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