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Letter of concern on the land rights and water rights of Bigstone Cree Nation

Disclaimer: This is my personal letter as a member of Bigstone Cree Nation on current events regarding the environmental, social, and economic impacts of resource extraction. I have shared a copy of this letter with my Chief and Council as a concerned member.

There is something happening underneath our feet. It will stop the rivers from flowing and the lakes from filling in the spring. We will lose our fish, our moose, and our traditional ways of being.

The problem is Canadian Natural Resources Limited (CNRL) has filed an application to utilize groundwater for their South Brintnell Field near Reserve #166 in Sandy Lake. Husky Energy will be filing a similar application later this year. The water will be stolen from beneath our feet. All Albertans should be concerned because the hunger of the oil industry to expand knows no limits, and the loss of one water system upstream will damage the water systems downstream. It is not possible to drain one area of ground water without disrupting every ecosystem to which it is linked.

On February 7, 2017 Bigstone Cree Nation (BCN) wrote a Statement of Concern over the fact that CNRL and Husky Energy plan to remove a combined 760 truckloads of water every day for 20 years. CNRL alone has stated the draw-down effect to surface water is an estimated 3–8 metres, meaning there will be no South Wabasca Lake in 20 years; it will be nothing more than a shallow creek not fit to drink from.

Treaty 8 members often proudly proclaim our agreement exists "as long as the sun shines, grass grows and the rivers flow." If our rivers and lakes stop flowing, does this mean our treaty is null and void? Will we also lose our homes? Our ability to hunt, fish, and harvest? Will we lose the rights to self-determine the future of our lakes and rivers as a sovereign people? If you take the water, you take our lives.

This is not a new fight.

Bigstone stated similar concerns to CNRL in 2013, over the high likelihood that pollutants from the CNRL lease could migrate toward the community’s drinkable water sources.

On October 30, 2014 Bigstone held a peaceful demonstration to draw attention to the lack of respect and acknowledgement for our rights to economic development within our own traditional territory. A letter from Chief and Council, along with a map showing the massive area of drilling surrounding the small reserve, was posted to express “the extensive drilling and industry development, permitted by government without approval by us, nor [with] regard for our economic growth and environmental concerns.” The letter noted that while the BCN reserves are in deplorable condition, the local municipality reaps the benefits of the economic development, and that “busloads of people arrive from across Canada to work here while we watch them benefit."

On February 20, 2017 Chief Gordon T. Auger and Lands Manager Troy Stuart wrote a letter to the minister of Indigenous Affairs, informing him that the nation was preparing to install gates near the entrances into our traditional territory and reserve lands. The "lack of contract opportunities for local companies; unfulfilled impact benefit agreements; lack of meaningful consultation by both multinational corporations and the Aboriginal Consultation office; protection of surface and groundwater; delayed transfer of treaty entitlement lands; and neglect of a referendum in the transfer of administration and control of highways" made the move necessary.

On March 12, 2017 the First Nation began setting up toll stations, and seemed prepared to ban multinational corporations from the traditional territory.

On March 15, there were rumours in the community about the effectiveness of the action. During this time there were reassurances in the media that the provincial ministry of Indigenous Relations would be working with Bigstone to resolve these issues. The RCMP stated the next day that the peaceful demonstration of Bigstone was over and that normal highway traffic resumed.

From all that I can gather from these events, they have drawn some attention to the ongoing economic, environmental, and treaty issues at BCN. But the media stories pitted Indigenous people against progress and industry, and there have been many racist comments against my people regarding our ability to participate in the local and global economy. Lost in all of this is the importance of sustainable development that does not put the environment at risk.

Indigenous sovereignty and sustainable development

Sustainable development of the community should support the traditional subsistence practices of our people, and should support a First Nations-led economic development plan. The sovereignty of our nation needs to be asserted; for too long we have allowed industry to bulldoze us with failed promises of economic benefits to our community.

As our leaders have pointed out to us, parts of our community are impoverished, and this is due to colonial history. The two residential schools that caused intergenerational trauma to so many of our people have left many vulnerable, and we must draw from those in our community who are strong to support the health and well-being of those scarred by colonialism.

