Could First Nations end the tar sands destruction?


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Our recent article about indigenous issues in North America was obviously very well timed, as there have been two major breakthroughs on the issue since writing it – both of them in Canada. Firstly, the city of Vancouver, on Canada’s western coast, has officially recognized that it was built on First Nations land (First Nations is the equivalent Canadian term to ‘Native Americans’ in the US) that was never officially given up by treaty. People simply turned up and built on the land, without any concern for the legality of what they were doing or the ownership of the resources they were using. This will, of course, not change anything – Vancouver isn’t going to pack up and move to a different part of the country, after all – but it is a highly symbolic acknowledgement of the events of the past.

More importantly, the Supreme Court of Canada this week also announced that it recognizes the Tsilhqot’in tribe of British Columbia as a ‘nation’ who never surrendered their land to the Canadians and therefore have the right to govern themselves and do whatever they like with their territory. This is a landmark ruling on First Nations rights, and one which has been going through the courts for twenty years. In terms of showing respect for the native peoples of the Americas this is huge, and it also shows that Canada is light years ahead of the USA in such matters; but the most immediate effect might be on energy policy.

Canada’s most famous energy resource (at least in recent years) has been the tar sands around Fort McMurray in northern Alberta province. This is a region with a heavy First Nations presence, and many of the campaigns against the tar sands have focused on the health and livelihood effects they have had on local native people, as well as their environmental destruction. Getting the tar sands oil from northern Alberta to other parts of the country, continent, and world, also requires threading oil pipelines through land that may now be recognized as being owned by First Nations. This declaration by the Supreme Court suddenly seems to make building these pipelines much more difficult, as it accepts that native people have the right to say no to them.

Such a possibility is very bad news for energy companies. There may be a few First Nations who are willing to accept pipelines in exchange for employment opportunities and royalties from the sale of the oil, but the vast majority will be against the despoiling of their land and the destruction of the environment. There have already been multiple anti-pipeline protests in indigenous areas of the country, including British Columbia and Ontario, and with some First Nations even going to Washington to protest US support for the Keystone XL pipeline that will take tar sands oil down to the Gulf of Mexico.

All of this means that the increasing acknowledgement of the rights of First Nations in Canada could be vitally important not just to the native people themselves, but also to those of us interested in sustainable, clean energy. There is now the very real chance of one of the most damaging energy sources in the world being cut off, with no possibility of actually transporting tar sands oil to anywhere outside of Fort McMurray itself. This could force the governments of Canada and the US – and perhaps other countries that were hoping to import tar sands oil – to re-evaluate their priorities when it comes to energy, and to start investing in serious sustainable alternatives. The First Nations already understand the destructive power of fossil fuels – it’s time for the rest of us to follow their lead.


Article prepared by John Wish

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