Contributed by Maia Wikler
In northern Alberta, the Athabsca River flows north past boreal forest, peat and muskeg. This forested landscape and watershed are the traditional lands of the Cree, Dene and Metis among other First Nations, who have lived a semi-nomadic foraging lifestyle since time immemorial. The boreal forest is also 1.3 billion acres of wild habitat home to an array of species — from large carnivores to nesting migratory birds to thousands of plant varieties, while simultaneously capturing carbon pollution and filtering millions of gallons of water. Yet, in the era of global warming and relentless fossil fuel development, Indigenous communities are now the frontlines to protect the forests and ecosystems necessary to combat the excess of industrial emissions. With an oil-hungry border neighbor, the U.S., importing 99% of Canada’s oil exports, and Canada’s Prime Minister Trudeau gleefully declaring, “no country would find 173 billion barrels of oil in the ground and just leave them there,” the boreal forest, water ways and frontline communities are along the path of devastation.
As forests are cleared, waterways drained, borders and territories demarcated, pollutants released into the atmosphere — northern Alberta has become ground zero. The very space is a fraught historical product, from which enlightenment thinking and a Newtonian view of space manifested in treaties as a political technology to control indigenous mobility and exploit the oil sands terrain. The very nature of tar sands development has changed the local atmosphere into one of dangerous toxicity, while intensifying physical effects upon the frontline communities, which are mostly Indigenous. This is being called a slow industrial genocide. The stakes are high in Alberta, set by petro-politics, and Indigenous communities are fighting for their lives in a landscape of contested power.
To understand Canada’s relation to this space, history must recognized. Although Canada’s rapid expansion of oil sands took off in 2004, coinciding with a rise in oil prices, sights had been set on developing tar and oil from the banks of the Athabsca as early as 1793. Explorer Sir Alexander Mackenzie noticed tar and oil oozing from the banks of the Athabasca that other explorers had failed observe and speculate on its future potential. Following his discovery, the Geological Survey of Canada pursued this lucrative petrol potential and published a report in 1875 revealing ‘almost inexhaustible supplies’ of oil and estimated that there were 4,700 million tons of tar in the region as well as natural gas, bitumen, oil and pitch. These surveys and exploratory observations confirmed that the area was richer in mineral resources than previously thought. This promising discovery spurred unregulated settlement and the beginning of resource extraction in the north. The production of territory by the Canadian state begins.
Just as the intellectual and physical mapping of Alberta spurred this petrol manifesto, the common premise of resources for the taking is evident in Canadian logic for territorial control. By reducing place to a pin-pointed spot, as done with the Geological Survey of Canada, space becomes absolute and purely quantifiable, measurable and a dominant tool in not only the sciences but for the state. The Newtonian notion of absolute space having no relation to something external and remaining the same no matter what happens in its midst is relevant in settler space production. This 17th century approach toward space as if it were a disembodied entity creates a crude reductionism of space that perpetuates its ability to be commodified and sold in its purely abstract view. This idea of making space out of a blank environment entails that to begin with there is a spatial spread waiting for cultural configuration, which is the driving notion behind settler-colonialism.
In 1899, Treaty 8 was signed, which covers most of northern Alberta, parts of British Columbia, Saskatchewan, the Northwest Territories, and the Yukon — 840,000 square kilometers. The treaty process was a direct result of the Geological Survey of Canada and served Western notions of property, economy and progress. The treaties were created to secure mineral resources, extinguish aboriginal title and allow further settlement in the area. The British empire’s legal term terra nullius, thus Canada’s colonial logic, conveniently deemed an area uninhabited even if Indigenous people lived there to justify their seizure and settlement of new colonies. Abstraction was the state’s ultimate tool.
For Canadians, the treaty was a legitimate surrender, but for Indigenous peoples, the concept of private, let alone state property, did not resonate with such absolute power. Most treaties and land ‘surrenders’ were signed after First Nations had already lost control of their territory and the only choice was to lose land with a treaty or to lose it without one. First Nations viewed the most vital aspect of the treaty to be their right to subsistence from the land as their lives and culture depend upon hunting, fishing and plant harvesting. By considering the legal and technical together, the relation of the state to the emergence of space, the complexities of Alberta’s territory can be better understood as it continues to impact human and environmental rights in the 21st century.
Whereas terra nullius was the term for treaty logic, “carbon nullius” has been used to describe how boreal forest carbon management and climate change discourse designates the Canadian boreal forest as a carbon reservoir and wilderness space, thus erasing the up to 35,500 aboriginal people situated throughout it.