We also must not let industry tell us our only solution is oil and gas. While some of my family members have done very well for themselves working in resource extraction, many others have been successful working in health care, social work, and multiple other sectors. This summer I attended Treaty Days with my community, where we celebrated the successful completion of post-secondary education of almost two dozen BCN members. So when I say I am a proud member of my nation, I say so because I am proud of the connection we have to the land and our community, but I am also extremely proud of how many of our members have been successful in education, which strengthens the sovereignty of our people.

I believe if government and industry want to negotiate economic development proposals, they need to be based on the rights of Indigenous people to eat local food, drink local water, and hire local workers for the collective good of those who choose to live locally on our traditional territory. For far too long the shadow population of multinational corporation's employees from outside our community has overshadowed the rights of our people. As long as the sun shines, let it be the sovereignty of our people and the rights of our people that outshines the capitalist and colonial takeover that industry and government are proposing. We need to consider lives before jobs, and jobs that can sustain lives. We need sustainable and permanent jobs, not the precarious jobs industry throws to us like scraps under the table. Remember: this is our land and this is our water, and let us be sovereign over it, and let us be stewards of everything the Creator has blessed us with in this boreal forest.

My research in the Wabasca area highlighted that the Indigenous people of this region are very resistant and resilient. One of the major findings of my research is that community members must contend with what I call "racialized gendered life scripts" along their life courses. Specifically, Indigenous women must contend with life scripts that expect a fate of early childbearing and poverty. Indigenous men contend with a life script that expects them to drop out of high school and enter unskilled jobs in the oil industry. To challenge these life scripts, Indigenous men and women in my study demonstrated their agency by making choices for education, and choices to find skilled jobs. Most of the participants of my study had completed a high school or post-secondary education, and worked in a variety of industries, although men tended to work in the oil industry at some point in their life. I concluded that Indigenous peoples develop an identity based on their resistance and resilience against racist and gendered institutions in school and work. My research has shown that Indigenous community members work hard, and participate in the labour force and local economy with as much determination and resilience as any other Albertan.

Living off the land: our past, present, and future

I am a proud member of Bigstone Cree Nation. I grew up on Indian Reserve 166D, known as Muskoteek. My father’s family is from the North Wabasca Lake area, and my mother’s family is from the South Wabasca Lake area, so I like to think it is the Wabasca River that connects both sides of my family. From these lakes and rivers, my people have built community. My family still fishes in these waters, and my close male relatives hunt moose and wild game throughout the BCN territory. My mother and aunts still harvest berries in this area, together we pick wild raspberries, strawberries, Saskatoons, blueberries, and cranberries. The women in my family still plant massive family gardens, which is a more sustainable way to feed our families. These subsistence practices allow us to feed our families fresh meat and vegetation, in addition to buying food at the store, which is expensive since we are a northern community. We hunt and fish from the Wabasca Lakes, Trout Lake, Peerless Lake, Sandy Lake, and towards the Slave Lake area in Marten Hills. Our traditional territory spreads far and wide in the boreal forest.

It is said that my paternal Mosom (Grandfather) hunted and lived off the land until the final year of his life at age 82. My Mosom’s brother went out to pray and pick mint along the lake in his old age, and came back to his house where he passed away. My ancestors have lived off of this land all the days of their lives, which is a hope I have for our children and grandchildren of the nation. My maternal Kohkom (Grandmother) and her sister lived on both sides of the South Wabasca Lake, and each morning they would call each other to talk about the condition of the lake, and discuss the moose hide moccasins they were making together. My maternal Kohkom taught me to butcher and cook moose meat, and to bead on moose hide.

Much of our culture comes from the muskeg-dwelling moose. My greatest childhood memories are of Kohkom and me doing beadwork by the window overlooking the lake. One of my greatest memories as a child is having a great feast at my maternal grandfather’s home along the South Wabasca Lake, in a large tipi, thanking the Creator for the abundance of food that we received from the forest.

Why am I telling these stories? Because my children are now building similar memories with their grandparents along Sandy Lake, Wabasca Lakes, and the Wabasca River. But 20 years from now, will my grandchildren be making these same memories if our lakes and rivers have dried up? I am telling these stories to highlight that my family still lives off the land, and follows the traditions of our ancestors. I know every family in the area has their own traditions along the lakes, and I am merely telling the story of my family. But I know this is also a concern of the nation, as BCN has been working with a doctoral researcher from McGill University to examine the issue of wild food contamination from oil sands activities.

