As the Paris climate talks approach, the world has received the hopeful news of the demise of the Keystone XL Pipeline project and a ban on oil tankers from the northern British Columbia coast, possibly ending plans for the Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipeline. But in tiny areas of the continent, First Nation clans on the frontlines find no relief in their fight against Big Oil and Gas.
Down a logging road in northern British Columbia, signs of modern life slowly disappear. Blue, snow-capped mountains fill the landscape, their yellowed forests bearing the scars of clear-cutting and the ravenous pine beetle, while the road begins to mimic the path of a river.
Forty miles into the wilderness, visitors reach a bridge checkpoint: an entrance into Unist’ot’en territory. A young man in thick winter gear walks across a bridge to meet them. He asks for names. The volunteer communicates by radio to the clan’s spokesperson, who arrives shortly and takes visitors through a protocol used by generations of indigenous peoples to determine entry onto their lands.
There is a series of questions:
“What’s your name?”
“Do you work for industry or government that’s destroying our land?”
“What skills do you bring here?”
“How long do you plan to stay?”
“How will your visit benefit the Unist’ot’en?”
Freda Huson then steps away and softly radios across the camp. Volunteers emerge to remove the heavy wooden barricades at both ends of the bridge and allow passage onto the Unist’ot’en land.
This clan of the Wet’suwet’en First Nation has occupied its traditional territory here for more than five years, a response to a proposed network of pipelines full of crude oil and fracked natural gas that will cross this landscape from the energy nexus in Alberta to the West Coast. Plans for Chevron’s nearly 300-mile Pacific Trail natural gas pipeline, the double-barreled, about 725-mile Northern Gateway crude oil pipeline, and TransCanada’s more than 400-mile Coastal GasLink natural gas pipeline, extending across western Canada and destined for Asian markets, have created deep tension between industry and resistant First Nations clans like the Unist’ot’en.
Despite a series of cases in the Canadian courts upholding the sovereignty of unceded indigenous lands, the Unist’ot’en have turned away a steady flow of police and industry officials at the clan’s bridge checkpoint and confronted others entering remote areas of the territory by helicopter.
Threats from the energy industry and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police rest on an ambiguous interpretation of Aboriginal law. But defenders at the Unist’ot’en Camp see no such ambiguity. Within the traditional laws passed down through their elders, defense of the land is an imperative.
Huson, chosen as spokesperson by the chiefs of her clan, leads the struggle at the frontlines. She makes no decisions without the consent of her chiefs, driven by an ultimate truth: Her ancestors are still present on that land, still guiding her and her people and allowing her to reconnect with the land and reinforce a relationship that sustained indigenous populations for thousands of years.
“I went to the tar sands and saw the devastation and destruction,” Huson says. “Just listening to the ladies that are from that Nation, crying and telling their story, how they can’t even eat the fish anymore and they can’t even eat the moose anymore. Their total lifestyle is destroyed. I don’t want to wait until we lose everything before I do something. It’s high time that we start doing something; otherwise we’ll be telling those same stories.”
The Unist’ot’en’s effort is twofold: While it occupies the land along with a rotating set of volunteers from all over the world to stop pipelines, it also cultivates a stewardship for land stripped steadily from indigenous populations as Western expansion made their territories smaller and their land infertile.
“These lands belong to us,” says Toghestiy, a hereditary chief of the Likhts'amisyu clan of the Wet’suwet’en First Nation and a supporter of the camp from the beginning. “They’ve never been ceded or surrendered to anybody. This place is not Canada. It’s not B.C. It in particular is Unist’ot’en territory, and it is occupied and protected.”
On a brisk September day on the Unist'ot'en side of the bridge, volunteers spread across the camp to complete the day’s tasks, outlined on two adjacent dry-erase boards in the Healing Centre. Some staff the checkpoint; others travel deep into the territory to keep watch at satellite camps used to monitor helicopter activity and attempts to enter the land. Still others feed the animals and cook meals. The roar of chainsaws can be heard in the distance, turning to firewood the felled trees killed off by the pine beetle. Volunteers from other Nations along with non-indigenous volunteers level the soil around the Healing Centre, working not in defense of their own sacred land and culture but as an act of solidarity.
Despite spending most of their lives outside their traditional territories, the Wet’suwet’en in particular have maintained a close cultural connection to the land. In the absence of a treaty, the territory was never taken from its traditional keepers, as has been the case for so many other First Nations.
Huson says years of foresight allowed the clan to prepare for the pipelines. Her fears reached a threshold following the deaths of her brother several years ago and her father soon afterward. During funeral services for her brother, Huson says, Pacific Trail brought in drill equipment to the unguarded territory. After her father died last year, she says Coastal GasLink entered the territory by helicopter for an environmental assessment. “The helicopter landed on the road the very day I was burying my dad.” Realizing that they could not protect the territory while on the reservation two hours away, the clan decided to occupy.