Technological control of terrain operates from enlightenment notions of space and science that negates the connected affects of all entities such as land, water, air, plants etc. Indigenous peoples in northern Alberta have developed a particular sensitivity to what they are interacting with, in this case the pollutants and toxins in their environment. There is heightened awareness of land and wildlife changes from increased levels of toxic contamination in waterways and deforestation. At the core of the tar sands conflict in Indigenous communities is the tension between what the body can and can’t do in such altered spaces. The Western norms where autonomy and control is held by humans is a driving principle behind oil sands development, however perceptive frontline communities challenge these norms.
Northern Alberta is ground zero for what has been dubbed a ‘slow industrial genocide.’ Tar sands mining has changed Northern Alberta from a pristine environment rich in cultural and biological diversity to a landscape resembling a war zone marked with 200-feet dip pits and thousands of acres of destroyed boreal forest. The oil sands development not only alienates native peoples from their land by driving them off it but also by way of its toxic contamination. Smokestacks release pollutants into the air while toxic tailings wastewater leaks at 11 million liters per day into the ground and flows downstream into Indigenous communities. Rivers, lakes and wetlands are drained to subsidize the enormous quantities of water needed to force bitumen from the ground. As 82 percent of Athabasca’s river water is used for tar sands extraction, the little water that remains is poisoned by toxins released from above and below-ground discharges that leach out of tailing ponds. This river, the primary source of water and nourishment for Indigenous communities and the wildlife that sustains them, now has elevated levels of several contaminants including naphthenic acids, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, and heavy metals.
“It had to have been something from the water, air or land,” a 17-year old Indigenous girl said when she contracted cancer. Her cousin has testicular cancer, her aunt died of uterine cancer and her sister has terminal cancer. Chemicals found in the water include arsenic, led and phenols. Dene, Cree and Metis First Nations live close to or actually in the midst of these tar sand deposits, mostly along the Athabasca River basin area. People most at risk of health effects are those who eat food from the land and drink the water, which is almost inevitable since Indigenous communities continue to subsist on a diet of fish and wild game. The remote Fort Chipewyan community, for example, has an 80 percent subsistence diet.
The physical and lethal impacts of such atmospheric changes were made public in 2006 by local doctor, John O’Connor who exposed the abnormal rates of deadly diseases such as leukemia, lymphoma, lupus, colon cancer, Graves’ disease, bile duct cancer among others that are a direct consequence of steadily rising carcinogens in sediments and waterways from tar sands mining.
In response to Dr. O’Connor, the Alberta College of Physicians and Surgeons brought a formal complaint against him for causing “undue alarm,” while the government continued to ignoring evidence of toxic contamination on downstream Indigenous communities. Do the elusive affects of atmosphere and materiality rid federal government and oil industry of responsibility? Current mainstream perceptions of the body, space and connected affects conveniently disqualify bodily reasoning. The oil industry and Canadian government plan to expand tar sands production to six million barrels of oil per day, which would increase ocean acidification, contribute astounding levels of CO2 into the atmosphere, and toxic carcinogenic pollution would be carried around the earth by wind, water, tankers and pipelines. The oil sands logic continues to reside in bounded notions of space and 17th century notions of human control.
These manufactured landscapes are far from being static yet imaginations of science combined with legislative technology continue to justify its expansion. For example, Judge Tremblay-Lamer accepted Imperial’s claims that peatlands, which are destroyed by tar sands mining, could be reclaimed even though Imperial agreed with environmental groups’ assertion that how to reclaim peatlands is not even known. And, even if all reclamation projects on approved tar sands mines are achieved, 29,555 hectares of peatland will be lost which would result in the release between 41.8 and 173.4 million tons of stored CO2. Environmental changes will not stop at the boundary of the resource nor do they function on a horizontal plain of predictability. This is the ultimate ‘fallacy of concreteness’. Despite treaty right infringements and potentially devastating climate impacts, tar sands expansion continues under the guise of Canadian values for the efficient mastery of nature.
In a convergence of technology, history and geography, the concept of borders works to be a productive tool for the U.S. and Canada. The homogeneity cultivated in these shared borders works in favor of both state’s interests and the interests of capitalist conglomerates. The most important factor in this oil partnership is border reliability as other large oil reserves is no longer sufficient with the Western world’s war on terror. Regions with large oil reserves, like the Persian Gulf with 725 billion barrels, are high risk. Vulnerable supply routes and military threats means most sources of conventional oil supply carries with it its own spatial, logistical, and political complications, preventing the US from the security and sufficiency of supply it needs. Canada has the world’s second largest oil reserve, the tar sands, and offers reliable political and geographical convenience . With the legislative support of the North American Free Trade Agreement, 90 percent of US imported natural gas is from Canada. There is even a popularized trope of ethical oil as opposed to conflict oil from oppressive and environmentally reckless regimes.
