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Back in the spring of 2012, while walking in the deep woods of northern Ontario, Sonny Gagnon stumbled across a collection of surveying equipment among the towering spruce trees. Gagnon is chief of the Aroland aboriginal tribe, a band of 450 people living in a village of ramshackle houses surrounded by swampy muskeg. He tracks everything that goes on in his community. And the surveying tools weren’t supposed to be there.
“I was ticked off,” he says, after learning that the equipment belonged to a subcontractor of Cleveland-based mining company Cliffs Natural Resources Inc. (CLF)
It turned out Cliffs had plans to mine for chromite to the north of the Aroland reserve and to build a road through the territory to transport truckloads of the mineral to a railhead, Bloomberg Markets magazine will report in its March issue.
“They weren’t consulting us on what they were doing on the land,” Gagnon says. “I told them to leave and that we didn’t want them back.”
Gagnon and his native band then set up a roadblock to monitor traffic. Cliffs suspended plans for the mine in November, citing in a statement the “risks” associated with its ability to transport the ore for processing.
Cliffs officials didn’t respond to repeated requests for comment.
Aboriginal Canadians from Quebec to British Columbia are asserting their rights. Energized by a 2004 Supreme Court decision that requires governments to “consult and accommodate” aboriginal groups before miners and oil and gas drillers encroach on their lands, the natives have blocked half a dozen major projects since the court ruling.
The natives’ activism complicates Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s grand plan to boost the Canadian economy with C$650 billion worth of natural resource projects over the next decade in a quest to make the nation an “energy superpower.” Among the government’s priorities are mining projects in the so-called Ring of Fire region of northern Ontario, stepped-up oil extraction from Alberta’s tar sands and natural gas exploration in British Columbia.
Native Canadians are demanding a say in how these projects proceed, and the 2004 court decision forces the government to give them one.
“These are huge issues, which have enormous implications for the economy of the country,” says Bob Rae, a former Ontario premier who, until April 2013, led Canada’s federal Liberal Party. “They’re right at the center of Canada’s economic life.”
The natives have a powerful political ally in Rae, who has agreed to negotiate with mining companies and the provincial and federal governments on behalf of the nine chiefs of the Matawa First Nations, including Gagnon. The council holds sway over northern Ontario lands where major mineral discoveries were made as recently as 2008. Mining companies, including Cliffs and Toronto-based Noront Resources Ltd. (NOT), estimate the region contains C$50 billion worth of copper, zinc and chromite.
The aboriginals’ latest show of power came in New Brunswick in October and November, when demonstrators gathered in opposition to Houston-based Southwestern Energy Co. (SWN)’s plans to drill for natural gas on native lands. The protesters clashed violently with police, at one point throwing Molotov cocktails that incinerated six police vehicles.
The company says the disruption in its operations cost it $60,000 a day. It got a court injunction that stopped the protests and proceeded with exploratory drilling in December.
‘Begin by Listening’
Confrontations such as the one in New Brunswick are proof that the Canadian federal government has mishandled its mandate to consult with the First Nations over such projects, says Paul Martin, an aboriginal rights advocate who led Canada as prime minister from December 2003 to February 2006.
“If you want to have a relationship, begin by listening,” Martin says. “And the federal government seems incapable of doing so.”
Prime Minister Harper has pledged to “reset the relationship” between government and Canada’s indigenous people. “Certainly, in the past, lack of trust on both sides has held us back,” he said in 2012.
Canada is facing more challenges to resource-extraction projects from aboriginals than any other nation in the world, according to an October report by Fredericksburg, Virginia–based First Peoples Worldwide, which provides grants and services to native tribes. The activists are divided into two groups. The so-called traditionalists want to shut out development and preserve native lands for hunting and fishing. “Progressives” want to share in the enormous wealth being produced by the country’s resource companies.
Idle No More
Often both points of view are represented in the same native band, creating conflict. Both can be found in a national movement called Idle No More, which has staged protests around the world — including in Stockholm and London — demanding jobs, education and economic development for Canada’s indigenous communities.
Idle No More made headlines in January 2013, when it staged protests that blocked train traffic between Montreal and Toronto.
