Leaders of northern Indigenous peoples are calling for a “full, independent investigation” of the downstream impacts of oil sands pollution.
The call, issued at a water summit held in Inuvik last week, comes in the wake of controversy over months-long contamination emanating from Imperial Oil’s Kearl facility in northern Alberta.
The Dene Nation, Inuvialuit Regional Corporation and NWT Métis Nation are requesting a new investigation of oil sands’ effect on water and air quality, aquatic ecosystems and human health, incorporating traditional knowledge and western science.
A joint statement directed that request at “Canada, Alberta and other respective governments.”
Delegates at the water summit also want those governments to provide new supports for Indigenous-led monitoring, fund an independent engineering assessment of every oil sands tailings pond’s integrity, and do more to hold industry accountable for reclamation and remediation costs.
The statement calls on Alberta and industry leaders to commit to greater accountability regarding “the management, notification and monitoring of tailings ponds and any leaks,” and seeks broad commitments from all governments “to engage with Indigenous governments as full partners on regulatory development and reform efforts for tailings management.”
Imperial’s Kearl oil sands mine continues to operate but has been ordered by the federal government to take immediate action to stop months-long seepage of wastewater. A separate release of millions of litres of tailings at the same site was also revealed last month.
NWT residents and the territorial government have expressed grave concern at both the incidents themselves and the way in which they were handled by Imperial Oil, Alberta’s regulator and the province’s government.
Inuvik’s water summit, organized by the Dene Nation, took place last week. The joint statement was issued on Tuesday.
Tools in the toolbox
Among other points, the statement also requests “the full participation of Dene, Inuvialuit and Northwest Territory Métis Nation as leaders on all transboundary water matters.” At the water summit, multiple delegates complained that current transboundary water agreements – such as the one between the NWT and Alberta – don’t fully include Indigenous governments.
Cynthia Westaway, senior counsel at Ottawa-based First Peoples Law, told delegates at the summit that Indigenous peoples of the North “need an action plan” to have oil sands concerns addressed.
“That is why this is exciting, that we have the nations gathered here together for the first time in a long time, and we can do something,” Westaway said.
“We’re not really using all the tools that we already have in our box. We also need more tools – we need more support and new funding.
“I know you will all go back to your various tables in your regions, where you lead, and I hope that there will be even stronger statements and resolutions coming from those tables, insisting that this is a global issue.”
Westaway is an advocate of using the federal Species at Risk Act to demand that governments “pay the proper attention” to oil sands’ impact on the likes of threatened caribou in the North, and also wants Indigenous participation in transboundary agreements to be strengthened.
But she also told delegates they should seek allies by appealing to the needs and wants of Alberta’s political class.
“If we know and we understand that we’re downstream, and they’re doing whatever they need to do for economic development, then we can change our approach a little bit,” Westaway said.
“For example, I needed to build a large women’s shelter. And I pitched it for the funding as: ‘I have a huge construction project, I’m going to train new construction workers and bring economic benefit to this area.’ And we got our funding.
“If I had said, ‘I want to build a women’s shelter,’ I would have got zero.”
Applying that analogy to the oil sands, she said politicians have an interest in securing power for the long term, so Indigenous peoples should appeal to that long-term focus.
“If you want to be in power as a political leader in Alberta, and you want to be in there for the long term, then we can help you, because we’re looking long-term,” she said, giving an example of how groups could position themselves.
“We’re looking at what’s happening in a sustainable environment: if you think you want to harvest trees or harvest furs, harvest anything long-term, you’d better have a plan or your economy is going to disappear, dissipate, die. Your water is going to be gone.
“Those are the kinds of things that, frankly, speak to the people today. But they also speak to the economic interests of other politicians. So I think it’s the way that we approach this, to make sure that we’re looking after the people, and also making sure there’s a long-term strategy that fits with other interests that seemingly don’t care.”
Tim Herron, a summit delegate on behalf of the NWT Métis Nation, underscored the importance of answers that extend beyond water.
“It’s not only about water, it’s air,” Herron said last week.
“Every day, 24 hours a day, we’re breathing that bullshit into us – whereas water, most of us are drinking it out of a plastic bottle now, not from the tap. The municipalities have authority to give us clean, healthy water, but who’s looking after the air for us?
“When you’re saying the toolbox is there, while we always had the tools, we never had the box to get them in, organized,” he concluded. “We’re getting there.”