“The white man made us many promises, but he kept only one. He promised to take our land and he took it.”
-- Manpiya Luta, Red Cloud, 1882
The world’s largest known hydrocarbon resource is neither in Iraq nor in Saudi Arabia. The oil sands in the western Canadian province of Alberta comprise the largest known hydrocarbon reserves -- estimated at over 300 billion barrels of currently recoverable oil. (1) The oil sands contain bitumen, a viscous mixture of hydrocarbons that requires melioration into crude oil before it can be refined into various fuels. Recovery of the oil is energy intensive, environmentally disruptive, and expensive (although the soaring cost of oil is making extraction more profitable).
The oil sands are found in three different deposits in northern Alberta: Athabasca, Peace River and Cold Lake. Situated east of Peace River is the 10,000 square kilometer traditional territory of the Lubicon Lake First Nation, a Cree community of about 500 people.
The community was overlooked when the federal government sought treaties with First Nations in the area in 1899. Since then, the federal government has neglected its responsibility to look after the best interests of the Lubicon while the Alberta government began to sell off the resources to corporate interests.
The presence of oil and minerals in Lubicon territory attracted the oil company, Petro-Canada, and other Big Oil interests such as Shell and Imperial Oil. Japanese logging giant Daishowa came to clear-cut trees on Lubicon territory.
University of Colorado Ethnic Studies professor Ward Churchill wrote, “The Canadian state itself exists on the basis of the expropriation of native land and resources, the subordination of native polities.” (2) The tiny Lubicon nation finds itself a minority population pitted against different levels of government, multinational corporations, and a settler court system.
Capitalist exploitation of the traditional
territory of the Lubicon Lake First Nation persists. In 2002, over 1,700
well sites and several kilometers of pipelines had already been erected
in Lubicon territory. (3) The federal government and
Alberta government are complicit in this theft of Lubicon land and
The ultimate aim is assimilation of Original Peoples and their territory. In 1920, an official of the Department of Indian Affairs stated the Canadian government’s intention toward the Original Peoples with surprising candor: “Our objective is to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed into the body politic and there is no Indian question, and no Indian Department...” (5) The decolonization struggle of Original Peoples is epitomized in the Pacific coast province of British Columbia (BC) where a corporate-governmental collaboration is arrayed against them. Examples abound: the Haida Gwaii First Nation are at loggerheads with timber-falling behemoth Weyerhaeuser, the Secwepemc people struggle for rights to their territory, which they call Skwelkwek'welt. (6)
As recently as one generation ago, the Lubicon reaped a subsistence living from their territory. This has changed. It was reported, “From 1979 to 1983, the moose killed for food drops 90% from 219 to 19, trapping income drops 90% from $5000 in 1979 to $400 per family. The welfare rate shoots up from under 10% to over 90%.” (7)
The result is the impoverishment of the Lubicon. The Lubicon community is at risk. Overwhelming alcoholism, “previously unheard of in this community” is debilitating the Lubicon. (8) Richard White, author of The Roots of Dependence, noted that for Original Peoples alcohol “created exactly the insatiable demand the [European] traders sought...” (9)
Anthony Hall, professor of Globalization Studies at the University of Lethbridge, saw a pattern: “The history of European trade with First Nations in North America, for instance, reveals a consistent pattern aimed sometimes successfully, sometimes not, at creating dependencies among Indigenous peoples on the specific goods and products they received.” (10)
“The theme of enforced dependencies merges with the theme of ecocide in those many instances where environmental degradation was purposely advanced or inadvertently perpetrated, with the outcome of denying Indigenous peoples their traditional means of economic self-sufficiency and political independence.” (11)