Canada is home to 1.4 million natives, who make up 4.3 percent of the population, compared with the U.S.’s 2 percent, according to the most-current census data. More than half of Canada’s First Nations peoples, as they are known, live and work in cities; the rest are scattered across six time zones on more than 600 reserves.
Unemployment is as high as 90 percent in native communities such as Aroland, and the median per capita income was C$14,000 in 2005, the latest year for which figures are available. The per capita income of all Canadians today is C$40,650, according to Statistics Canada.
Canadian resource companies say they’re eager to accommodate the First Nations — so long as they don’t make unreasonable demands. In August, Calgary-based Athabasca Oil (ATH) Corp. won approval from Alberta’s energy regulator to start up an oil sands project in northeastern Alberta over the protests of the Fort McKay First Nation, whose traditional hunting grounds are adjacent to the proposed site.
The Fort McKay group wants a 20-kilometer (12-mile) buffer around the bitumen drilling operation. Athabasca rejected the idea, but on Dec. 17, Sveinung Svarte, its chief executive officer, said, “It is our view that a mutually acceptable solution is achievable.”
Athabasca’s shares sank 38 percent in 2013 amid uncertainty about the project, which could produce 250,000 barrels of oil a day at full capacity.
On the Pacific coast, Calgary-based pipeline builder Enbridge Inc. (ENB) has reached an angry impasse with the natives. The company wants to lay a 1,178-kilometer line called Northern Gateway to connect Alberta’s oil sands with the Pacific port of Kitimat, where the oil would be loaded onto tankers and shipped to petroleum-thirsty Asian markets. The pipeline would traverse British Columbia’s mountains and salmon streams.
The pipeline is opposed by native groups along much of its proposed route because they say oil spills and leaks would destroy their hunting and fishing grounds. The Yinka Dene Alliance, a group of six tribes whose lands span the pipeline’s proposed route to the sea, have banned any Northern Gateway contractors from setting foot on their lands.
The Coastal First Nations, an alliance of nine aboriginal groups on the British Columbia seashore, is equally determined to block Enbridge’s pipeline, and joined dozens of First Nations that voiced their opposition to the pipeline during 2012 regulatory hearings by Canada’s National Energy Board.
The board gave the project a green light in a December ruling, placing 209 conditions on the pipeline, many of them designed to protect the environment — and, by implication, native lands. Enbridge says it will spend an extra C$500 million to boost the thickness of its pipes, will install dual leak detection systems and will post permanent staff at remote pumping stations to minimize the risk of a spill.
“I’ve been in a number of locations in B.C. trying to talk to people about the project, but, more importantly, listening to what they are saying,” Enbridge CEO Al Monaco says. “I don’t say a heck of a lot. I basically listen to what the concerns are.”
The natives aren’t persuaded. Art Sterritt, executive director of Coastal First Nations, stands aboard a 20-meter (70-foot) boat plying the waters near Prince Rupert and points across the Hecate Strait at a string of buoys marking the spots where the seabed was seeded with juvenile scallops in 2012.
The fragile shellfish beds are part of an effort to rebuild a traditional aboriginal economy based on aquaculture.
“The real foundation of who we are is shellfish,” Sterritt says, as a pod of whales surfaces within view of the boat. He adds that he doesn’t want to take a chance that an oil spill will destroy the pristine bay.
“We are still hopeful that they will see the merit of stopping this project,” says Arnold Clifton, chief councilor of the Gitga’at First Nation. “The recommendation is by no means the final say. All options are on the table.”
Prime Minister Harper, who also faces opposition to the pipeline from non-native British Columbians, has until June to decide the project’s fate.
Their recent victories in holding up projects have emboldened the aboriginals.
‘We Own It All’
“We have the authority to enter into any agreement that we want to,” says Gary Allen, chief of the Nigigoonsiminikaaning First Nation, which is negotiating logging rights on its land in northern Ontario with Montreal-based Resolute Forest Products (RFP) Inc. and other companies. “Whether with the mining sector, whether it’s in forestry, whether it’s water — we own it all,” he says.
In reality, what the natives own or control is a matter of dispute — and has been since Canada was founded. Although the 2004 Supreme Court decision forced the government to negotiate with First Nations when a company encroaches on land they occupy, the court did not give aboriginals veto power over government-backed resource projects.