Through complex relations between the state, national security forces, private industry, the rapid and massive proliferation of oil sands development in the Athabasca tar sands have all been made possible by notions of boundaries and dismissal of Indigenous sovereignty. Yet, both industry and government recognize its territory, bounded through political jurisdiction, is becoming increasingly porous due to shifting global interconnectedness and ideologies and in response have criminalized dissent to the tar sands project. The establishment of legislative and organizational structures that position any opposition to oil sands development as an affront to Canadian identity has become key.
The technologies of settlement and domination are shared between the government and stakeholders. In a 2009 report for the Canadian Defense and Foreign Affairs institute, author Tom Flanagan suggests eco-terrorists, mainstream environmentalists and the First Nation and Metis people will incite violent and extra-legal resistance to industrial projects. The report was prepared for a leading oil and gas lawyer, former Enbridge and TransCanada Pipelines Limited executive, a Royal Banks executive, Vice President of the Calgary Petroleum Club, a Senator and several members of the Canadian Armed forces — all of whom make of the Canadian Defense and Foreign Affairs institute.
In this spectacle of surveillance begins the disappearance of spaces for democratic dissent, without these individuals can’t participate in critical engagement. This is a key theme in politics of inclusion and exclusion, operated through the discourse of terrorism and enforced through legal technology. Canada has a long history of surveilling indigenous peoples, from the Indian Act Status cards and the reserve pass system to Inuit numbered identification disks. Surveillance combined with military actions used by the colonial state are instigated by fears of indigenous resistance to colonial projects and the potential economic and political costs of activism, protests and blockades. Flanagan was concerned that if people united for a single movement, they could become a serious obstacle to development. To avoid this unity of people, the government and oil industry promotes a strategy of division and non-cooperation as the best way to ensure the ‘security’ of the tar sands. While the national RCMP surveillance program monitored First Nations communities from 2007–2010 share intelligence reports about First Nations with the private sector. In 2007, Defense Minister O’Connor released a report on the ‘rise of radical Native American organizations.’ Two years later, the RCMP and Criminal Intelligence mandate focused on conflicts in Indigenous communities that may escalate into civil disobedience and unrest with focuses on threats to infrastructure.
While the oil companies influence the public through greenwashing campaigns, the police, military, intelligence and border control agencies combine forces to criminalize and surveille any resistance to the tar sands. The state deals with such fears through legislation. Harper’s government built a ‘legislative fortress’ around the tar sands with oil companies and the Alberta government in the 2007 greenhouse gas emission legislation that allows industry to increase overall emissions to ensure industrial growth and that the ‘Alberta Agenda’ is not affected. Following this, Bill C-45 was passed in 2012 which gutted environmental assessments and changed the Navigable Waters Act by removing protections from 2.8 million bodies of water to less than 100. This attitude of power and control is the driving spirit of the technical-state system.
The European-colonial gaze of nature as external to culture — something that humans can manage and control through technical scientific knowledge or extract and commodify through a capitalist economy, is the epitome of Canada’s identity and relationship to terrain. However, First Nations are strongly asserting their opposition to tar sands destruction and colonialism, especially after the Supreme Court ruling that gives them greater power to control such projects on their land. This resistance presents a rupture in the colonial concept of land ownership through dispossession that has persisted in Canada for centuries. The battle over the ongoing tar sands expansion has come down to the fundamental right to exist. Many indigenous communities feel they are in the final stages of a battle for survival that began in the late 17th century. Tar sands development has entirely changed the Athabasca delta and watershed landscape with massive deforestation of the boreal forests, open-pit mining, depletion of watersheds, toxic contamination, and severe forcible disruption of Indigenous communities.
Public futures are at stake where multiple technologies interact to create complex terrains in which consequential health, human rights and environmental impacts are neglected. Yet, Indigenous communities and allies are asserting an embodied connection to space through mobility and resistance, directly challenging colonial spaces.
Because capitalism tends toward homogeneity without fully accomplishing it, differential space exists in Indigenous resistance as spaces are produced against the domination of abstract space under capitalism. Activists and allies took to the streets in what was one the largest protests of the tar sands in Washington D.C., 2011 to demand President Obama’s rejection of the Keystone Pipeline. That same year, environmentalist Bill McKibben and 64 other protestors were jailed for a sit-in at the White House to oppose the tar sands with the slogan “We Sit in Against the Keystone XL Pipeline. Obama Will You Stand Up to Big Oil?”. As Deleuze wrote, whoever can conquer the streets also conquers the state. Indigenous and non-Indigenous self-determined assertions of movement are important forms to reclaim power in a space that the state works so tirelessly to control. It is clear both industry and government recognize its territory is becoming increasingly porous. As both indigenous and non-indigenous communites continue to rise, reclaim, and engage tar sands resistance, it might not be, as climatologist James Hansen says “game over for the climate.”
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