Huson walks the narrow paths of the permaculture garden, a small, expanding field of cabbage, kale, and root vegetables that is becoming a sustainable food source for the camp and stands directly in the path of the proposed Coastal GasLink Pipeline. Ultimately, the vision for this camp is not only to sustain the clan and to inspire grassroots movements, it is to preserve natural resources for everyone. “We always have to be mindful that we are the first people of the headwaters,” Huson says. “This water hits us first; it’s our duty that we’re not making decisions that are going to impact clans downstream from us.”
Movements like the Unist’ot’en’s are seeing results. The clan is building a grassroots network with dozens of other First Nations protesting the coal mining, tar sands extraction, oil drilling, and natural gas exploration that have become the main driver of the Canadian economy. On Lelu Island, similarly unceded land off Canada’s Pacific Coast, the Lax Kw’alaams Nation turned down a $1 billion offer and for months has held off the construction of a liquefied natural gas terminal that would threaten local salmon runs. Other clans of the Wet’suwet’en Nation, as well as the Gitxsan and St’at’imc Nations, have established occupations this year.
This place is not Canada. It’s not B.C. It in particular is Unist’ot’en territory, and it is occupied and protected. —Toghestiy
But despite Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s ousting in October, which may mark the end of a nearly decade-long era of oil and gas expansion in Canada, supporters of the camp have little faith that the solution to their struggles lies within the electoral system.
While power has shifted in the Canadian government, some in the industry have updated their strategies, as well. After engaging with First Nations and citing the potential impact of pipelines on water flows into the Wedzin Kwah (the First Nation name for the Morice River), TransCanada recently announced a rerouting of its Coastal GasLink proposal, moving 34 miles of the path 3 miles north — avoiding the permanent structures erected by the Unist’ot’en along the Wedzin Kwah, but still cutting through the clan’s territory. Chevron has remained intent on its route for the Pacific Trail Pipeline.
As for the Northern Gateway, newly elected Prime Minister Justin Trudeau may have killed the pipeline with a recent decision to ban oil tankers on British Columbia’s north coast, although the company remains committed to its construction. The Unist’ot’en are quick to celebrate incremental victories. Shell’s recent suspension of its Arctic drilling operation and President Obama’s rejection of the Keystone XL pipeline mark not only success for their allies, but for the Earth itself.
Meet Mel Bazil.
But Mel Bazil, a man of Gitxsan and Wet’suwet’en heritage and a longtime supporter of the Unist’ot’en, believes the situation remains urgent: Indigenous peoples have already begun to face the harsh realities of climate change around the world. “[The land] needs healing,” says Bazil. “We can’t depend on it in completion right now — there’s so much of it that’s in pain. Part of that healing is leaving it alone, allowing it to regenerate — the Earth can take care of herself. But we have to step in front of new companies looking to destroy it further.”
Despite resistance from hereditary leaders, industry officials say they established their projects with significant First Nations support. Chevron officials say all 16 governmental bands along the proposed path have joined its First Nations Limited Partnership and that the project will bring economic benefits to those communities — $137.4 million in contracts awarded to First Nations businesses, or 85 percent of the contracts. TransCanada claims its project would have similar benefits, saying its updated route is a direct result of consultation with Aboriginal groups.
But Huson is not looking for short-term benefits. She believes the elected chief system has been co-opted by the Canadian government, often working against their traditional law for the negligible short-term benefit for the clans on reserve.
The Unist’ot’en’s fight is for more than preserving land; the clan is taking a stand for traditional ways and against an industry that has contributed so much to climate change.
It is early evening at the camp. A young man from the Sucker Creek Cree First Nation named Nipawi Mahihkan Misit Kakinoosit (“Standing Wolf Paw”) bellows for the volunteers to gather for the pre-dinner prayer circle. His voice reaches everyone easily with little more to cut through than the drizzle of a sunshower and the wind through the trees. A small group of volunteers walks out to join from the kitchen, where they have been playing music and working to prepare dinner: salmon pasta, fried bear fat, deer tripe, celery, and roasted carrots.
Nothing goes to waste. Julia Michaelis, a longtime volunteer at the camp, says the meals maintain morale, marking the one time each day the entire group can talk and enjoy each other’s company. “There’s a lot of hard work,” she says. “There’s a lot of physical labor. People are cold. People are missing their families. We worry about what’s going to happen with the confrontation. And so it’s this one time where everybody sits down together for half an hour or an hour and enjoys something together.”