Canada has signed 11 major treaties with natives since 1867, when the country gained independence from Great Britain. The treaties guarantee that the natives can practice their traditional way of life without giving them ownership of any land, says Thomas Isaac, a partner and head of aboriginal law at Toronto-based law firm Osler, Hoskin & Harcourt LLP. The Supreme Court decision clarified Ottawa’s responsibilities, Isaac says.
“Government is the centerpiece of the wheel,” he says. “The courts are going back and relying on ancient principles around fairness and equity. This is about government treating its subjects fairly.”
In the Ring of Fire in northern Ontario, the federal government is serving as an intermediary to make sure the new mines include training and jobs for the aboriginals and do no permanent harm to the environment.
“We want to do this right. It has to be inclusive,” says Greg Rickford, the federal minister responsible for the development. “First Nations communities can and will bring important understanding to the environmental assessment processes.”
Former Prime Minister Martin says “Canada’s indigenous peoples are not anti-development. What they want is for it to be done in a sustainable way. That means doing it in full consultation with the people who live near these projects.”
Native claims are mostly addressed in the courts and other government forums. Since 2011, aboriginals have filed 165 complaints against the federal government with the Canadian Human Rights Commission, claiming they receive insufficient funding for education and child welfare. In disputes over resource projects, the mining and drilling companies are caught in the middle.
“The expectations placed on companies in this area over the past 10 years have evolved incredibly quickly,” says Robert Walker, vice president at Vancouver-based NEI Investments, which oversees C$5.5 billion in assets. “First Nations’ power is growing.”
Aroland’s Sonny Gagnon intends to take full advantage of that fact. Conditions in Aroland are typical of rural native communities. Houses stand unfinished or in a state of decay. Clutches of mothers stroll up and down the dirt roads pushing baby carriages. The only business is a corner store selling gasoline and canned food. The biggest of the few employers is the tribal government, which provides paychecks to about 30 people. Most of the rest live on government welfare of about C$400 a month.
‘A Day at a Time’
“Every day is a challenge,” says Robinson Meshake, in charge of social work on the reserve. “We take each day one at a time.”
Gagnon says alleviating his community’s deep poverty is his only goal. Even as he blocks construction of Cliffs’ proposed road through his settlement, he says he has no objection to the mining project.
“I’m pro-development,” he says.
Cliffs would use the road to transport ore from a mine 340 kilometers to the north to a railhead in Aroland. As many as 100 ore-laden trucks a day would pass through the community.
“I want those jobs for my people,” Gagnon says. “I want them to be making $400 a day.”
With the stakes in the tens of billions of dollars for Harper’s government and the resource companies he supports, Gagnon and other native Canadians have never been in a better position to right some of the historic wrongs they believe their people have suffered.
To contact the reporter on this story: Jeremy van Loon in Calgary at firstname.lastname@example.org
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Michael Serrill at email@example.com
The Canadian government says Young should remember that oil extraction drives economic growth [Reuters]
|Musician Neil Young kicked off his Honor the Treaties tour Sunday in Canada to raise money for a First Nations’ legal battle against a tar sands project activists say would violate treaty and constitutional rights of indigenous communities.
“We are killing these people,” Young told a crowd gathered at Toronto’s Massey Hall. “The blood of these people are on modern Canada’s hands.”
The tour began in Toronto, where Young spoke at a news conference along with Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation (ACFN) Chief Allen Adam and environmentalist David Suzuki before performing in front of a sold-out crowd.
The week-long tour will visit Winnipeg, Regina and Calgary. Proceeds from the shows will be donated to the legal-defense fund of the northern Alberta-based Athabasca tribal government challenging new tar sands projects.
During a news conference, Young, who visited a tar sands site near Fort McMurray, Alberta, called the industry “the greediest, most destructive and most disrespectful demonstration of something just run amok.” The rock legend said what he saw was a “devastating environmental catastrophe” that could only be compared to Hiroshima.
“We went to the homes of First Nations people and I met them,” Young told concert attendees at Massey Hall. “While I was there, I drove around the tar sands in my electric car and experienced this unbelievable smell and toxicity. My throat and eyes were burning, and this was about 25 miles away from the actual site at Fort (McMurray).”
