Tag Archives: Canadian First Nations

Losing our Experimental Lakes

19 Mar
Photo:J. Tyler Bell

Photo:J. Tyler Bell

The closing of the famous Experimental Lake Area research station in northern Ontario was announced almost a year ago,  and its dismantling is apparently already underway.

As is a way of thinking that holds that a clean environment is something worth preserving.

Just imagine this amazing piece of nature — 58 lakes surrounded by forest, where for the past 45 years scientists have made the kinds of discoveries that enhance the value of our freshwater resources — and compare it to the simultaneously smug yet boring features of Tory government ministers and their obsession with the Alberta tar sands.

It makes a picture that, in many ways, illustrates only too clearly the frightening prejudices of our small-minded prime minister, Stephen Harper, and his acolytes — as well as the sharp sense of frustration the more than 60 per cent of us who didn’t vote for them must be feeling.

It was the evidence amassed by ELA scientists that stopped the use of phosphates in detergents and fertilizers. Studies there also made an open-and-shut case against the sulphur oxide pollution from the south that caused acid rain.  As Andrew Nikiforuk, one of Canada’s best environmental journalists, put it in an article last year, “The project not only broadened the world’s horizons on water with more than 750 peer reviewed studies and 120 graduate theses, but provided hard data on the impact of industrial activities on the world’s most critical resource.”

What’s more, the costs of this useful scientific activity were not particularly high — especially when compared to the amounts the Harper government wants to spend on fighter jets, or already spends on the emoluments of our idle and self-congratulatory senators.

And worse, its loss — described by one foreign scientist in Nikiforuk’s article as “the kind of act one expects from the Taliban in Afghanistan, not from the government of a civilized and educated nation” — is only one measure in the Tories’ quest to eviscerate the environmental protections previously afforded to land, air, lakes and rivers throughout Canada.

The Tory government has also taken away funding of the Arctic Institute of North America’s Kluane Research Station, axed the seven-person team of smokestack specialists that worked with both enforcement officers and industry to stop air pollution and is closing the entire Department of Fisheries and Oceans contaminants program next month.

And that is aside from removing environmental protections from aboriginal lands, firing hundreds of scientist from government departments and putting the kibosh on journalists simply contacting and interviewing a relevant scientist for an article without getting permission from Ottawa first — the way we used to.

Little wonder that (now unemployed) killer whale expert Peter Ross was moved to express that “(i)t is with apprehension that I ponder a Canada without any research or monitoring capacity for pollution in our three oceans, or any ability to manage its impacts on commercial fish stocks, traditional foods to over 300,000 aboriginal people, and marine wildlife.”

In fact, apprehension is an understatement. Fear is more probably what we should be feeling. With the determination to push through tar sands pipelines, the disdain for science and the loss of the unique environmental laboratory that was the Experimental Lakes Area, we are now more than ever at the mercy of contaminants, pollution, climate change — and proudly ignorant politicians.

More Idle No More and the Two Row Wampum

1 Feb
The Two Row Wampum

The Two Row Wampum

Earlier this week, I went to an event organized by Idle No More at our city hall as part of an international day of action to press their demands now that parliament is back in session. It seemed like a good opportunity to listen to what some of the movement’s participants had to say.

The first person I spoke with wasn’t even supposed to be there, she told me. A teacher at a Six Nations Reserve school – and officially an employee of the federal government — she had been obliged to sign a new “code of ethics,”  she told me, “or we’d lose our jobs. And it had in there no protesting.” That’s why she couldn’t tell me her name she added.  “We can’t talk about it. We can’t talk to our kids about Idle No More when it has everything to do with their future.”

But she was also the first person who spoke to me about the Two Row Wampum. This is a belt with two rows of purple beads and three rows of white, which codified the relationship, first for Iroquois but later for other native groups as well, set up between them and European colonizers in the 17th century.

The purple rows represent two boats, the native canoe and the European ship, sailing the same waters on their own independent trajectories. “The two lines are never supposed to touch each other or intersect,” she said, meaning neither could pass laws that would interfere in the steering of their craft.