Many indigenous volunteers commit to the frontlines like this. Other volunteers have come from around the world, many who have spent their lives embedded in the same fevered Western culture the clan defends itself against. Huson attributes virtually all of the camp’s volunteer support to the work of activist Zoe Blunt, who in 2012 bought a 48-passenger bus, filled it with volunteer and supplies, and traveled to the Unist’ot’en Camp. The annual Unist’ot’en Action Camp includes a week of building structures, workshops on decolonization, and a bridging of the divide between indigenous and non-indigenous cultures.
For those who come from privileged backgrounds, the camp strips away those attitudes — a prerequisite for any successful act of solidarity.
“We live in the truth,” says Toghestiy. “It encourages people to walk away from a mindset that they may have been raised in, that they may be working for, that they may be empowering. It forces them to question that, and once they begin to question that, they start to re-establish a set of moral values within themselves that will change them and begin changing people around them.”
In nearby Houston, B.C., workers in reflective uniforms compare the lengths of their truck beds over breakfast at a local diner. The town’s major industries — logging, mining, and tourism based heavily on steelhead fishing — represented the most acute threat to the unceded Unist’ot’en territory prior to the recent threat of pipelines.
While many of the Unist’ot’en’s greatest obstacles are products of a parochial Western economic system that relies heavily on the type of work done by the clan’s closest Canadian neighbors, camp leaders are forgiving of individuals within the mainstream culture. Those who work with energy companies, as well as those representing their reservations in governmental bands, often make decisions driven by financial need. But Huson is quick to point out that any personal ill will toward them is misguided.
For First Nations, pipeline deals often mean immediate relief for their communities, where unemployment is widespread and more than 25 percent of children live below the poverty line. For Canadians working in the oil industry it’s much the same — earning a living through the mainstream economy is the only option available to provide for their families.
“People make decisions depending on where they’re at and depending on the information they have,” Huson says. “If they don’t have all the information, they’re going to make bad decisions. It’s not their character making them, so you don’t need to bash their character. You just have to question them. ‘How did you arrive at the decision? Do you know all the information? Do you know all of the facts?’ I just tell people, ‘Educate yourselves.’”
As word of the Unist’ot’en occupation has spread, education has become a cornerstone of the camp’s mission. And the cultural drive behind their stand, supporter Mel Bazil says, has created a shockwave among those waking up to the realities of climate change. “It’s a reciprocal culture; it never really ended,” he says. “To share that knowledge outwardly to other grassroots folks — migrants and grassroots settlers, as well as other indigenous nations — it’s been very, very powerful to see our people come together. Not just in the face of devastation and destruction, but to survive and to understand each other.”
Few places on Earth remain as pristine as the Unist’ot’en ancestral lands. Deer, grouse, and the occasional moose or black bear are still hunted and trapped. Berries are gathered. Plants used for medicines still blanket the land. Salmon still make their seasonal runs past the territory with a regularity no longer seen in areas where waterways have been polluted or disturbed. The water from the fast-flowing Wedzin Kwah, which the clan calls its lifeblood, can be drunk straight from the river. In the words of one volunteer, the sound of the river “is very calming and very beautiful. It’s like a thousand whispers. You can just feel so much power, but it’s also very, very gentle.”
First Nations whose territories lie in other Canadian provinces find their ancestral lands restricted by treaties and offering them fewer opportunities to instruct their children on the cultural practices of hunting, trapping, fishing, or gathering berries and medicines outside their impoverished, government-sanctioned reserves. Chief Toghestiy remembers learning traditional ways of survival as a boy. His grandparents took him out onto his clan’s territory and taught him how to hunt, fish, and trap. He would often return with enough trout to feed his entire family. They journeyed to the outer reaches of the mountains and pointed out the boundary lines; his grandparents explained it would someday be his responsibility to protect everything within those boundaries.
For those who may have skipped a generation in learning this responsibility, the Unist’ot’en’s stand acts as a lesson. “There’s a lot of people that come out here with children, and they’re fearless,” Toghestiy says. “They want their children to see: This is people occupying their lands. This is people protecting their territory.”
Living by traditional methods was largely absent for the parents and grandparents of today’s First Nations youth. Niiga Payon Nooke Bineeshe Wook, an Aamjiwnaang man, grapples with whether he will even register his young child with a Canadian birth certificate or within his own Nation’s system. He comes to the Unist’ot’en camp from southwestern Ontario’s Chemical Valley, an area filled with more than 60 chemical plants that have engulfed several First Nations territories. The international border drawn along the St. Clair River is all that divides his land from several more in neighboring Michigan. The First Nations in this area, the most highly polluted in Canada, have endured a string of bizarre health consequences, from a ratio of two females born for every one male to staggering rates of lung cancer and miscarriages.
