August 9 marks International Day of the World's Indigenous Peoples. As per tradition, governments, companies and institutions across Canada are showcasing their ability to use nice words and make enticing promises of a better tomorrow for Indigenous people.
Yet, their talk about reconciliation is sharply contrasted with the reality that government and industry continue to support one of the most notable instances of environmental injustice in Canada: the industrial takeover of Indigenous lands by oil production.
Canada must face the fact that until we have phased out oil production in the tar sands, we will continue to fuel and fund the injustice we are claiming to care about.
Racialized communities and Indigenous people are disproportionately subjected to higher levels of environmental risk than other segments of society. They experience higher exposure to pollution, toxic chemicals and other environmental hazards and unequal access to human rights, such as clean drinking water — this is known as environmental racism.
The oilsands in northern Alberta are the site of immense environmental racism, yet they have conveniently escaped being a part of the national conversation on the topic.
The companies that benefit from oilsands extraction have tried to convince us that climate change is their only (small) harm. They continue to claim that they are close to a technological fix for their massive toxic waste problem. In fact, they are actively and knowingly perpetuating environmental racism on the predominantly Indigenous front-line communities, while their own data shows toxic chemicals are leaking from tailings ponds into the surrounding environment and groundwater. As the ponds are not impermeable, operators are ramping up production, which will continue to fill the ponds.
A recent report by Environmental Defence and Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society Northern Alberta tells a very different story, showing oil production’s devastating impact on the lands, waters and air of First Nations and Métis communities.
Oilsands open-pit and in-situ mining by companies such as Suncor and Canadian Natural Resources Limited destroy large areas of boreal forest and wetlands due to the direct removal of the forest and then the creation of tailings “ponds.”
These “ponds” are, in fact, immense pits filled with the fluid, toxic waste leftovers from oil production and are proven to leak and evaporate their dangerous content into the surrounding environment. The oilsands' tailings “ponds” now disrupt an area large enough to cover Paris three times over, and they contain over 1.4 trillion litres of toxic fluids.
Some of the First Nations and Métis communities living downstream of the tailings, such as Fort McKay residents, now refuse to drink the water or consume fish and ducks, as they likely have come in contact with these toxic fluids.
This year’s Indigenous Peoples Day theme is “The Role of Indigenous Women in the Preservation and Transmission of Traditional Knowledge.” Yet industrial activity prevents Indigenous women from playing this role, write Aliénor Rougeot & Tori Cress.
Indigenous communities that have relied on the once beautiful lakes, rivers, streams, forests and wetlands for their sustenance since time immemorial have been displaced to tiny parcels of “lands reserved for Indians” from their territories on which Creation placed them.
This was how our lands were defined when the Indian Act first became law in Canada. It has since been amended, but that was how they defined "reserve land."
In Section 91(24), the federal government (Canadian government) was assigned responsibility for all “Indians and lands reserved for Indians.”
Communities downstream of the Alberta oilsands, like the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation and the Mikisew Cree First Nation, have raised serious health concerns, such as experiencing high levels of rare cancers, which local doctors attribute to oilsands operations. The cancer epidemic faced by Indigenous communities in the Alberta tar sands region was brought to light by Dr. John O'Connor in 2006.
Connor is a Fort McMurray physician who first spoke out about the potential impact of the tar sands extraction industry on human health, particularly in Fort Chipewyan, a remote community downstream from Fort McMurray’s open-pit mines and toxic tailings ponds.
The harm goes beyond physical health degradation. The rapid and incessant sprawl of the tailings “ponds” has resulted in the takeover of thousands of hectares of Indigenous lands, affecting their ability to access and pass on their traditional practices.
This year’s theme for Indigenous Peoples Day is “The Role of Indigenous Women in the Preservation and Transmission of Traditional Knowledge.” Yet, in a country that often prides itself on its progress on gender parity, industrial activity is a direct barrier to Indigenous women playing such a role.
Fort McKay First Nation member Jean L’Hommecourt, for example, testifies to how tailings “ponds” restrict her ability to pass on teachings to her young ones. Industry’s activity has fenced them in and has driven away the fur-bearing animals and bug life necessary for hunting and gathering. This brutal obstacle to accessing one’s traditional practices creates immeasurable harm, as these are often the last barrier in the face of colonization.
No matter the words we say to celebrate Indigenous history and tradition, they will mean nothing if Canada continues to protect and fund — often with our taxpayers’ dollars — an industry that knowingly perpetuates environmental racism.
Tori Cress is Anishinaabe from G’Chimnissing, an island community on the shores of Waaseyaagami-wiikwed (Georgian Bay, Ont.) in Williams Treaty territory. She has brought her passion for communications work and grassroots community engagement to the Keepers of the Water as our part-time communications manager. Her role includes communication strategy development, managing and maintaining the Keepers of the Water website, development and publishing a quarterly newsletter, social media management and expansion, and community engagement.
Aliénor Rougeot is a program manager at Environmental Defence Canada where she advocates for a just transition for workers and communities and for the full cleanup of the tailings "ponds" in the oilsands. She has been a human rights advocate since a very young age, with a focus on climate justice since high school. Alienor co-founded the group Fridays for Future Toronto and has led numerous student climate mobilizations in that role.