The proposals from CNRL and Husky are solely based on making profits; they are irresponsible, reckless, and completely unsustainable. The profit motivation of the oil industry is that they tend to take more oil than they actually need, and we don't need to be taking oil out of the ground so fast and in such large quantities. If the only way the oil industry knows how to take the oil out of the ground is by draining the lakes and rivers of my First Nation, then they need to wait until they can find a more sustainable technology to take the oil, because the water is much more precious than the oil. People in the community will need to buy water from outside the community in order to survive and that is something very unreasonable to be asking a people already impoverished from a colonial history.

We are not the first Indigenous community to confront issues with water rights. Right now there is a water crisis across Canada, in which Indigenous people are denied the right to safe drinking water. For a variety of reasons many First Nations are under boil water advisories, sometimes for years. Most recently, Health Canada issued a boil water advisory on February 13, 2017 at Bigstone Reserve 166C due to maintenance, which speaks to the water infrastructure issues at BCN. Last year, Human Rights Watch released a report citing the failure of the Canadian government to protect Indigenous people’s rights to clean drinking water. This report has prompted the federal and provincial government to take notice and recognize water as a human right that has been denied to First Nations for decades.

First Nations were encouraged by the Budget 2017 announcement that the Alberta government would be spending $100 million on clean drinking water for First Nations. The money is desperately needed, as there are currently 13 First Nations that are under boil water advisories in Alberta. In addition, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has promised to end boil water advisories within five years by investing nearly $2 billion in funding towards water and wastewater infrastructure for Indigenous communities.

But according to Human Rights Watch, money and new infrastructure will not resolve the issues of boil water advisories and First Nations having to ship in bottled water to drink:

Financial commitment alone, however, will not solve the water and wastewater crisis on First Nations reserves. Along with infrastructure investments, the government should remedy a range of problems that contribute to the water crisis. These include: the lack of binding regulations on water quality on First Nations reserves; persistent under-funding and arbitrary budgeting for water system costs, including capital, operation, and maintenance costs; lack of support for household water and wastewater systems; worsening conditions of source water; and lack of capacity and support for water operators.

In addition to our human right to drinkable water, two articles from the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples speak to our rights to the conservation and protection of the environment, and our rights to self-determination in the development of our lands and resources. Article 29 says that "Indigenous peoples have the right to the conservation and protection of the environment and the productive capacity of their lands or territories and resources," while Article 32 says that governments "shall consult and cooperate in good faith with the Indigenous peoples concerned through their own representative institutions in order to obtain their free and informed consent prior to the approval of any project affecting their lands or territories ...."

If we do not closely monitor the situation in the Wabasca area, in 20 years BCN could end up losing our potable water, and join the long list of First Nations without safe drinking water. We need to assert our rights to protect the environment, and there is an onus on the Government of Alberta and the Government of Canada to ensure our rights as citizens are protected. We cannot allow industry to determine our destiny.

As researcher Clinton Westman puts it, when we make predictions about the future of our environment, we can either be filled with hope or dread. As an Indigenous person, I was inspired to write this letter as the possibility of losing our lakes and rivers fills my spirit with dread. But knowing our rights to our land and water, and our rights to self-determination fills me with hope that we will take notice of the situation, assert our sovereignty, and come together to find a sustainable solution.

Angele Alook

Dr. Angele Alook is proud member of Bigstone Cree Nation and a speaker of the Cree language. She recently successfully defended her PhD in Sociology from York University. Her dissertation is entitled "Indigenous Life Courses: Racialized Gendered Life Scripts and Cultural Identities of Resistance and Resilience." She specializes in Indigenous feminism, life course approach, Indigenous research methodologies, cultural identity, and sociology of family and work. Angele currently works in the labour movement as a full-time researcher for the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees. She is also a co-investigator on the SSHRC-funded Corporate Mapping Project, where she is carrying out research with the Parkland Institute on Indigenous experiences in Alberta’s oil industry and its gendered Impact on working families.

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