While at the Unist’ot’en camp, he experienced his first successful grouse hunt — a skill he had put off learning but one that ultimately will aid him in supporting his family. Toghestiy, passing along the lessons of his grandparents, accompanied him.
We always have to be mindful that we are the first people of the headwaters. This water hits us first; it’s our duty that we’re not making decisions that are going to impact clans downstream from us. —Freda Huson
The Unist’ot’en, like most clans, sustained themselves with traditional practices for thousands of years. They now live by two very simple assertions: The responsibilities of traditional law to coexist with the Earth supersede any rights that a government could give the clan, and the wealth offered by the Earth outweighs any number of dollars offered by industry.
“I think [the camp is] still standing because the clan stepped off of all boardroom tables,” Bazil says. “They operate from the land, where assertion belongs. They’re asserting their responsibilities; they’re not fighting for their rights.”
The first snows of the winter have fallen at the Unist’ot’en camp, and the community is well-equipped to weather a long season. The newly insulated Healing Centre provides one more protective structure than was standing a year before. Jars of salmon and preserves line the perimeter of its second floor, stacked waist-high, collected and stored throughout the warm months of abundance.
While the threat of pipelines looms, the camp continues to work on its permanent structures with a confidence that this way of life will stay protected.
When time and the deep snows permit Huson to step away for a moment, she will make her way around Canada to give talks not only in an effort to share the clan’s struggle, but also to empower other land defenders. Chief Toghestiy will return to his territory to build a cabin for his own clan’s occupation; Bazil will meet with comrades across the region. Volunteers will return home to Vancouver or Seattle, Alberta or Ontario. When the warm months come again, more volunteers will arrive.
But before Huson leaves, there is still work to do. She stands under shadows of cedar bark at the center of the unfinished pit house, a traditional Native structure that will one day be covered in earth and serve as her home. The cabin she currently occupies will become a home for the elders, and the Healing Centre will welcome indigenous people from across the continent as a place to come to terms with their struggles and stand in community with others. “I see our vision happening,” Huson says. “We envisioned going back to our territory. We envisioned going back to the land. We envisioned making a prototype so the rest of the Wet’suwet’en can do the same.
“We want to show that this is doable. Move back to your land. Get off the reservations. We don’t need government to live. Just live like this.”
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The Unist’ot’en occupy a unique spot. Hidden in the forests of northern British Columbia, this clan of the Wet’suwet’en First Nation straddles one of the few potable rivers remaining on the continent. In the summer, the water is electric with salmon and steelhead trout beating their unbelievable course from the Pacific to inland spawning waters. The land is ripe with berries, moose, deer, and bear. And trees. A seemingly unending forest — dense, diverse, and once ancient before the grinding of timber saws — carpets the land.
The Unist’ot’en also have something else: potential autonomy. They never fought a foreign nation for their land, never signed it away in a treaty or sold it off to the highest bidder. They occupy one of the few places in North America that hasn’t been officially turned over to a colonial power. Imagine living on your own sovereign piece of the American continent. Fly your own flag.
At one time, this land was seemingly overlooked — a relatively small piece of an unfathomably vast frontier. But even as the focus for riches has shifted from gold to fur to coal to oil, power has always belonged to those who control the routes of trade. The Unist’ot’en, sitting between the oil-rich deposits of Alberta and the coastal portal to global markets, on land that was never surrendered, have a rare opportunity to push back against the march of oil extraction and resource consumption. Their resistance takes the form of a camp set squarely in the path of several proposed pipelines, a small Native group holding its ground against colonial greed. But success hangs on the question: Who, exactly, owns this land?
“Under their own systems of law I have no doubt that it’s their land. In our system, in order to make a claim, you have to prove it,” says Kent McNeil, a professor of property and Aboriginal law at York University in Toronto who has acted as an expert witness on behalf of Aboriginal groups. To date, the province of British Columbia and the Unist’ot’en people have been at a stalemate over what can be proven.
The Unist’ot’en assert that the land has belonged to them since time immemorial. The Canadian government maintains its dominion over everything north of the 49th parallel, though historically it has recognized through the Royal Proclamation of 1763 that land occupied by indigenous people would need to be covered by a treaty before it could be ceded into a colony. While most of Canada gradually worked out a series of treaties, British Columbia failed to finalize negotiations with Native groups. Without a treaty or receipt of sale, neither side has an airtight legal claim. As it stands, the onus is on the clan to prove its exclusive occupation of the land at the time of first contact. That’s Canadian law.
The Unist’ot’en might consider themselves lucky to have had their claim go unnoticed long enough for the powers that be to have shifted their method of determination from the battlefield to the courthouse — not that either has ever offered a level table. Proving Aboriginal title to land in Canada has not been a simple task.