Churchill averred that because of the resource wealth on First Nation lands, Original Peoples “should be among the continent’s wealthiest residents,” instead they had the “lowest per capita income of any population group.” (12) This is the morally reprehensible conundrum: if the territorial rights of the Original Peoples are respected, capitalist exploiters will be thwarted. Hall recognized this: “First Nations, if they were to achieve real economic self-determination and political liberation in their ancestral lands, would challenge the stability of all sorts of hierarchies of wealth and power at their very base.” (13)
This was also well understood by Canadian authorities during the standoff in Gustafsen Lake -- a wilderness area in south-central BC. There the Ts’peten Defenders -- Original People and their supporters -- mounted a spirited defense of their right to perform the once outlawed Sundance ceremony on the unceded territory of the Canoe Creek First Nation. (14) Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) Sgt. Peter Montague revealed the danger posed by the Gustafsen Lake standoff: “Basically the very foundations that Canadian society are built on, are threatened here and the RCMP is well aware of that.” (15)
Governmental Perfidy (16)
In 1971, the Alberta government exasperatingly claimed that the Lubicon were "merely squatters on provincial Crown land with no land rights to negotiate." In 1981, the Alberta government declared the Lubicon Lake First Nation to be "an official provincial hamlet and therefore no longer available for purposes of establishing the Indian reserve." In a move evocative of Zionist-style ethnic cleansing, the provincial government threatened to bulldoze people’s homes, calling them "unauthorized improvements on crown land." The government relented in the face of Lubicon avowals to forcefully defend their homes.
In 1988, the Lubicons withdrew from the settler court system and declared sovereignty on their own territory. They set up nonviolent blockades of access roads to their territory and halted all oil activity for six days, before the RCMP forcibly removed the barricades and arrested 27 people. Then Alberta Premier Don Getty met with Lubicon Chief Bernard Ominayak and negotiated the Grimshaw Accord, which promised 152 square kilometers of territory as a Lubicon reserve.
An inquiry former BC Supreme Court Justice and Federal Justice Minister E. Davie Fulton upheld Lubicon rights in 1985. Indian Affairs reacted by scraping the inquiry, dismissing Fulton, and suppressing his report. (17)
In 1989, the federal government effectively ended negotiations with its unacceptable "take-it-or-leave-it" offer. The same year, Indian Affairs Minister Pierre Cadieux, in a totalitarian maneuver, conjured up the Woodland Cree Band to attract members away from the Lubicon. Speedy federal recognition was bestowed upon the band, leapfrogging it past 70 other queued communities.
The “band” system is a creature of colonialists imposed under the1876 Indian Act. Some Original People felt that the Indian Act had subverted “traditional political institutions … by provisions in the act that deliberately encouraged individual property rights and landholding of reserve lands.” (18)
The Indian Act imposed a top-down electoral system that militated against a traditional system of consensus. The outcome was “band councils [that] functioned as agents of the federal government in a model of colonial indirect rule rather than as representatives responsible for their own people.” (19) Subverting Original Peoples’ sovereignty and nationhood (something never surrendered or conquered) was the palpable intent.
With this intent, the Woodland Cree were offered the "take-it-or-leave-it" proposal previously offered to the Lubicons, honey coated with a federal bribe of $1,000 for each family member upon acceptance. After the vote, Ottawa reduced welfare payments by $1,000.
In 1995, Alberta falsely stated that the 1988 Grimshaw Accord was predicated on population. The province backed out of the Grimshaw Accord pointing to membership loss to the Woodland Crees and the so-called Little Buffalo Crees (Lubicon Cree dissidents organized by provincial agents). Getty and Ominayak both contradicted the Alberta government’s disinformation that the negotiated reserve size hinged on Lubicon population.
After the 1999 Lubicon acclamation of Ominayak and the re-election of four of five councillors, ex-government officials organized and financed a legal challenge of the election. Kevin Thomas, a negotiator for the Lubicon Lake First Nation said the legal challenge “went nowhere.” It has been adjourned without a date.
