Murphy Oil Deal On Kainai Nation Introduces Grave Concerns

Elle-Maija Tailfeathers, filmmaker and activist, discusses hydraulic fracturing deal with Murphy Oil on Kainai Nation, the largest reserve in Canada, posing serious threat to the environment and alarming health risks.

      As I write this, I know that my words can and likely will be used against me in the Alberta provincial court. My name is Elle-Máijá Apiniskim Tailfeathers and I am both Blackfoot from Kainai, otherwise known as the Blood Reserve, as well as Sámi from arctic Norway. Before I begin, I wish to state that I do not claim to speak on behalf of my people but rather as a member of a community that has the health of our people and land as our top priority.  On September 9, 2011, Blood Tribe police arrested me along with two other unarmed women from the Blood Tribe during a peaceful blockade on the Blood Reserve.  We were then held over night in a Blood Tribe holding cell and charged with “intimidation” under Section 423 (1)(g) of the Criminal Code. Our actions were not done in haste; in fact, this was only the most recent action taken after nearly a year’s worth of attempting to prevent new gas and oil development from happening on our land. The issue is very complex but here is my attempt at putting it all into context while maintaining some form of brevity.


      The facts go as follows. The Blood Reserve is a part of the Blackfoot Confederacy and is the largest reserve in Canada spanning approximately 884 square kilometers. There are over 10,000 members of the Blood Tribe, fifty percent of which live on reserve and the unemployment rate on-reserve is over fifty percent.  Over one year ago, the Blood Tribe Chief and Council signed one of the largest gas and oil deals in Canadian First Nations history.  The deal with Murphy Oil and Bowood Energy netted the Blood Tribe over $50 Million and potentially more revenue in the future.  Prior to negotiating and signing the deal, the Blood Tribe Chief and Council did not engage in any form of free, prior, or informed consent with members of the Blood Tribe. There were no referendums, no letters or phone calls to members, nothing that would constitute as a legitimate form of open and transparent communication. The deal itself involves a five-year lease, during which time the gas and oil companies have access to over fifty percent of Blood Tribe land where they intend to build over 200 gas and oil wells. The gas and oil extraction method that will and is occurring is known as hydraulic fracturing, otherwise known as fracking. Given the incredibly toxic nature of this form of gas and oil extraction, fracking has been banned in numerous countries and states around the world. Pro-gas and oil politicians can say what they like about the safety and benefits of fracking but I think the devastation that fracking does to the land and human health speaks for itself.

      Generally, the first question that is asked when this issue is presented to new ears is “How could this happen?” It is a difficult question to answer but I believe that the issue has four major players: the gas and oil companies; government, both provincial and federal; the Blood Tribe Chief and Council; and the Blood Tribe member population. The issue also fits into a larger narrative of power, oppression, and colonialism. Although our Prime Minister purports otherwise, Canada was founded on the systemic colonial exploitation of Indigenous peoples and our land.  The truth is we do not live in a post-colonial world; instead, we face colonialism in all its new, discreet, and ironically polite ways. Our story is nothing new; history is simply repeating itself.  Only this time around, it is not a case of Red versus White. 

      Firstly, I wish to point out that Canadians as a whole are faced with grave shortcomings in government policy that should be designed to protect the health and well being of its citizens. When we turn to governmental regulatory bodies that are said to have the best interests of the environment and human health in mind, what we find is that they too are fundamentally rooted in a capitalist agenda. As the Honorable Ron Liepert, Minister of Energy, said in his opening statement in the Energy Resources Conservation Board of Alberta 2010-2011 Annual Report “Government…continued to strengthen Alberta’s investment competitiveness and demonstrate that Alberta is a secure environmentally responsible supplier of energy.” It does not take much to recognize the contradiction in this statement. When it comes to environmental monitoring, much of the responsibility falls on the shoulders of industry itself; perhaps this has to do with the fact that the Alberta Provincial government owns approximately 80% of the province’s mineral rights. Speaking of Alberta’s lack of environmental safeguarding, a September 2011 report from the Pembina Institute states that Alberta’s Tar Sands are currently the fastest growing source of greenhouse gas (GHG) pollution in Canada.  It is not likely that the rise of GHG levels will be reduced in the foreseeable future as the GHG levels from the Tar Sands have more than doubled in the last two decades and will likely be doubled again by the year 2020.  When looking at the human aspect of the Tar Sands, we only have to look as far as the community of Fort Chippewyan located shortly downstream from the Tar Sands.  What we find here is a community that is plagued by cancer rates over 30% than the expected norm, water that is undrinkable, game that is inedible, and lakes and rivers that the children can no longer swim in. Hon. Ron Liepert, I implore you to explain to the public how this equates to environmentally responsible energy development.


      So what does this all mean for Indigenous peoples confined to reserves, otherwise known as crown land?  We find ourselves in a very unique position. We are a population living on the margins of Canadian society; plagued by a long list of social issues due to a violent history of colonialism. Because of our resource-rich lands and our unique relationship with the crown we find ourselves as targets for resource development companies. This is manifested in the rhetoric of “economic development” which is the ideology that purports to solve today’s “Indian Problem” by developing resources on our land which, in theory, generates employment and sustainable futures for Indigenous peoples.  However, this ideology rarely plays out this way in real life. Instead, the reality is that resource development companies bring in their own trained staff for the short-term period of development contracts and then, when all is said and done, they leave the Indigenous communities with the task of cleaning up the mess.  Indigenous peoples are not the same as other Canadians in the eyes of the law, nor should we be. However, the issue of Aboriginal Rights and Title to land and resources is still unresolved. As long as it remains unresolved, resource development companies can essentially do as they wish with Indigenous lands and resources without being held accountable to provincial and federal governments. These governments in turn benefit from the exploitation of resources on Indigenous land.


      This leads me to the final player in the game and possibly the most contentious - Chief and Council. The band council system itself is deeply flawed and in no way represents traditional Indigenous self-governance. In fact, many would argue that band councils are simply puppets of the federal government and are inherently designed to fail.  After all, how could the federal government continue to benefit from the exploitation of Indigenous lands and resources if they had to negotiate on an even playing field with First Nations?  This might mean that they would have to actually honour and uphold the original nation-to-nation relationship established in our historic treaties. Instead, it is much easier a task for both resource development companies and government to negotiate with the mockery of Indigenous government that is the modern-day band council.  It is no secret that Indigenous peoples are faced with the daily reality of lateral violence; however it is critical to recognize that the root of this violence stems from oppression that is very deeply internalized. We have been hated on for so damn long that we have succumbed to turning that same hate on our very own people. The Blood Tribe Chief and Council’s choice to blatantly ignore the health and well-being of our people and our land was an act of violence deeply rooted in self-hate.

      I feel as though I have already said too much and, in the same vein, so much more needs to be said.  I do not have the means to prescribe a solution but I do know that apathy is our largest adversary.

Elle-Máijá Apiniskim Tailfeathers, Kainai/Sámi

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