Until as recently as the early 1970s, there was no legal recognition of Native land claims; they were simply handled in court through common law. That changed when Frank Calder, an elder of the Nisga’a First Nation of northern British Columbia, brought a suit against the province. The resulting ruling found that Native title was a legal right that had existed at the time of first contact with Europeans. Less than a decade later, the Canadian government firmed up its protections of Aboriginal land claims in the Constitution Act of 1982.
“In one sense, Aboriginal title is not a special right at all. It is simply a matter of recognizing property rights that, until now, have been wrongfully ignored,” states the B.C. Treaty Commission, an independent treaty facilitator.
“What that means,” McNeil says, “is for the government to be able to justify infringement of these property rights, it’s a pretty high bar.” But it’s no secret that governments can jump.
The story of North American Native-colonial relations is one of broken promises. In the United States, the history of the Nez Perce offers a succinct illustration. For millennia, the Nez Perce had occupied a territory encompassing portions of what are today Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and Montana. As white settlers pushed west, they took land for farming and livestock grazing. The U.S. government worked out an agreement with the Nez Perce in 1855 that established a 7.7 million-acre reservation for the tribe. But industry — back then, gold — brought more and more profit-seeking settlers to the area. Only eight years after signing the first treaty, another U.S. government “agreement” pushed the Nez Perce onto a reservation one-tenth the original size.
It’s a system that’s been working against us from day one, and that’s why we’re forced to do what we’re doing. —Freda Huson
Many First Nations people, and certainly those within the Unist’ot’en resistance camp, see the same cycle playing out today in British Columbia. The Constitution Act may have acknowledged indigenous rights, but it stopped short of actually defining them. Definition was supposed to be handled at a constitutional conference chaired by then Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau within a year of the Constitution’s enactment in 1982. Five years, three conferences, and a new prime minister later, little progress had been made toward any clarification.
In 1984, threatened by industry incursion, the Wet’suwet’en First Nation, of which the Unist’ot’en is a clan, joined the neighboring Gitxsan First Nation in a suit against the province to lock down what constitutional recognition of their rights actually meant.
They asserted ownership of about 22,400 square miles of their historic territory — nearly the size of West Virginia — and compensation for land already lost. The Province countered that the First Nations had no interest in the land. The courts seemed to agree as Chief Justice McEachern of the Supreme Court of British Columbia issued a sweeping and highly controversial ruling dismissing the Wet’suwet’en claims. He decided that Native rights to the land existed at the pleasure of the Crown, which pleased to extinguish them back in 1871 when British Columbia became part of Canada.
The ruling was appealed, and a fruitless effort at negotiation was undertaken. The case, Delgamuukw v. British Columbia, made its way to the Supreme Court of Canada, which in a landmark yet vague victory for the Wet’suwet’en and Gitxsan, made a ruling of no ruling. “They basically avoided the issue,” McNeil says.
This is why the Unist’ot’en have built a blockade to keep government and oil industry representatives out of their territory, and this is why the government and oil industry representatives keep banging on the door: The lack of a binding court decision or treaty keeps the situation unresolved.
Meet Freda Huson.
“It’s a system that’s been working against us from day one, and that’s why we’re forced to do what we’re doing,” says the clan’s spokeswoman, Freda Huson. In August, The Guardian reported that the Crown had invested $30 million over two years on tar sands propaganda, giving weight to concerns that government is an arm of industry.
By not making a ruling on the First Nations’ land claim, the Delgamuukw decision did little to help that perception. However it did set two important precedents that could benefit future Aboriginal cases. First, it included an interpretation of Aboriginal land title that seemingly allowed for outright ownership. Previously, Native use of land was limited to historic purposes: activities like fishing and hunting that existed before white settlers arrived. Aboriginal groups were not able to develop their land to meet the contemporary world. “As a result, they would probably have to assimilate into Canadian culture in order to survive,” McNeil says, “which would no doubt lead to the destruction of their distinctive cultures.”
Secondly, Delgamuukw set an important precedent, allowing oral history to be taken as courtroom evidence. In European law, family stories make for a soft case. “It would be very, very difficult for an oral society to prove its case regarding events more than 150 years in the past if such evidence were not admissible,” says Hamar Foster, a professor of law at the University of Victoria who has written extensively on Aboriginal title. “The point is that both oral history and documentary evidence should be admissible, and both should be subject to scrutiny — not just the oral history.” This more equal weighing of oral evidence could level the legal playing field should the Unist’ot’en decide to take their claim back to court.
The Wet’suwet’en claim is still undecided. The years-long treaty process has been abandoned. Chevron, TransCanada, and Enbridge Inc. pace eagerly on the south bank of the Morice River. From time to time they fly helicopters into some remote part of the territory to conduct environmental assessments. Each time, the Unist’ot’en follow the chop-chop-chop to where the copter lands and tell the intruders to find some other place to take their measurements. “You don’t have our consent to be here,” Huson tells them.