Government chicanery was also on display in 2000, when the Whitefish Lake First Nation announced logging within the Lubicons' traditional territory. The Lubicons regarded this as federal-provincial duplicity. The next year, three neighboring bands flush with federal funds for logging activities, began clear-cutting within Lubicon traditional territory.
Original Peoples must not be construed as a monolith. Divide-and-conquer tactics work only insofar as sufficient numbers of individuals can be bribed -- something that theoretically is easier to achieve in a community rendered dependent. Marie Smallface Marule of the Blood Nation of the Blackfoot Confederacy recognized this: “[W]e must beware of the traitors in our midst -- those of our people who have already accepted elitism, materialism, and individualism, who are trying to convince us that the Canadian way is the only way.” (20)
The Canadian Genocide Machine
Spurred by the Lubicon struggle, the World Council of Churches wrote then prime minister Pierre Trudeau a letter that charged “the Alberta Provincial Government and dozens of multi-national oil companies have taken actions which could have genocidal consequences.” It was further charged that it was the Canadian government’s “constitutional right, power and responsibility to ensure the general welfare and wellbeing [sic] of Canadian Indians. … to ensure that traditional and aboriginal rights are upheld and respected. … to ensure the just and equitable settlement of legitimate Indian rights and claims.” Ominously, the letter warned that “disasterous [sic] consequences can be avoided only by [the Canadian government’s] immediate action.” (21) The letter has been much ignored since 1983.
Genocide, as writers Robert Davis and Mark Zannis argued, was insincerely addressed by many colonizing states leading up to the formulation of the 1948 Genocide Convention. “Historically,” they found, “genocide served colonizing powers. It permitted the accumulation of wealth necessary for industrial development from the labour of subject peoples. It rendered powerless a large number of enemies and minorities, which the people of the colonized powers felt superior to.” (22)
Canada was one of those countries that did not wholeheartedly embrace the Genocide Convention. In fact, Canada opted out of key provisions; otherwise, it would have found itself culpable for violating its own Original Peoples. Davis and Zannis identified the cause: “In the frantic search for natural resources, the last vestiges of the old Arctic way of life are being destroyed. … A few token Inuit and other native peoples may be partially assimilated into the southern ‘culture.’ However, most are slated for welfare dependency. … These people are to be put ‘out of the way’ of oil and gas exploration work …” (23)
“To see people totally expendable is the ultimate _expression of genocide. Nowhere is this more starkly revealed than in the [Canadian] North.” (24)
In 1987, the United Nations Human Rights Commission (UNHRC) asked Canada “to take interim measures of protection to avoid irreparable damage” to the Lubicon Lake First Nation while it investigated whether the Lubicons’ rights were being violated. In March 1990, the UNHRC declared that “recent developments threaten the way of life and culture of the Lubicon Lake Cree and constitute a violation of Article 27 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights in its dealings so long as they continue.” (25) The Canadian government promised the UNHRC that it was seeking a settlement that would protect the rights of the Lubicon. Little has changed since.
The Canadian government stands in defiance of its own Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (RCAP), which concluded in 1996 that the encroachment on and expropriation of the territory and resources of Canada’s Original Peoples is a threat to their survival. The causes and the solution are known. The RCAP noted:
It is not difficult to find the solution. Aboriginal nations need much more territory to become economically, culturally and politically self-sufficient. If they cannot obtain a greater share of the lands and resources in this country, their institutions of self-government will fail. … The Canadian government must act forcefully, generously and swiftly to ensure the economic, cultural and economic survival of Aboriginal nations. (26)
In 1998, the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights affirmed the RCAP finding. It called on the Canadian government, to respect its obligations under the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and “to take concrete and urgent steps to restore and respect an Aboriginal land and resource base adequate to achieve a sustainable Aboriginal economy and culture.” (27)
Amnesty International continues the call “on all levels of government in Canada to uphold and promote all rights of Indigenous peoples, rather than continuing to seek ways to diminish, extinguish, undermine or circumvent these rights.” (28)
Current scandal-plagued Prime Minister Paul Martin sent his assurance of being “committed to a just settlement of this land claim....” (29) Given the government history, such assurance must be regarded most skeptically.
