Archive for July 2013

Stop the Destruction, Start the Healing

13 July 2013

Alberta Tar Sands
It is hard to take in the scope of destruction that has occurred in the tar sands. The mind can’t connect this toxic wasteland to the boreal forest that used to be alive here.

My mind did not make that connection until nearly a week after the Healing Walk when I wrote that line and had to stop writing for a while. This was, I think, what a friend was looking for when she looked at me shortly after the walk and asked “So?”   I didn’t have much to say at the time.

You can look at the tar sands if you don’t think too much. The tailings lakes look like water. The white sand around them looks like nice beach. The floating orange scare-crows are kind of amusing. The boom of propane cannons is familiar from Fraser Valley farms. Don’t think about the smell and what you might be breathing that a dust mask does not filter. Be thankful for the rain that keeps the dust down.

Think about statistics. Like in 2010 per day;

1,460,000 barrels of tar sands oil produced

465,753,000 litres of water used

241,370 tonnes of greenhouse gases

Per day. Those are big numbers. Nearly half a billion litres of water per day contaminated and dumped into these deadly tailings lakes. Nearly a quarter million tonnes, that’s nearly a quarter billion kilograms, of greenhouse gas emissions into our atmosphere per day. I can look at numbers like that and discuss how the atmosphere surpassed 400ppm CO2 recently or how river flows are declining in Alberta as the glaciers recede and climate change brings us the new boom and bust water cycle that smacked down Calgary and Toronto recently. I can talk about these things and then go have supper and enjoy the drumming in the Healing Walk camp and look forward to a swim in a real lake the next morning.

Just don’t think of life and the fact that this grey, stinking devastation used to be a living place with soil and plants and trees, animals and birds and people. Don’t think of complicity in the loss of life, the utter disregard for life that has occurred here. Don’t think of the radius of harm that reaches out with the weather and the water flowing past this place, taking cancer to the fish and the animals and the people who live many kilometres down river. Don’t think of how federal and provincial authorities continue to promote this foul death as the future for Canada while practising denial and obfuscation in the face of growing proof that this development is killing people in places like Fort Chipewyan. Don’t think about how this is the fastest growing source of greenhouse gas emissions in Canada, contributing to species loss occurring now at a rate unprecedented even by the mass extinction that ended the age of dinosaurs. Don’t think about how this devastation is spreading back to our home towns, pushing pipelines and oil trains close to our schools, our local businesses and our home waters.

Tailings Lake
To think of those things — to really connect the disgusting landscape of the tar sands to the life that was once there, to feel that life and to know the threat to life the tar sands pose — is to wrestle with rage and despair that wastes time and saps energy.

Stop the Destruction - Start the Healing
Instead have faith in the ceremony performed by the elders to the four directions as we walked the 14 km loop of Highway 63 in the heart of the tar sands. Think of the rain that cleanses the earth. Think of the capacity of nature to restore itself if given half a chance. Think of the positive energy and the sharing of stories, culture and knowledge among the hundreds who came to witness the tar sands first hand and to raise the call to “Stop the Destruction. Start the Healing”.

Dene Nation Banner
Think most of all of the baby born in the camp at midnight on the fourth of July, on the eve of the fourth annual Healing Walk, in a teepee on a buffalo robe.

Some said it was the fulfilment of a prophesy. I don’t know, it was not my prophesy to look for fulfilment of. I do know that this baby, born at that place at that time, represented to me renewal and the resilience of life. This baby represented the obligation that all of us share to find better ways of being and to make a better place for him and all the babies of today and for generations to come.

Healing Camp Baby
This baby will never know me. But I will remember him and how his birth made my heart glad even in that awful place. I will remember him and my obligation to stop the destruction and start the healing so that one day the Athabasca River will run clean again. Stop the destruction and start the healing so that one day … maybe in this baby’s lifetime … people will be able to eat the fish again without fear. Stop the destruction and start the healing so that the wealth that was in these waters and sustained people in this part of the world for millennia, now stolen to pad the accounts of global corporations already wealthier than nations, can be restored to sustain people again. Stop the destruction and start the healing so that this baby -and all of our children- don’t have to.

All our children

Stop the Destruction – Start the Healing

Canada Day 2013

1 July 2013

Canadians value justice.  We think of our country as a place of democracy and evenhandedness.  We want our children to be left better off than we ourselves have been in terms not only of financial wealth, but in terms of the wealth that rests in the health of our home lands and waters, and the freedom and security of our way of life.  These shared values unite us.  Let us work together to make them real.

July 1, 2013 marks Canada’s 146th birthday. Of course in 1867 the Dominion of Canada only included Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and the much smaller than present day provinces of Ontario and Quebec. The word “Dominion” in “Dominion of Canada” was inspired by Psalm 72:8 from the King James Bible and intended as a tribute to the Monarchy. Sir John A. Macdonald, who became first Prime Minister of Canada, argued for the name “Kingdom of Canada”, but did not prevail.

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image: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Canada_provinces_1867-1870.png

Beginning in the 1850’s and through the 1860s there was a movement of primarily English speaking Protestants, many of them Orangemen, to annex Rupert’s Land into Canada. This movement originated in Upper Canada (later Ontario), a region so named because of its proximity to the headwaters of the Saint Lawrence River relative to Lower Canada which appears higher ‘up’ on our usual North-at-the-top oriented maps.  Such was the importance of waterways to travel and commerce at the time.  Promoters of Canadian expansionist ambitions saw the Red River Settlement as a potential home base from which to spread British values into the West.