After the Delgamuukw decision, other cases sought further explanation of the rights inherent in Aboriginal title. Among them was a 2004 Supreme Court case involving the Haida Nation of British Columbia, which found an obligation for outsiders to consult with bands in good faith before engaging in any activity. This holds true for the Unist’ot’en, who like the Haida have an unproven claim to territory under threat by resource industries. But the distant reaches of a vast frontier are a tough place to monitor intentions.
In one sense, Aboriginal title is not a special right at all. It is simply a matter of recognizing property rights that, until now, have been wrongfully ignored. —B.C. Treaty Commission
The oil and gas commission awards permits to companies regardless of the clan’s concerns, Huson explains, standing in the camp she has led supporters in building since 2010. “Is this just a formality?” she asks. “You’re asking us, and we tell you no, and you issue the permit anyway.” Despite the mandate for consultation, First Nations do not have authority to turn down a project on their territories.
When seeking a consultation, Huson says industry and government officials often turn to government-established councils or leaders of other clans within the nation who, she asserts, have no right to make decisions for the Unist’ot’en. The Crown, unable or unwilling to recognize the distinctions among individual nations, bands, and clans, turns instead to elected chiefs and councils established under the extremely controversial Indian Act. This legislation grouped communities — often rivals — into a few governmentally recognized bands for ease of management. An elected official, who is neither required to be Native nor living in Canada, makes decisions for the Indian Act bands.
“Territories have never been owned or managed by an Indian Act form of government,” says Toghestiy, a Wet’suwet’en hereditary chief, “but the government decided to try and empower them, to force infighting between the electoral system and the hereditary system.”
Documents obtained by The Guardian in April show that Alberta’s prime minister attempted to fund a task force that would commit First Nations members to promoting support for oil extraction within their own communities in exchange for royalties and investment opportunities.
The first declaration of Aboriginal title in Canadian history was awarded last year to the Tsilhqot’in First Nation, just south of the Unist’ot’en. They had been embroiled in a legal battle with British Columbia over a commercial logging license granted without the band’s approval and claimed Aboriginal title to a portion of their historic territory. The ruling has provided profound hope for First Nations with unceded lands — there are hundreds in British Columbia.
Armed with the success of the Tsilhqot’in decision and a growing pile of progressive legal precedents, the Unist’ot’en have a unique opportunity to make a case for mediated control over a portion of what has always been theirs. Court battles, however, are expensive and offer an all-or-nothing outcome. Another option, the treaty process, is slow, often frustrating, and requires concessions that ultimately result in the relinquishment to Canada of underlying ownership. So the Unist’ot’en have chosen to do what they’ve always done: simply live on the land.
“I can confidently say without any hesitation that these lands belong to us,” Toghestiy says. He recounts his grandmother telling him: “‘When you grow up, you have to look after your territory.’ As I got older, I learned all about the ins and outs of bureaucracy and government, and how you apply for permits and the entire licensing process. And her words came back to me. ‘When you grow up you have to look after your territory.’ She didn’t say I have to go to the government and ask permission to see if I can go onto my territory. She said, ‘When you grow up, you have to look after your territory.’ And it dawned on me that that’s exactly what she meant.”
More than 860 miles northeast of the Unist’ot’en clan’s British Columbia blockade is the Athabasca River valley, where the five First Nations of the region know too well what it’s like to live with Big Oil and Gas in their backyard.
Home to the third-largest proven reserves of crude oil in the world, the Alberta tar sands hold an estimated 175 billion barrels and are exceeded in volume only by Saudi Arabia and Venezuela. Here, First Nations engage in a complex dance of resistance to and cooperation with industry in order to survive.
On a day in late August, a colorful, hand-drawn sign is propped in the front drive of James and Florence Woodward’s home on the Fort McMurray First Nation Reservation. It reads: “Healing Gathering for the Land and Water.”
The Woodwards’ home is perched on the edge of Gregoire Lake, where water gently laps on a curved pebble shore. Whitefish caught that morning dry on a wire mesh hanging over a fire pit in the yard. A tipi is about to be erected in the lawn.
Indigenous and non-indigenous people from across Alberta sit on plastic folding chairs near the water’s edge, holding paper plates filled with seasoned moose meat, warm traditional Bannock bread, and cups of hot Labrador tea. Grown near the lake’s edge, the tea leaves were collected the day before during an elder teaching on medicinal plant usage and foraging techniques.