‘Rigorous’ environmental laws
Calls by Al Jazeera to Alberta’s government representatives were not returned in time for publication. According to the Oil Sands Division of the Alberta Department of Energy website, the tar sands industry provides significant economic benefits to Albertans. The energy sector accounted for over 22 percent of Alberta’s GDP in 2012, according to the Alberta Department of Energy.
Alberta, furthermore, can expect $350bn in royalties and $122bn in total tax revenue from work at the tar sands over the next 25 years, according to the Canadian Energy Research Institute (CERI).
Development of tar sands involves the extraction of heavy crude oil called bitumen from underneath the wilderness. Critics have warned of potentially catastrophic environmental consequences.
Fort McMurray lies on the outskirts of Jackpine Mine, which was approved for expansion by the government in July, 2013. That order convinced the Athabasca they had no choice but to fight the move in court for violating treaty agreements, which prohibit any activity that interferes with Athabasca’s ability to survive by hunting, fishing and trapping on their territory.
Jason MacDonald, a spokesman for Prime Minister Stephen Harper, told CBC Canada Monday that the natural resource sector is a fundamental part of the country’s economy.
“Even the lifestyle of a rock star relies, to some degree, on the resources developed by thousands of hard-working Canadians,” MacDonald said in a statement. He added the government would “continue to ensure that Canada’s environmental laws and regulations are rigorous.”
Suzuki, who introduced Young in Toronto, said that the First Nation is simply asking the government to respect an agreement that it signed.
“These are some of the poorest people in Canada, and they’re telling us there’s more important things than money — like the air, the water and all the other living organisms on the planet,” Suzuki said.
‘David and Goliath’
The 1,200-member Athabasca tribe has asked Canada’s federal court to review Ottawa’s decision to allow the expansion, which would encroach on Athabasca land.
“It’s a David and Goliath story,” Eriel Deranger, communications coordinator for the Athabasca First Nation, told Al Jazeera. The expansion could also violate federal laws covering fisheries and species at risk, Deranger said.
Deranger, an Athabasca tribe member, said the Jackpine Mine expansion would contribute to cumulative impacts that would break the treaty. She added that the government knew that when it was approved.
“The decision released in July made major admissions,” she said. “The panel admitted that the project would have significant adverse effects on the environment and in some cases even cause irreversible damage.”
David Schindler, professor emeritus at the University of Alberta, testified at the Jackpine Mine hearings. He said the area had already seen severe environmental impacts by previous mines in the area.
“They’re talking about destroying 20 kilometers of the Athabasca River – that’s a fairly big body of water,” Schindler told Al Jazeera. “There are about 10,000 or more fish that go up and down that river, and it’s being treated as if it was a sewer.”
Deranger said the project would impact species like wood bison, caribou and other at-risk species as well as fisheries and waterways – with no proven method of reclamation afterward.
Schindler, a member of the US National Academy of Sciences, said no real assessment process can be done by “a few government appointees known to favor the oil and gas industry.”
He said his 2008 study on the environmental impact of industry pollutants was at first discounted by the government, but was later confirmed by their own studies. In the end, tougher monitoring standards were recommended, but Schindler said the monitoring program is still controlled by the government.
“There has never been a mine turned down, despite thousands of pages of risks being presented to these panels,” Schindler said. “It makes you feel creepy having your government make a treaty and then violate it at every turn.”
The Athabasca First Nation says Shell, which operates the Jackpine Mine, breached its duties to “meaningfully consult” with the tribal council – a First Nation right across Canada in cases where energy industry activities could impact their territory.
A spokesman from Shell Canada told CBC Canada that company staff and senior leaders meet regularly to deal with aboriginal communities to discuss projects, training, business opportunities and cultural activities.
However, Deranger contested the seriousness of those meetings.
“We found our concerns are largely unaddressed … our rights left at the wayside in the development of these projects are either negated or ignored,” she said.
Mercury levels have risen to 16 times the regional “background” levels in an area around oilsands developments in northeastern Alberta, according to Environment Canada researchers.
Environment Canada researcher Jane Kirk, who presented the as-yet unpublished report at a Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry (SETAC) conference in Nashville last November, told Postmedia News the affected area encompasses 19,000 square kilometres around oilsands operations.
