Char-Koosta News

The Official Publication of the Flathead Nation online

March 10, 2011

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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)
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 fossil fuel.

"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 Tribes.

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 people.

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)
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 reference.

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 off-site refineries.

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 oil.

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 today's technology.

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 of Montana.

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)
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 smoke stacks.

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 River watershed.

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)
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 occurs.

George 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 Delta.

The Mikisew Cree are one of five indigenous communities 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 Sands.

At the age of 20, he was honored as Alberta Junior Citizen of the Year. Poitras then obtained a degree in Business Administration from Athabascan University and returned home to be the manager for his First Nation.

At the age of 36, he was elected chief of his nation and served in that capacity from 1999 to 2002.

Chief 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 speak out 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.

Francois 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 Valley, 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 case.

As chief negotiator for the Smith’s Landing First Nation, 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 cross-cultural understanding.

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 Alberta/Northwest 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 across Canada.

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