The Woodwards’ cousin Cleo Reese is a key organizer of this three-day gathering, which includes traditional pipe ceremonies, sweat lodges, language teachings, and a healing prayer walk around the toxic tailings ponds just north of Fort McMurray, on the First Nation’s traditional hunting grounds. “If the land is OK, the people are OK. But if the land needs healing, the people need healing, too,” says Reese.
There’s no more ground water. You can see empty beaver houses, empty ponds everywhere that used to have a lot of water. —James Woodward
The healing walks, begun in 2010, were initially a way to grow support around the issue of tar sands development. They expanded from 300 people to several thousand in 2014, including famed climate activists Naomi Klein and Bill McKibben. This year, the purpose is more inward, Reese says, to reconnect First Nations people with their land, language, and culture — a relationship destabilized by the intergenerational trauma of residential schools throughout the 20th century, and then further degraded by the downturn of the trapping industry and the efforts of government and industry to bring tar sands oil to the world.
North of the Fort McMurray reservation, once-rich boreal forest has been scraped away to make room for new drilling sites. There, the Syncrude refinery looks like a city, with myriad smoke stacks pushing out dark clouds. Directly to the west, megaload trucks carry building-sized machinery parts on Highway 63 — referred to by locals as the “highway to hell” — while 18-wheelers haul lumber, I-beams, and flammable natural gases.
As recently as the 1980s, many indigenous people in this region could rely on fur trapping to provide household income. When the trapping industry suffered a sharp downturn — pelt production fell 62 percent in the early 1990s because of animal rights groups’ vocal opposition — First Nations people were forced to find other means of employment. Oil companies were there to fill the void.
The industry offers jobs, says Reese, whose daughter earns a good income working in the tar sands operation. First Nations also garner economic benefits in exchange for cooperation on development projects. But with the money comes the heartbreak of environmental devastation and the accompanying health issues.
Meet Cleo Reese.
The Fort McKay First Nation is the richest First Nation in Alberta, from oil deals and income brought in by the Nation-owned Fort McKay Group of Companies Limited Partnership, which offers industry services including heavy equipment operation, site servicing, reclamation support, and logistics. Formed in 1986 with a single janitorial contract, the company now reports $150 million in annual revenue, with 1,000 employees, 20 percent of whom are Native.
Jean L’Hommecourt, a traditional land use researcher for the Fort McKay First Nation, is one of the most vocal band members against tar sands development. Despite this, she recognizes that since her community can no longer live off the land, working with industry is essential for the band’s survival. “We have to get into business with the companies in order to get some of that money, some of the resources from our land,” she says.
Resistance to development projects is an extremely expensive and labor-intensive process, says Lisa King, director of the Industry Relations Corporation for the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation. When a company proposes a project, it’s the Industry Relations Corporation that looks at the Environmental Impact Assessment of the project. Under the direction of elders, the Nation decides whether to oppose the project and defend their decision through a lengthy and expensive hearing process or to partner with project developers and reap benefits.
“Just getting your studies and your evidence ready, your scientists ready, getting your communities of people who are out on the land — it’s a lot of work and a lot of money,” says King.
When a Nation decides to partner, that can work as leverage to win contracts for Nation-owned companies that in turn bring jobs and benefits for the community. Lack of capacity and funds, King says, means that the Nation reserves its energy and resources for the biggest, most environmentally destructive projects.
Currently the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation is preparing to fight a proposal by Tech Resources to build another large open pit mine. The hearing is scheduled for 2016.
Former Prime Minister Stephen Harper in 2006 famously claimed that oil extraction from the tar sands was an enterprise akin to China’s Great Wall, “only bigger.” While the size of the reserves is impressive, the simple narrative that the tar sands are producing and exporting oil is a sleight of hand. Rather, what flows through many of the hundreds of pipelines in Alberta is “dilbit” or diluted bitumen, a mixture of a heavy, tar-like hydrocarbon called bitumen mixed with chemically “processed” water, sand, and natural gas condensate. The Natural Resources Defense Council says the substance is “highly corrosive,” “acidic,” and “potentially unstable.”
Many Canadian environmental organizations and First Nations have expressed concern about the impacts of transporting such a chemically volatile substance through pipelines that have a history of ruptures and spills. And Tony Boschmann, the environmental consultation manager for the Fort McMurray First Nation, believes that running dilbit through these pipelines significantly complicates the process of cleanup in the event of spills.
We have to get into business with the companies in order to get some of that money, some of the resources from our land. —Jean L’Hommecourt
One such spill occurred in July 2015, just 5 miles from the Woodwards’ home. When a pipeline owned by Nexen, a Chinese-owned energy company, burst, an estimated 31,500 barrels of dilbit emulsion leaked into the surrounding muskeg and wetlands.
Boschmann toured the site of the spill, describing it as a “mass of tar” spread over an area 980 by 230 feet and 8 to 12 inches deep.