Margaret Munro of Postmedia News reports that Kirk told the conference the area is “currently impacted by airborne Hg (mercury) emissions originating from oilsands developments.”
The mercury levels fall off gradually with increasing distance from the oilsands “like a bull’s eye,” said co-researcher Derek Muir, head of Environment Canada’s ecosystem contaminants dynamics section. The highest mercury loadings, which reached up to 1,000 nanograms per square metre, were found in the “middle of the bull’s eye,” covering around 10 percent of the impacted area.
In October, Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq signed a global treaty pledging to decrease mercury emissions.
The federal researchers stressed that the findings were still lower than mercury levels found in southern Ontario and southern Quebec, where toxins from incinerators and coal-burning power plants are affecting the environment.
But the scientists said that mercury is “the number one concern” when looking at toxins released by oilsands production, with “indications that the toxin is building up in some of the region’s wildlife.” The contamination is further worrying to environmental groups and First Nations concerned about the oilsands’ impact on fishing, hunting and wildlife.
Environment Canada wildlife scientist Craig Herbert told the toxicology conference that the eggs of several species of waterbirds downstream of the oilsands have been showing increasing levels of mercury, with levels found in the majority of Caspian Tern eggs in 2012 exceeding “the lower toxicity threshold.”
Kirk’s team measured contaminants in cores of the snowpack collected from over 100 sites near the oilsands every March, to calculate how much pollution enters the ecosystem at spring melt after gathering in snow over winter.
The team’s 2011 results confirmed that “aerial loadings” of 13 priority pollutant elements including mercury were 13 to 15 times higher at sites within 50 km of the upgraders that convert bitumen into synthetic crude oil, and “highest within 10 km of the upgraders,” according to the presentation abstract.
The results “support earlier findings that the bitumen upgraders and local Oil Sands development are sources of airborne emissions to the Alberta Oil Sands Region.”
The researchers also found up to 19 nanograms of methyl mercury per square metre near oilsands sites, which is 16 times the region’s background level. Postmedia News reports that this is the first finding of this more toxic form of mercury in snow. The finding is significant because, as the abstract explains, “methyl mercury is a neurotoxin that bioaccumulates through foodwebs.”
“Here we have a direct source of methyl mercury being emitted in this region and deposited to the landscapes and water bodies,” Kirk told Postmedia News. “So come snowmelt that methyl mercury is now going to enter lakes and rivers where potentially it could be taken up directly by organisms and then bioaccumulated and biomagnified though food webs.”
Muir said that microbes in the snow could be converting mercury into methyl mercury, or that it could be coming from “dust and land disturbances,” though there is currently no data to support this.
“To our knowledge, emissions data from blowing dusts due to various landscape disturbances (open pit mines, exposed coke piles, new roads, etc.) and volatilization from tailing ponds are not publicly available,” the researchers said.
The research shows that zinc, nickel and vanadium levels in lake sediments peaked in the 1990s following oilsands development, but have fallen off since, which Kirk attributes to “improvements in the air pollution catcher technology at the upgraders.”
But levels of mercury and other “crustal elements” in lake sediments have been “going up more or less continually” with the expansion of the oilsands, said Muir, with open pit mines and coke piles possibly contributing to the pollution.
The fact remains that more research is required on why mercury levels are going up and the impact it’s having on ecosystems.
“Is it affecting fish levels and is it going to result in increasing fish consumption advisories? We don’t know,” said Kirk.
But Environment Canada’s latest results only confirm the need to further study and address the serious impacts of oilsands development.
TORONTO – A panel reviewing a proposed pipeline to the Pacific Coast that would allow Canada’s oil to be shipped to Asia is recommending the Canadian government approve the project.
On Thursday, the three-person review panel recommended approving the pipeline with 209 conditions.
Natural Resource Minister Joe Oliver said the government will thoroughly review it and consult with affected aboriginal groups before making a decision on the contentious pipeline.
There is fierce environmental and aboriginal opposition and court challenges are expected.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper has staunchly supported the pipeline after the U.S. delayed a decision on TransCanada’s Keystone XL pipeline that would take oil from Alberta to the U.S. Gulf Coast.
