2010 - Ongoing
Nowhere today is Canada’s settler-colonialist legacy more evident than in the relationship between industry and Indigenous leadership. In 1899, Treaty 8 was signed by the Queen of England and 39 Indigenous First Nations in northern Alberta, Canada. The signing chiefs were assured that their land, culture and traditional means of survival would be preserved and respected for “as long the sun shines.” Their traditional hunter-gatherer heritage and a deep spiritual connection to nature, means that the health of Indigenous Peoples is intrinsically linked to the health of their land.
At that time, the Canadian government was already systematically kidnapping Indigenous children and forcing them to attend Residential Schools where the goal was to “kill the Indian within the child.” Generations of youth were subjected to torture, neglect and sexual abuse. Tens of thousands perished in the sub-human conditions. That legacy has left nearly all of the Indigenous communities in Canada crippled by a long list of deep-seated social issues.
Today, the Canadian government is leasing out 141,000 square kilometres of Indigenous territory to the world's leading energy corporations in order to develop Canada's Oil Sands. The Oil Sands are the third largest proven oil deposits on Earth. Dump trucks the size of apartment buildings haul loads of blackened sand to sprawling industrial facilities that run 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Electric swing shovels carve away the frontier, one enormous bite at a time, leaving behind a blanched wasteland of toxic lakes and stripped Earth.
In Fort McMurray, the booming oil economy has drawn dreamers from around the world, seeking a quick fortune in the mines. The area experienced a period of unprecedented growth, which gave birth to a freewheeling period of million-dollar homes and customized pickup trucks. More recently, a crippling collapse of oil prices has left many residents of Fort McMurray reeling in a time when mass layoffs and uncertainty are the new normal. In May 2016, a devastating wildfire, exacerbated by climate change, swept through the city, burning down 2400 buildings and 90,000 people homeless.
The Indigenous communities surrounding the oil sands are no longer able to sustain themselves off the land that previously nurtured their lives for thousands of years. As recently as forty years ago, hunters would not think twice about dipping their cups directly into Lake Athabasca when they were thirsty. Today, even the treated tap water in Fort McKay has been deemed unfit for human consumption. Over the last decade, First Nations leadership have been sounding alarms about the connection between oil development and rising rates of cancer, birth defects and other health problems in their communities. The traditional economies of hunting, fishing and fur trading have been decimated by unfettered industrial development, leaving the oil industry as the only employer available to most indigenous peoples in the region. For many, this means making a bitter compromise between one’s cultural heritage and short-term survival. If you listen closely around the kitchen tables of Fort Chipewyan, you will hear the stories of old wounds compounded by something unseen, yet real: “a slow-motion, cultural genocide.”