With a standard oil spill, emulsions float on top of the water or land. A bitumen spill behaves differently. When the material cools, tar separates from processed water, sinking into the ground before it can be cleaned.
This leaves a lot of questions as to the full environmental impact of a dilbit spill. Regarding the Nexen spill, Boschmann wonders, “How far will that travel? How much habitat will that effect? How long will that be in the system?”
The lesson for Boschmann “is that the industry hasn’t provided a good case for how to clean [bitumen] up.”
L’Hommecourt remembers a time when the Athabasca River was a highway system that sustained her community. Nation members used the waterways to fish, hunt moose, and trap beaver. With industry pollution, refineries siphoning the river for cooling and processing, and the impacts of climate change, that life is no more, she says. “Now the river is very low. It’s hard to navigate — and dangerous.”
Access to clean water is a major issue for her Nation. Despite an expensive water treatment plant in Fort McKay, residents truck in water for drinking and bathing because carcinogenic chemicals in the local water have caused burns and lesions.
Water tables, James Woodward adds, have dropped all over the region, impacting beaver trapping and fishing. The NRDC has attributed this to the oil industry’s practice of extracting fresh water from underground aquifers to use in mining operations. Woodward, a Fort McMurray First Nation elder, says he and his wife, Florence, still eat very traditionally, relying heavily on fishing, hunting game, and foraging berries but must travel farther and farther each year to find food that has not been contaminated.
“There’s no more ground water,” says Woodward. “You can see empty beaver houses, empty ponds everywhere that used to have a lot of water.”
Meet Jean L'Hommecourt.
Both Woodward and L’Hommecourt have lived in the Athabasca River Valley throughout most of their adult lives. They’re traditional ecological knowledge holders. It’s exactly this kind of long-view historical understanding of the land, Boschmann says, that is so often left out of science reports on potential development impacts on land and people.
Boschmann has proposed having First Nations residents conduct on-the-ground monitoring and then consult with elders to bring elements of that traditional ecological knowledge to dry environmental assessment reports.
The Fort McMurray First Nation has formalized its proposal and currently has five teens trained by Alberta’s Environmental Monitoring and Evaluation and Reporting Agency (AEMERA) in a new youth-to-elder exchange to expand the amount of cultural input in Western reports. Boschmann hopes this form of intergenerational reporting on the land can be used as a template for other First Nations in their fight to be heard.
Trucks speed along the curving highway around the vast Suncor tailings ponds, dikes holding in a shimmering blue-iridescent expanse of processed sands, bitumen, napthenic acids, and heavy metals. When it’s hot, some of the tailings evaporate into the air. After the first rain of the season, says Florence Woodward, a yellow film lines the edges of puddles and car windows.
It’s mid-afternoon at the healing gathering, and a group of 16 indigenous and non-indigenous people stand near the tailings edge, close enough to breathe in the acrid chemicals. Some in the group have only heard about the tailings. Others drive past them every day.
Five grandmothers lead the way to witness for themselves the black muck that wells and crusts on the edge of the ponds. On the water’s surface, disembodied human forms rise from the inky blackness — scarecrows installed to warn away birds from landing on the ponds and dying in the muck.
In the Athabasca River indigenous tradition, grandmothers are the ultimate life-givers. They are the carriers of wisdom and power.
Carefully, they open several small containers of fresh water that they’ve blessed and add it to the tailings — an offering of healing and a prayer to keep on fighting.
Mel Bazil, also a longtime supporter of the Unist’ot’en, says indigenous peoples have already begun to face the harsh realities of climate change around the world. “[The land] needs healing,” he says. “We can’t depend on it in completion right now — there’s so much of it that’s in pain. Part of that healing is leaving it alone, allowing it to regenerate — the Earth can take care of herself. But we have to step in front of new companies looking to destroy it further.”
Toghestiy is a hereditary chief of his clan and has supported the camp since the very beginning. He says: “We live in the truth. It encourages people to walk away from a mindset that they may have been raised in, that they may be working for, that they may be empowering. It forces them to question that, and once they begin to question that, they start to re-establish a set of moral values within themselves that will change them and begin changing people around them.”
Cleo Reese is an environmental activist and band councillor for Alberta’s Fort Murray No. 468 First Nation. She has been a central organizer in the annual healing walks that have taken place in Alberta since 2010. “If the land is OK, the people are OK. But if the land needs healing, the people need healing, too,” Reese says.
A traditional land use researcher for the Fort McKay First Nation, Jean L’Hommecourt is an outspoken activist on the impacts that the tar sands have had on her community. Her community used to rely on the Athabasca River to fish and travel. “Now the river is very low. It’s hard to navigate — and dangerous.”