Defeating Corporate Imperialism
Deep Well Oil and Gas has made public its intent to begin a large-scale heavy oil extraction program with Surge Global Energy, Welwyn Resources, and Paradigm Oil and Gas in unceded traditional Lubicon territory.
The loathsomely familiar fostering of dependence, threatened ecocide, and capitalist plunder continues to rear its evil head. The Deep Well project is viewed as a threat to the environment and the Lubicon “way of life.” On 13 April, the Lubicon Lake First Nation with NGOs Sierra Club of Canada and Greenpeace called on Canadian Environment Minister Stephane Dion to initiate a federal environmental review of the oil sands project.
Ominayak stated, “We believe that it is irresponsible to allow this development to proceed without first dealing with the unresolved jurisdictional issues regarding these lands and without an independent assessment of the environmental, social and economic impacts of this project.”
On 12 April, Ominayak wrote to Dion:
These are Lubicon lands. We have never ceded aboriginal title to these lands and resources in any legally-recognized way. The Lubicon Lake Indian Nation has never signed Treaty with Canada. These lands and resources are the subject of a long-standing land rights dispute between the Lubicon Nation and both levels of Canadian government. For many years now we have been attempting in good faith to negotiate a land rights settlement with Canada and Alberta which would resolve the question of title in this area. Until such time as the question of title is resolved, however, the Lubicon Nation retains unextinguished aboriginal title in this area.
Ominayak urged the environmental review be carried out “before it is too late.”
A groundswell of Canadians pressured their government representatives to keep Canadian troops outside the invasion of Iraq -- an invasion seen by many as motivated by the abundant oil wealth. Most Canadians, however, are ignorant or, worse yet, unmoved by the ongoing invasion for oil within the colonized confines of what the European diaspora call Canada.
It has been arduous, but there have been victories along the way for the Lubicons and their supporters. In 1998, a boycott caused logging giant Daishowa to agree not to log or buy wood cut on Lubicon territory until the land rights are settled. Similar pressure on oil companies and governments is urgently required. The Friends of the Lubicon are asking supporters to write letters to the corporations involved.
Kim Petersen is a writer living in Nova Scotia, Canada. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
(1) Mike Ashar, “Canada’s oil sands: a globally competitive resource,” Suncor Energy, 12 June 2003.
(2) Ward Churchill, Struggle for the Land (Arbeiter Ring, 1999), 227.
(3) “Background: The Lubicon Lake Indian Nation,” Outaouais Lubicon Solidarity.
(4) “The Royal Proclamation of October 7, 1763” In Canada, the Proclamation is the foundation of the treaty process from which Aboriginal title, in the colonial sense, is derived.
(5) Royal Commission Report on Aboriginal Peoples, vol. 1, pt. 2, ch. 13, Conclusions.
(6) Michael McCullough, “Haida, supporters blockade to demand sustainable forestry,” Vancouver Sun, 4 April 2005. The Haida feel compelled to erect barricades to protect their natural heritage. “The Haida estimate $6-billion worth of timber has been shipped off the islands over the years, but they can't get their hands on a few big logs.” Kim Petersen, “The Struggle for Haida Gwaii,” The Dominion, 6 November 2005. Shoddy logging practices has wreaked environmental devastation on the “Canadian Galapagos,” decimating salmon runs, while the profits flow out of the communities. Kim Petersen, ‘I take this as genocide,’ The Dominion, 30 September 2005. “About 30 kilometers northeast of the BC interior city of Kamloops, on what used to be known as Tod Mountain, is Sun Peaks, a golf and ski resort built on Secwepemc territory. A $70 million development plan for Sun Peaks, submitted by the Japanese consortium Nippon Cable and investors Nancy Greene and Al Raine, was approved the BC government in 1997. This plan permits Sun Peaks to expand the resort from 4,000 to 20,000 beds and put ski runs on the nearby Mt. Morrisey. The Secwepemc rejected the development, and have since been engaged in an ongoing battle to win recognition from the provincial government and courts.”
