by Arij Riahi
In early July I traveled to Fort McMurray, Alberta. The booming oil town– sometimes renamed Fort McMoney– is located 400 kilometres northeast of Edmonton. It is also the very centre of the country’s largest industrial project.
As we drive deep into tar sands territory the trees on each side of Highway 63 get dark and flimsy. Only their skinny trunks are visible; their boreal foliage is blackened. Whatever the cause of their sickliness, the sight was an apt prelude.
I traveled to participate in the Healing Walk, a yearly event organized by the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation and the Keepers of the Athabasca, a group of First Nations, Metis, Inuit, and settler allies working for the protection of land, water, and air along the Athabasca River, which flows through the tar sands. The walk, based in ceremony and led by elders, lasted over six hours. Participants circled the petrochemical facilities of the Canadian oil producer Syncrude and witnessed the destructive impact of tar sands development.
The visuals are overwhelming. The landscape’s desolation scrolls as the environmental destruction speeds up. During the 14 kilometres of the Healing Walk, we must wear masks. Less than an hour after we begin marching, several people complain of headaches. At one moment, I took off my mask to lick my lips. A sulfurous taste greeted my tongue. I felt like I was soaking in the fumes of hydrocarbons. In the distance, a vertical tower spits into the sky smoke so thick and white that it mixes with the clouds to the point where it’s impossible to tell where one ends and the other begins.
The sight is undeniably shocking. However, the fact that indigenous nations are directly bearing the burden of this environmental destruction is downright offensive. Oil sands development has a disproportionate negative impact on First Nations, which are usually located in the vicinity of polluting facilities.
With the movement against tar sands growing and raising concerns about our oil dependence, it is time to open a frank conversation about environmental racism. It is time to talk about how environmental policy in Canada might be resting on colonial premises.
There is no arguing that Indigenous peoples in Canada are the most severely impacted by the oil sands. The highly sought after bitumen is buried underneath their traditionnal territory. From soaring cancer rates– with increased incidence of very rare ones– to the inability to hunt or fish on their land, the cumulative impact of oil sands is deadly. It threatens their livelihood. During the Healing Walk, a member of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation described the situation as “slow genocide.”
Intended or not, there are racist consequences to environmental policy in Canada. Resource extraction on native land rests on a highly misguided sense of entitlement. The land that was stolen is now being degraded by the same colonial mindset.
The problem is recurrent throughout the country. To put it simply, most indigenous communities are living downstream of the tar sands.
The example of Aamjiwnaang First Nation is the most telling. Located in Sarnia, southern Ontario, the area has the worst air quality in Canada, according to a 2011 report from World Health Organization. There are over 60 petroleum facilities processing tar sands oil in a 25-kilometre radius. And they are sitting just five kilometres away from the Ojibwe community.
Indigenous communities have long understood the coherence and depth of Canada’s colonial policy. Land defenders are continuously posing barriers to the expansion of industrial projects, creating geographical pockets of resistance against state jurisdiction and policy-making. It might be time for us settler allies to take the time to hold our government accountable and ask the hard questions. It might be time to understand, listen, and stand behind First Nations. When indigenous rights are respected, we all benefit.
(Photo by the author)