After confederation, the Dominion of Canada negotiated with England for the transfer of Rupert’s Land to Canada. British Parliament passed the Rupert’s Land Act in July 1868, which set terms including payment of monies and land grants to the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC). The transfer was to occur on December 1, 1869. Unfortunately no one discussed these dealings with the inhabitants of the land.

In the Red River Settlement, lands that had already been purchased from the HBC by residents were now sold by the HBC to Canada. Canadian surveyors working in the Red River area prior to the transfer came into conflict with the French-speaking Metis Andre Nault, who called upon Louis Riel for assistance. Riel, accompanied by a group of Metis, peaceably but firmly made the trespassing surveyors withdraw from Nault’s hay privilege.

Soon after, the Metis formed a National Committee and made it known that the Canadian government’s proposed Lieutenant Governor of the Settlement, Minister of the Interior William McDougall, a man who referred to the Metis as “semi-savages and serfs of yesterday”, would not be allowed access to the Settlement unless Canada negotiated terms with representatives of the Settlement. This refusal to allow McDougall access was enforced when on November 2, 1869 a Metis party turned back McDougall at the border with the United States.

Unbeknownst to McDougall, the transfer of Rupert’s Land to Canada had been postponed following news of the unrest in the Red River Settlement. On December 1, 1869, the original date for the transfer, McDougall forged the Queen’s signature on a proclamation he drew up, crossed the border and proclaimed that the Hudson’s Bay Company was no longer in control of Rupert’s Land

This resulted a situation Prime Minister MacDonald had written to warn McDougall of (a letter McDougall did not receive in time), wherein the HBC’s authority was ended, but Canada’s authority was not established. In this absence of government the residents were in a lawful position to form a government for protection of life and property. This the Metis National Committee did on December 8, 1869.

Metis representatives travelled to Ottawa and, after being briefly jailed, negotiated an agreement that formed the basis of the Manitoba Act. Among the provisions of the Manitoba Act was 1,400,000 acres of land to be set aside for the children of the Metis, in the area where Winnipeg is today. Manitoba (a smaller Manitoba than we know today) joined confederation July 15, 1870.

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image: commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Canada_provinces_1870-1871.png

A couple of months before, a Canadian military expedition had been dispatched to the Settlement. Upon learning that elements within the expedition planned to lynch him, Riel fled to exile in the United States. It is interesting to note that while in exile Riel was three times elected to Canadian Parliament. Out of fear for his life, Riel was never able to take his seat in the House of Commons (and as we know, when the government did get hold of Riel, following his leadership in standing up for Metis rights in Saskatchewan, he was soon hanged).  Upon arrival in the Settlement the Canadian expedition engaged in crimes of the worst order against Metis citizens. This, coupled with on-going hostility from Ontarian settlers in following years, contributed to the dispersion of many Metis from Manitoba to point west and south.

The Metis never did receive the 1.4 million acres of land promised by the Manitoba Act, a deliberate act of the Canadian government which continues to vex the country today.

On 8 May 2013, the Manitoba Metis Federation (MMF) won a Supreme Court decision against the government of Canada. The MMF provided documentary evidence that the government of Canada under John A. MacDonald carried out a deliberate plan to deny the Metis their land and to overwhelm the province with settlers more amenable to the government. The Supreme Court agreed with the Metis claims, finding that “The federal Crown failed to implement the land grant provision set out in s. 31 of the Manitoba Act, 1870 in accordance with the honour of the Crown.” and stating that “So long as the constitutional grievance at issue here remains outstanding, the job of reconciliation and constitutional harmony remains unachieved.”

Unfortunately this court decision does not seem to signal a settlement of the issue any time soon. The Harper government responded to the decision by stating that the ruling does not spell out any specific remedy for the Metis.

This small piece of Canada’s history, too briefly told here, exemplifies the conflict, discrimination and disregard for law that lies hidden beneath the polite fabric of Canadian identity. In its dealings and treaties with First Nations and Metis, the government of Canada has failed to act “in accordance with the honour of the Crown” from the formation of the country to the present day.

Recent unilateral removal of protections of rivers and lakes by bills C-38 and C-45 helped spark the Idle No More movement across the country. These omnibus bills, a type of bill once denounced by Stephen Harper as undemocratic and counter to the “conventions and practices of the House”, made changes to the Fisheries Act and the Navigable Waters Protection Act such as; removing protection of fish habitat (as if the fish can just move elsewhere if their habitat is damaged, like humans moving out of a flood zone), reducing protection of fish species to include only those of commercial, recreational or aboriginal fisheries value, and even changing the name of the Navigable Waters Protection Act to the Protection of Navigation Act.  First Nations argue that these and other changes imposed without consultation by these bills infringe on treaty rights and ignore indigenous sovereignty.

The omnibus bills were followed by (among other things) imposition of Bill S-8, the Safe Drinking Water for First Nations Act, which has been characterized in an analysis commissioned by the Assembly of First Nations as “An empty and dangerous response to pressing needs”.  With this Act the government of Canada overrides the authority of First Nations bands on reserves with respect to drinking water, expressly overriding constitutionally protected rights.  S-8 imposes costs and responsibilities on First Nations without addressing capacity to meet them, and once again fails in the Crown’s duty to consult.

All the while, the government touts small and narrowly focused investments, such as the June 18 announcement by Chilliwack-Hope MP Mark Strahl of $10-million for recreational fish conservation measures, as progress.  While in that measure we can agree with Strahl that “Local residents know best how to protect and conserve fish habitat”, there are an overabundance of disquieting actions readily found by those who care to examine this country we call Canada.

This Canada Day let us spend some time looking honestly and thoughtfully at the Canada that is, and imaging the Canada we want.  Then with that in mind, let us each ask ourselves “What’s my first step?”

The author is a descendant of Red River Metis.