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Big Oil vs. Native Community: Canada's First Nations Challenges Shell's Plan to Mine Tar Sands

A treaty signed in 1899 enshrined First Nations' right to practice traditional life, and is now being used for a legal challenge to Shell Oil’s mining of tar sands.

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Wide repercussions for native land rights

Chelsea Flook of the Sierra Club, which works closely with AFCN, is hopeful about the case. No constitutional challenge based on Treaty 8 rights has ever been fully argued before a judge, she says. It’s a test case that, if successful, could set a precedent for stricter enforcement of treaty rights and change the way industrial development is regulated. More importantly, though, it would embolden indigenous groups all over the Canada to fight abuses by both industry and government.


For those of us in the United States, the gains and losses of a tiny native community, closer to the Arctic circle than most of us will ever get, may seem remote. But what’s at stake here isn’t just a few hundred people’s ability to hunt moose and conduct ceremonies in a particular spot. Both the U.S. and Canada share a history of colonizing what is essentially stolen land; our societies were built on a common system of disenfranchisement.

Honoring the treaties means honoring the most basic of agreements: the protection of a way of life—and, by extension, life itself. In the years since that day in 1899 when Treaty 8 was signed, every attempt to erase or assimilate indigenous people has been made, regardless of any commitment on paper. Native language and culture have been criminalized, children have been relocated to residential schools, and genocide has been a government policy. Industrial destruction of land is one final assault.

It’s a brutal and violent history, one that’s not taught in school. Coming to terms with our own past—as Canadians, as Americans, as colonizers—is unpleasant. It means seeing ourselves, here and now, in an unflattering light. Honoring agreements such as Treaty 8 means acknowledging all the ways these documents have been violated.

With this constitutional challenge, AFCN is forcing the Canadian government to look in the mirror. It’s a small step with huge implications, and a starting point for redressing more than a century of broken promises. 

Kristin Moe wrote this article for  YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas and practical actions. Kristin is a writer and climate justice activist from the U.S., spending three months in Alberta writing about the social and cultural impacts of the tar sands.


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Kristin Moe is a writer for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media project that fuses powerful ideas and practical actions. Kristin writes about climate, grassroots movements and social change. Follow her on Twitter: @yo_Kmoe

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