First Nations communities
fighting Canada tar sands mining and refining
By B.L. Azure
Attorney Pat Smith introduced George Poitras and Francois Paulette of
the First Nations Canada to the Tribal Council. (B.L. Azure photo)
PABLO — Two First Nations activists from Canada
made a swing through western Montana last week to, among other things,
let the people know about the scale of destruction that is happening
north of Edmonton, Alberta as a result of the mining of tar sands for
"The scale of the destruction is on a level that
is hard to understand," said attorney Pat Smith, their western Montana
contact and former attorney with the Confederated Salish and Kootenai
Smith brought the activists - Francois Paulette
and George Poitras - to the Flathead Reservation on Wednesday for a
presentation to the Salish Pend d'Oreille Culture Committee Elders
Committee and Thursday to meet with the Tribal Council.
"Our way of life is being destroyed. We don't want
to see any further destruction of the air and water," Paulette said.
"For the first time in our existence we are looking at food security.
It's unprecedented that we have to live under the cloud of food
scarcity. We are ground zero."
Ground zero of the tar sands reserves is much of
northern Alberta and southern portions of the Northwest Territories.
The vast majority of the populace in the area is the aboriginal tribal
Thompson Smith gave a presentation on the Alberta Tar Sands at the
Salish Pend d'Oreille Culture Committee Elders Committee meeting. The
overall area for tar sands is nearly as large as the state of Michigan.
(B.L. Azure photo)
The issue is not only the large-scale mining of
the tar sands but the processes involved.
Bituminous sands - oil sands or tar sands -
contain a natural mixture of sand, clay, water, and dense and extremely
viscous - like cold molasses at room temperature - form of petroleum
called bitumen. It looks and smells like tar. Hence the tar sands
The mining for the bitumen is conducted two ways.
One is open pit mining ala Berkeley Pit in Butte for the first 75
meters of depth.
However, most of the bitumen deposits though are
located 350 to 600 meters below the surface and to extract the deposits
require drilling and pumping. Because of the heavy viscosity of the
bitumen it has to be warmed and diluted with the injection of steam and
solvents. It then pumped to the surface for transport to on-site and
There are bitumen deposits throughout the world
with extremely large quantities of it in Canada and Venezuela; both
have reserves equal to the world's total reserves of conventional crude
There are an estimated 1.7 trillion barrels of tar
sand oil reserves in the Athabasca oil sands area in northern Alberta.
That represents three percent of total deposit that is obtainable with
The bitumen deposit footprint covers 54,000 square
miles of northern Alberta with a very small portion jutting into
Saskatchewan. When it reaches its peak the mining operation will be as
big as the state of Michigan and more than one-third the size the state
Francois Paulette, Tribal Council Chairman E.T. "Bud" Moran and
Councilman Mike Kenmille discuss the Alberta tar sands at last
Thurday's council meeting. (B.L. Azure photo)
The mining and refining of the tar sands deposits
is much like hot dogs, you may like the end product but you don't want
to see what goes into the process of making them. It takes a lot of
water and it leaves a mess above and below ground.
In its wake tar sands mining leaves an alien
landscape of gouged and scared earth with leach pounds, solid waste
heaps with islands of processing production facilities with billowing
It takes two tones of oil sands and four barrels
of water to refine one barrel of bitumen into synthetic oil using
up-graders. It can also be refined into petroleum products by
specialized refineries. The runoff of the refining process is held in
holding tanks. However much has leached into the aquifer and into the
drainage that empties into the Artic Ocean.
On its way to the Artic Ocean it passes through
the homelands of many First Nations communities. Since the tar sands
mining began in 1967 there has been an increase of cancer related
health problems among First Nation members living in the Athabasca
In February 2009 the Alberta Cancer Board released
a study responding to First Nation calls for an investigation that
revealed the overall cancer rate was approximately 30 percent higher
than expected. There was a three-fold increase in leukemia and
lymphoma, a seven-fold increase in bile duct cancers and elevated rates
of soft tissue sarcomas and lung cancers in women.
