-fold to $441 billion from $19 billion between 1990 and 2009, Statistics Canada reports. That put the value of crude bitumen from the oilsands higher than the value of coal, crude oil and natural gas combined, according to a report on the economy and the environment released Tuesday. The oilsands only became Canada’s highest value energy resource in 2006, when they surpassed natural gas. The value of the oilsands has grown faster than their development. 24 June Junk Science Letters: I will be very hard to satisfy on oil sands – David Schindler (National Post) Ms. Kraus is absolutely correct on her final point. I will be very hard to satisfy when it comes to the environmental performance of the oil sands. I have worked in the area for 40 years, and I have witnessed many serious environmental issues propagandized or hidden, rather than studied and corrected. This must change, if we are to make balanced decisions on expansion of the oil sands. 22 June Witness: To the Last Drop (Al Jazeera) Residents of one Canadian town are engaged in a David and Goliath-style battle over the dirtiest oil project ever known. The small town of Fort Chipewyan in northern Alberta is facing the consequences of being the first to witness the impact of the Tar Sands project, which may be the tipping point for oil development in Canada. The local community has experienced a spike in cancer cases and dire studies have revealed the true consequences of “dirty oil”. Gripped in a Faustian pact with the American energy consumer, the Canadian government is doing everything it can to protect the dirtiest oil project ever known. 8 June Without Keystone XL, oil sands face choke point (Globe & Mail) If the $7-billion (U.S.) project is not built, the energy sector faces the prospect of being “landlocked in bitumen,” with no way to get mounting crude production to market. Without the massive new line, whose environmental impact has become the subject of heated debate in the U.S., existing pipelines could be constrained in as little as four years. 31 May TransCanada’s Keystone pipeline has new leak (CBC) Kansas spill comes 2 weeks after Oklahoma’s 7 April U.S. mayors want ‘dirty’ oil discussion in Canadian election campaign (The Tyee/The Hook) They don’t want our “dirty” oil — and they want to kill the Canadian-built pipeline that would pump it across their fertile plains. An outspoken coalition of American mayors is urging Canadian voters to grill federal election candidates on clean-energy alternatives to Alberta’s oilsands. They oppose a plan that would see Alberta’s “tar sands” oil pumped across their country to the Texas Gulf Coast through the $13-billion Keystone XL pipeline. 12 April Sinopec to pay $4.65 billion in oil sands deal (Reuters) – China’s state-owned Sinopec plans to buy ConocoPhillips’ stake in the huge Syncrude project in Canada’s oil sands for $4.65 billion, marking one of the Asian country’s largest investments ever in North America. 7 April Oilsands more than a PR problem: Ignatieff Concerns raised this week by U.S. President Barack Obama regarding the oilsands need to be addressed with federal action to protect the environment and not to boost the industry’s image, Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff said Thursday. “It’s not going to be fixed by better public relations,” Ignatieff said, after touring a seniors home in this suburb north of Montreal. “It’s a problem of substance.” Obama hinted Wednesday that his government might be having second thoughts about approving a controversial 3,200-kilometre pipeline project linking the oilsands to the American market. 5 April Alberta conservation plan stuns oil patch The Alberta government has proposed new environmental rules that would revoke a number of oil sands leases – including those which already have active projects – in an effort to protect sensitive habitat, wildlife and forest land in the most industrialized area of the province. Alberta is under harsh international scrutiny for the way it manages the development of the oil sands, but Tuesday’s announcement sent shock waves rippling across an industry that has spent vast sums of money to acquire land in the region. 2 April No to a New Tar Sands Pipeline Later this year, the State Department will decide whether to approve construction of a 1,700-mile oil pipeline from Canada to the Texas Gulf Coast called Keystone XL. The underground 36-inch pipeline, built by TransCanada, would link the tar sands fields of northern Alberta to Texas refineries and begin operating in 2013. The department should say no. State is involved because the pipeline would cross an international boundary. Secretary Hillary Rodham Clinton first said she was “inclined” to support it, but has lately sounded more neutral. An environmental assessment carried out by her department last year was sharply criticized by the Environmental Protection Agency for understating the project’s many risks. 25 March We don’t suppose this announcement had anything to do with the up-coming election? INCREASE IN OILSANDS ANTI-POLLUTION EFFORTS ANNOUNCED (RCI) Canada’s federal government has announced a stepped-up effort to protect against pollution from Alberta’s oilsands industry. Environment Minister Peter Kent says new monitoring stations will be set up along the Athabasca River from Fort McMurray to Wood Buffalo National Park. Mr. Kent says the increased monitoring will cost about $20 million a year. He said industry will pay most of the costs. He says the new system will combine air and water monitoring data in response to concerns that some pollutants are falling from smokestacks. The announcement is in response to recommendations from a federally appointed panel of scientists. The panel was created last fall after several scientific reports found oilsands contaminants in the Athabasca river at levels toxic to fish. 11 March Water Checks Deficient At Canada Oil Sands: Report (Reuters/Planet Ark) A government-sponsored scientific committee studying water monitoring in Canada’s oil sands has backed assertions that multibillion-dollar energy developments are polluting waterways and it urges more stringent oversight. The report by the independent scientists, appointed by Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach, said an incendiary study by water ecologists last year appeared to be right in its contention that toxic substances downstream from the developments do not occur naturally. 7 February Felix von Geyer: Tar sands are a blot on Canadian politics – as well as the landscape The money to be made from Canada’s tar sands has blinded its government to the risks to water, climate and the biosphere (The Guardian) … the US also has its eyes on Canada’s relatively vast freshwater resources as it rapidly depletes its own aquifers. But, as Harper seeks to sell tar sands crude and further contribute to anthropogenic climate change, Canadians should bear in mind as they count the cost of their carbon footprint that there are alternatives to fossil fuels but really no alternatives to fresh water. 27 January Oil sands doc alerts the world to Canada’s Tipping Point (Straight.com) There are many wrinkles, but the doc left one major question: Is the pricetag associated with Canada’s economic prosperity costing us the total value of the planet? 8 January Stop-work order issued after explosion rocks oilsands plant 7 January 2011 Harper defends oilsands as ‘ethical’ Prime Minister Stephen Harper has backed his new environment minister with a strong defence of the Canadian oilsands, saying they are an important source of job creation and the world should know this country is an “ethical society” which will reliably provide the resource. Workers run for lives after CNRL upgrader explodes near Fort McMurray […]

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