If you listen closely around the kitchen tables and in the fur trapping cabins of Fort Chipewyan, Alberta, Canada, you will hear the murmurs about a “slow-motion cultural genocide”. The residents of the isolated indigenous reserves of northern Alberta are watching their land become unliveable as their communities are slowly poisoned by the world’s largest and most environmentally destructive oil extraction project — Canada’s Oil Sands.
In 1899, Treaty 8 was signed by the Queen of England and 39 First Nations in northern Canada. The treaty offered the indigenous peoples education, healthcare and hunting supplies as part of a partnership between the First Nations and the Government of Canada. The signing chiefs were assured that their land, culture and traditional means of livelihood would be preserved and respected for “as long the sun shines, the rivers flow and the grass grows”.
The peaceful, relationship-oriented rhetoric of Treaty 8 has been sharply contradicted by the systemic degradation of First Nations culture that has taken place in Canada since then. The large-scale environmental destruction of the Oil Sands is seen by many First Nations as a continuation of the abuses of indigenous peoples that stem to the very foundations of Canada’s inception as a nation.
In the 17th and 18th centuries, European settlers introduced permanent settlements, armed conflict and a smallpox epidemic that wiped out 90-95% of all indigenous people in Canada. Then came the "Canadian Indian Residential School System"; a cultural assimilation program that saw aboriginal children taken from their parents and forced to live in boarding schools that were run by the Catholic Church and Canadian Government. Generations of children were physically and sexually abused and murdered in Residential Schools throughout the 130 years of their existence. The resulting impacts upon the social and cultural fabrics of the First Nations was devastating and has left them struggling to build healthy, united and empowered communities.
Within traditional indigenous communities, the health of the people is intrinsically linked to the health of their environment. Due to their intimate relationship with the surrounding ecosystem, First Nations consider the development of their communities and territories in terms of the potential impacts upon the 7th generation in the future. Environmental sustainability and preservation take priority over economic growth because without healthy land, their culture and communities would cease to exist.
Canada’s Oil Sands are the third largest oil deposits on Earth and worth an estimated $1.7 trillion to Canada’s GDP over the next 20 years. This oil extraction involves an energy-intensive process of strip-mining and chemical upgrading. The liquid waste from Oil Sands production ends up in man-made tar lakes that are large enough to be visible from space.
The Oil Sands have a larger carbon footprint than any other commercial oil product on Earth, emitting as much carbon per annum as the entire nation of Turkey. Forecasts indicate that Oil Sands production in Alberta will likely triple by 2020.The Oil Sands sit under an area of aboriginal territory that is the size of England and are connected to the Athabasca Watershed — one of the largest freshwater systems in the world. The indigenous bands who live off of the land in this region are already experiencing the impacts of the heavy metals and hydrocarbons that now reside within their air, water, land and traditional food sources. According to the elders and other community members, cancer is now the leading cause of death in Fort Chipewyan and other unexplainable health problems like miscarriages, lupus and skin abscesses have become increasingly frequent. The local traditional economies like fishing and fur trading have been decimated by industrial pollution and ever-expanding habitat destruction, leaving many residents with no other option but to work for the oil companies. Today, the indigenous peoples of northern Alberta are afraid to sustain themselves off the land that has nurtured their lives for centuries.