"Leukemias and lymphomas have been linked in the
scientific literature to petroleum products, including volatile
components of petroleum, dioxin-like chemicals and other hydrocarbons,"
said Dr. Gina Solomon, senior scientist at the Natural Resources
Defense Council, in the study.
The First Nation Canada members posed with the Tribal Council following
their presentation. From left are: attorney Pat Smith, councilmembers
Steve Lozar, Charlie Morigeau and Carole Lankford, George Poitras and
Francois Paulette, and councilmembers E.T. "Bud" Moran, Mike Kenmille,
Joe Durglo, Terry Pitts and James Steele, Jr. (B.L. Azure photo)
"We are the ones that are affected by this. It is
unjust, a violation of our human rights," Poitras said. "They have only
mined three percent in 40 years. I can't fathom, can't imagine what the
destruction will look like in the future. Further expansion compounds
the problem and exacerbates the incidents of cancer."
Canada is the largest supplier of oil and refined
petroleum products to the United States.
In a related matter, the CSKT and the Affiliated
Tribes of Northwest Indians have both passed resolutions in opposition
to the transport of the large tar sands refinery parts through
Washington, Idaho and Montana en route to Canada tar sand refineries.
In September 2010, the Assembly of First Nations,
representing more than 630 First Nation communities across Canada and
more than 700,000 First Nations people expressed concerns over the
impacts from tar sands development in a statement to then-U.S. Speaker
of the House Nancy Pelosi:
"First Nations across the country are concerned
about the impacts of oil sands development on First Nation peoples, the
environment, our traditional foods, our cultural and spiritual
practices and our rights in our traditional territories," Chief Shawn
A-in-chut, Assembly of First Nations, said in the statement.
The Treaty 6, 7, 8 First Nations, representing 44
First Nations communities from Alberta, have asked for a moratorium to
oil sands approvals until comprehensive land management planning
Poitras is a member
and former chief of the Mikisew Cree First Nation. He grew up in Fort
Chipewyan - Alberta’s oldest community - in the Peace-Athabascan River
The Mikisew Cree are one of five indigenous
within the Alberta Tar Sands area, and comprise the largest population
of the five Athabascan Tribal Council Nations. They live downstream
from the largest fossil fuel development on earth-the Alberta Tar
At the age of 20, he was honored as Alberta Junior
the Year. Poitras then obtained a degree in Business Administration
from Athabascan University and returned home to be the manager for his
At the age of 36, he was elected chief of his
nation and served in that capacity from 1999 to 2002.
Poitras successfully challenged the Canadian government on lack of
First Nation consultation on a development project that the government
approved. The 2004 unanimous (9-0) landmark decision by the Supreme
Court of Canada changed the legal landscape and elevated the legal
standard in Canada for government consultation with First Nations.
Poitras continues to work for the Mikisew Cree and
about environmental and health impacts from the Alberta Tar Sands
development. He has expressed concerns about possible links between
rare cancers that are now appearing in downstream First Nation
communities that may be linked to heavy metal pollutants - lead,
mercury and arsenic - from Tar Sands development.
Paulette is a
member of the Dene Suline tribe and member of the Smith’s Landing
Treaty 8 First Nation and was educated in the residential school
system. In 1971 he became the youngest chief of the Northwest
Territories Indian Brotherhood that eventually became the Dene Nation.
In 1972, with 16 other chiefs from the Mackenzie
Paulette challenged the Crown to recognize treaty and aboriginal rights
as well as title to over 450,000 square miles of land in the historic
As chief negotiator for the Smith’s Landing First
he worked diligently to conclude a Treaty Settlement Agreement, which
has proven to be of critical importance in protecting the Slave River
from hydroelectric development.
Paulette is a founding member
and chairman of the Dene Cultural Institute, and serves as an
interpreter of traditional knowledge and a facilitator of
He has served as a collaborator
on a number of Canadian and international documentary films that have
helped to increase public understanding of the Dene way of life and has
participated in ecumenical forums, including the Parliament of World
Religions, to promote understanding of the spiritual world of the Dene.
Francois lives on the Slave River by the
Territories border, 200 miles down river from the Alberta Tar Sands
fields. He presently serves as a commissioner with the Assembly of
First Nations, a national organization representing 630 First Nations