The Northern Gateway pipeline would be laid from Alberta to the Pacific to deliver oil to Asia, mainly energy-hungry China.
The number of Canadians using food banks has fallen off slightly but still remains near record highs almost four years after the end of the economic recession.
The annual study by Food Banks Canada shows that more than 833,000 people relied on food handouts during one snapshot month earlier this year, compared with 872,379 the previous March. More than a third of them were children.
“Underlying this small drop is a concern of enormous proportions: food bank use remains higher than it was before the
recession began,” the report states.
“During a time of apparent economic recovery, far too many Canadians still struggle to put food on the table.”
Abundance of low-income jobs
Low-income jobs are the culprit, the report found, and there’s an abundance of them thanks to a Canada-wide loss of manufacturing jobs over the past three decades.
The annual HungerCount study provides one of the most up-to-date national indicators of poverty. The latest Statistics Canada numbers show that 8.8 per cent of people were living below the low-income cutoff in 2011.
Who is going hungry in 2013? More than half of those turning to food banks are families with children, the report concludes.
Twelve per cent of households asking for help were currently employed, while another five per cent were recently employed.
Eleven per cent of those using food banks self-identify as First Nations, Metis or Inuit, and another 11 per cent are new immigrants to Canada.
“Both of these groups continue to face unacceptable levels of poverty, and are forced to turn to food banks as a result,” the study found.
Food Banks Canada called on governments to invest in affordable housing, better income supports and to “increase social investment in northern Canada to address the stunning levels of food insecurity in northern regions.”
“We lose billions of dollars each year trying to address the health and social consequences of poverty after it takes its toll, rather than preventing it in the first place,” the study found.
Katharine Schmidt, the organization’s executive director, said the while federal and provincial governments are attempting to do more to combat hunger, the numbers remain disturbingly high.
“We’ve got a long way to go,” Schmidt said in an interview.
“One child going to bed hungry is one child too many, and we have 300,000 of them in this country.”
She added that while the country’s thousands of food banks are “really doing their best,” they do not represent a long-term solution because they cannot address the root causes of hunger.
“We believe that government does care, that they do see that they have a role to play,” she said. “The challenge is actually implementing a change in policy.”
A United Nations fact-finder is set to take stock of the plight of Aboriginal Peoples in Canada.
The UN has dispatched law professor James Anaya to speak to First Nations representatives and government officials as he drafts a report for the world body.
“The idea is to get a first-hand view of the situation of Aboriginal Peoples in Canada by hearing directly from as many as I can,” he said in a telephone interview.
As the UN’s special rapporteur on indigenous rights, Anaya is responsible for promoting laws and policies that support indigenous peoples around the world. He will also look at their living conditions and issue reports and recommendations.
The rapporteur has no binding authority. Rather, he aims to shame governments into action by bringing unacceptable conditions to light….
- UN fact-finder arrives in Canada to survey concerns of Aboriginal Peoples (ctvnews.ca)
- UN’s fact-finder on First Nations sets off on Canadian mission (theglobeandmail.com)
- United Nations envoy arrives in Canada to document Aboriginal concerns (mining.com)
- Alberta floods force thousands from homes (globalnews.ca)
- 3 die in Canadian floods (toledoblade.com)
- Floodwaters recede at Calgary, but threat moves on (worldnews.nbcnews.com)
- Rivers receding in Calgary, 3 dead in floods (timesleader.com)
- Calgary flood: Half a year’s rainfall in one day – at least 75,000 people evacuated – highways and whole neighbourhoods washed away (fromthetrenchesworldreport.com)
- Flooding cleanup begins; Hardest-hit areas of city still in ‘red zone’ (calgaryherald.com)
- Summer unrest tied to Harper inaction: Atleo (metronews.ca)
- Star obtains documents outlining federal objectives for meeting with aboriginal leaders (thestar.com)
- Atleo and others offer sympathy, support for remote Neskantaga First Nation (globalnews.ca)
- AFN’s Atleo, others offer sympathy, support for remote Neskantaga First Nation (local-news.jtn-network.com)
- First Nations leader sent Idle No More plans to government: emails (globalnews.ca)
- Aboriginal community tests out new dollar-tracking program (ctvnews.ca)