Whether Canadian governments of the past have respected the intent of such an agreement is certainly open to argument but now, with the Conservative government and their omnibus bills, that policy of non-interference or imposition of dependency has certainly gone by the wayside.

Rather, said one speaker, “We are being run off a cliff by people who don’t know what they are doing.”

But what kind of movement is this exactly? This is a question I am still trying to answer. I got much closer after speaking to a young man named Earl Lambert.

INM’s goals is not so much to devise native-led solutions to endemic native poverty in Canada, he said, but “to bring awareness of specific issues that are being ignored by our provincial and federal governments, and poverty is one of them.

So we want to raise awareness around those issues, but we don’t want to stray from the core unifying theme of Idle No More, which is to stand up for our land, our territories, and our right to make decisions about our environment.”

Different communities have different agendas and priorities, especially if one has resources an another does not. “You’re going to have  two different outlooks on how they want to be dealt with on a nation to nation basis by the fed government,” said Mr. Lambert, “ but it’s not something you can put a band aid on and say, ‘okay, everything’s fixed now.’ I think it’s  something that has to be individually addressed, from province to province, region to region or nation to nation.”

So what is next for this movement? “This is just another seed being planted today,” said Mr. Lambert. “This is my 13th rally, so I see the seed being nurtured, and what we want to see is different nationalities come together, so people understand that this is about our children. It’s about our future. It’s about protecting our environment. It’s not just an Indian thing; it’s something that affects all of us.”

“Hopefully, he added, more and more people “will come on board and  say, ‘Right  on. Thanks for taking a stand, for not being afraid to get out there and speak up.”

What’s Next for Idle No More?

14 Jan


I think that, for most people, it is by now a given that we don’t want things to go on as they have been for — if not all  — a sizeable majority of Canada’s First Nations.

I don’t believe anyone — or anyone serious — opposes the idea of native people living in better, more prosperous communities, free of the devastating problems that assail so many of them.

It only makes sense that the people who were already here when Europeans arrived should have rights over the land and resources that might get them there, and at the same time be able to take more responsibility for, and wield more decision-making power over, their lives.

So for many of us, the big question is: will the Idle No More movement that is gathering both steam and media attention across the country will accomplish this?

The other day I spoke to a friend who lives and works in a Dene community in the Northwest Territories, counting on her in-depth knowledge for some guidance. I guess what is puzzling me is the divergence I see between the movement’s grassroots vibrancy, on the one hand, and on the other, the tendency for discussions about the future restricted to the Canadian government and various leaders of existing and official organizations like the Assembly of First Nations. If neither entity has, over the past few years, succeeded in pioneering positive change, I can’t help but wonder what they will come up with now.

What’s more, as my friend D. pointed out, with the critique of the official leadership that is emerging in Idle No More, it has become obvious that for many native Canadians, there is a feeling that a lot of their official leaders are, as she put it, “in the pockets of industry and the federal government.”

Right now, the one unifying factor within the movement is its outright opposition to the Conservative government’s Omnibus Bill that, they say, will remove rather than enhance their few rights. According to D., Bill C-45’s multiple proposed provisions are both thorough and dangerous. “The amount of detail in there is incredible,” she said.

One example: reforms to the Fisheries Act that will redefine fish habitat deserving protection only as areas that are currently fished. That means areas left alone for a few years, whether to allow stocks to rebuild or whatever reason, could be open to exploitation.

It is at the grassroots, however, where Idle No More is most interesting and open-ended and potentially innovative. This is the bigger part of the picture: tens of thousands of native Canadians and Metis all over the country mobilizing and talking about the need for change. They are using social media, the traditional media and a vibrant cultural language to get their message across.

For D., the way Idle No More has got “a lot people who would never even have remotely imagined doing something like that” taking action is an example of its growing resonance.

That the message is still inchoate should come as no surprise. Maybe, like the Occupy Movement, Idle No More has not come up with a clear set of proposals outlining all the changes First Nations want to see. But we are the ones who have tended to lump together vastly different peoples, language groups and cultures into one stereotypical Indian for centuries. Having said that, some organizations, like Defenders of the Land and Taiaiake Alfred’s Wasase, have offered up some specific demands.