(7) Timeline, “Resisting Destruction: Chronology of the Lubicon Crees’ Struggle to Survive,” Outaouais Lubicon Solidarity, 25 February 2001.
(8) Amnesty International, “Canada: ‘Time is wasting’: Respect for the land rights of the Lubicon Cree long overdue,” 1 April 2003.
(9) Quoted in Anthony J. Hall, The American Empire and the Fourth World: The Bowl with One Spoon, vol. 1, (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2003), 190.
(10) Anthony J. Hall, The American Empire and the Fourth World: The Bowl with One Spoon, vol. 1, (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2003), 189. This book is a monumental work synthesizing the threads of power and the cataclysmic effects on Original Peoples from 1492 to the present.
(11) Ibid, 190.
(12) Ward Churchill, op. cit., 239.
(13) Hall, op. cit., 194.
(14) See Splitting the Sky (aka John Boncore Hill) with She Keeps The Door (aka Sandra Bruderer), From Attica to Gustafsen Lake (John Pasquale Boncore, 2001). This extremely detailed book is an amazing first-hand account of the machinations of the Canadian state through its federal and provincial governments, police and military, and the collaboration of the legal system to repress First Nations’ human rights. The Canadian judiciary separated defendants from their lawyer of choice, Dr. Bruce Clark. Clark found, “The domestic courts from the Supreme Court of Canada on down are just refusing to address the law because it finds them personally guilty of complicity in treason, fraud and genocide.” Clark was ordered by BC Judge Nicholas Friesen to undergo psychiatric examination. This caused former US Attorney General Ramsey Clark (no relation to Bruce Clark) to wade into the debacle. His response to Judge Friesen was pointed: “The appearance of injustice in your conduct was atrocious. … Your own words expose both animus and imperious abuse of judicial power. … You give the appearance of an arrogant and hateful tyrant determined to humiliate Indians and destroy the professional and personal reputation of their lawyer.” See review.
(15) C. Morabito, “Gustafsen Lake: A classic coverup continues,” University of Victoria Graduate Students’ Society Newspaper, December 1998.
(16) Much of this section is based on the Timeline, op. cit.
(17) Historical Overview document, “Fulton Inquiry Confirms Legitimacy of Lubicon Rights & Complaints and Outlines Proposals for Settlement 1985,” tao.ca, June 1989.
(18) Leroy Little Bear, Menno Boldt, & J. Anthony Long (Eds.) Pathways to Self-Determinism: Canadian Indians and the Canadian State, (University of Toronto Press, 1985), xii.
(19) Ibid, xiii.
(20) Marie Smallface Marule, “Traditional Indian Governments of the People, by the People, for the People” 36–45 in Little Bear et al., op. cit., 45.
(21) World Council of Churches Letter to Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. That Trudeau didn’t respond was encapsulated in his simplistic solution to the desperate plight of Original Peoples proffered at a speech in Vancouver on 8 August 1989: “They should become Canadians as all other Canadians, and if they are prosperous and wealthy, they will be treated like the prosperous and wealthy …”
(22) Robert Davis and Mark Zannis, The Genocide Machine in Canada: The Pacification of the North (Black Rose, 1973), 30.
(23) Ibid, 34.
(24) Ibid, 38.
(27) “Concluding observations of the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights: Canada. 10/12/98,” United Nations Economic and Social Council, 10 December 1998.
(28) Amnesty International, op. cit.
(30) “New heavy oil development threatens Lubicon lands,” Friends of Grassy Narrows, 24 March 2005.
Other Recent Articles by Kim Petersen
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* The Shame
* The Wrong Direction
* The Pornography of War