The carving up of the earth and the poisoning of the environment for the sake of extracting oil in Canada has left the First Nations people of Canada destitute. Not so much economically, but mainly spiritually and socially.
They are finding it hard to convince white European settlers of the last two centuries that the land they took from the native Americans is ‘sacred’ and all that is implied by that word. They have been trying for a very long time to tell these ‘modern’ people who settled on their lands that they should approach nature – and all that the word nature implies- with utter respect. Their words not register with the modern Canadian government, who instead opened up the floodgates, by poisoning, desecrating and destroying even further the source of all life in the universe, planet earth. At the moment there is no hard evidence of any other life source in any other part of the vast universe, except on planet earth. By giving mining rights to the oil industry, the Canadian government is doing it at the expense of not just the First Nations people of Canada, but the population of the planet.
The American Aborigines have known for centuries that the earth is sacred. All life comes from it, is sustained by it and returns to it. The earth itself is connected to the rest of the universe. By disrespecting the earth you are disrespecting ‘everything’ and everything that the word implies.
Canada’s tar sands aren’t just oil fields. They’re sacred lands for my people.
For years, concerned members of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation (ACFN) in Canada, like myself, have voiced concerns about the impacts caused by oil sand exploitation. The vast majority of our community resides downstream from large scale oil sands surface mining and has seen first hand the complex impacts this industry has.
Now, over 100 renowned scientists and academics have echoed our concerns about oil sands in a call for a moratorium on expansion, which is being taken seriously by the public and the media.
Moratoriums have been called for and debated for many years with little traction. Keepers of the Athabasca Watershed, a local NGO, documented these calls to action from First Nations to mayoral and union representatives calling for either a full halt or a progressive slow down in the oil sands.
The recent moratorium recognizes that current oil sands laws, regulations and policies are “inconsistent with the title and rights of many Aboriginal Peoples of North America” and “not designed to assess cumulative impacts.” These points are consistent with concerns our community has outlined in various interventions launched against oil sands applications in our territory. It is for this reason that we support this call to action to address both the systemic and environmental concerns in the region.
The public often criticized the ACFN for challenging the expansion of the oil sands because of the employment and revenue potentials for First Nation communities, who have seen little in the way of economic prosperity since the decline of the fur trade. We cannot deny the economic benefits the oil sands; we have a thriving business sector, long standing relationships with oil and gas companies and community members who are directly employed by them. However, we have also seen the direct, cumulative and irreparable damage the oil sands have left on the lands, waters, climate, species, people and, ultimately, treaty agreements and Indigenous rights in Canada. Finding a way to reconcile the negative and positive impacts is becoming increasingly difficult.
A failing regulatory system has allowed environmental protection and the rights of Indigenous peoples to fall through the cracks. This compounds the complicated relationship between Indigenous peoples and governments. Current laws and regulations in Canada were created to protect and preserve promises the Canadian government made to Native communities, including First Nations’ ability to hunt, fish, trap and gather within their recognized territories. However, the expansion of oil sands into regions that are critical for the survival of species, ecosystems and the integrity of Native rights continues unabated in Northern Alberta.
This battle between Indigenous peoples of North America and European settlers over access, control and governance of land has waged since first contact. The Indigenous position has been rooted in the need to preserve and protect sacred lands, waterways, species and territories from the threat of industrialization. While this need to “protect the sacred” is often viewed as pagan or savage, it is becoming increasingly clear that we need to reevaluate our relationship with the planet. Centuries of misuse and abuse of Mother Earth is leading to climate change, extinction and irreversible environmental degradation. We must draw on the indigenous perspective of earth’s sacredness for the sake of our collective survival.
The complexities faced by the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation are a microcosm of the challenges we face as humans here on Earth. Economic development at the expense of people and the planet makes no sense. We must push for change.
Our Nation made the decision to protect sacred lands and called for our own moratorium of development north of the Firebag River, Alberta, in our 2012 report Níh Boghodi: We are the Stewards of our Land. We did this knowing that it may impact our relationships with industry in the oil sands, but we hope that this will pave the way for a different future that will respect our lands, waters, climate, species, people and the unique indigenous rights promised through the treaty with the Canadian state and affirmed in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
Our Nation is not against development of our lands and territory – we want to see the respectful sharing and utilization of the land. However, current oil sands development isn’t meeting that mark. That’s why we stand behind this call to action by academics and scientists. These actions will take us one step closer to finding truth and reconciliation for indigenous peoples here in the oil sands and the pathways necessary for the survival of life as we know it.
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