One of my biggest unanswered questions has to do with the hunger strike protest strategy of Attawapiskat chief Theresa Spence: to be honest, I don’t agree with hunger strikes, considering them an individualist response that bars participation from others. This hunger strike, nonetheless, proved to be the main catalyst for the movement’s starting up. So maybe I am wrong, although I am still unclear about its implications.

Because one implication is that some, possibly many, Canadians will see it as a kind of blackmail. As ‘do what I want or I’ll kill myself.’ So while the prime minister finally agreed to meet with indigenous leaders last Friday, I have little faith that he will do a U-turn on Bill C-45 and his dreams of forcing our environment to meet our fiscal wish list.

And he could very well appeal instead to the side of Canadians that is racist and anti-Indian, that is convinced that the squalid living conditions, social ills and addictions that plague many native communities, are the fault of natives themselves — the Deloitte  & Touche audit of Attawapiskat’s finances being one such example.

So maybe we do need some clarity. Maybe we do need to see more of a dialogue, not between leaders but among ordinary people, both native and non-native.

My research on grassroots social movements in the developing world revealed, I believe, some useful examples of what to look for. And these include the notion that the poor and disenfranchised are better and more capable of proposing and working out solutions to their multitude of problems than the state. They may work with the state but they also topple the top-down paradigm of devising and delivering improvements. The National Slum Dwellers Federation, with its emphasis on community savings, community policing, housing designed according to the needs and specifications of the poor, and value change, is one of the clearest exponents, I’d say, of this way of thinking about and making change.

The combination of short-term struggle and long-term strategies in the Landless Rural Workers Movement in Brazil is another, while in Indonesia, I see another movement that embraces another truly vast area and plethora of different cultures united under a similar quest for rights.

So I will be watching Idle No More for the next few weeks, and hopefully longer, trying to answer the questions: what’s next for Idle No More? What’s next for Canada’s First Nations?




Tar babies

19 Sep

Originally uploaded by Greenpeace International

The Petroleum Producers Association of Canada is running a series of promotional spots on television these days. They show nice, just-regular people who happen to work for them in technical capacities, showing us all the great tree-planting and water filtering the Alberta tar sands industry takes on as it extracts usable fuel from the difficult oil laden bitumen.
Yet it is just as difficult to look at some of the deformed fish that are appearing in ever-larger numbers in Lake Athabaska, which is downstream from the oil sands. They have tumours and lesions and missing spines. Their bodies are loaded with contaminants and, as Robert Grandjambe told a Canadian Press reporter, “A lot of people are afraid to eat fish from the lake.”

Various scientific studies have found toxins in the lake, and local doctors are noticing higher-than-average rates of auto-immune diseases, cancer and other medical conditions among the residents of nearby communities. What’s more, another study done a few years ago found that average Albertans gain little from the tar sands boom, with massive profits going to the oil industry and their suppliers alone.

It takes two tonnes of the bitumen to produce a barrel of oil. The process of steam injection and refining it generates anywhere to two to four times the amount of greenhouse gasses per barrel of oil as the production of conventional oil. And six square metres of tailing are created for just one square metre of the bitumen to be mined. Those tailings now sit in extensive ponds, lakes really, of toxic sludge that kill thousands of migratory birds every year. What’s more a 2007 report for one company, Suncor, found that 5 million litres of polluted water had leaked from its lake into the groundwater.

But both the provincial government of Alberta and the Harper government are shrugging off the plethora of studies showing just how damaging the tar sands industry is turning out to be. Since it represents hundreds of millions of dollars of investment and is now responsible for at least half of all petroleum mining in Canada – the largest supplier of oil to the United states – they working hard at maintaining the fiction that this industry is largely benign.

Just like the green, sun-dappled images of those television spots. In reality, only about 2 per cent of ruined land has been reclaimed – a little more than one square kilometre of the 602-square kilometer total. 

The tar sands industry is making itself a lot of money with this archaic energy source. But at the same time, it’s giving rise to successive generations of sick people and even sicker wildlife: Canada’s tar babies, being born into an increasingly devastated environment.
To learn more about the human and environmental toll, check out Tar Sands Watch, and its roster of frightening statistics.