When new oil and gas projects are approved in Canada, whether it’s an individual drill pad, a sour gas line, or a massive oil sands mine, their environmental impacts are assessed individually. If, for example, a company applies for a permit to build the 20,000th piece of fossil fuel infrastructure on Beaver Lake Cree territory in northern Alberta, the project will be assessed based solely on its individual potential impact, not on the cumulative ramifications that 20,000 pieces of infrastructure could have on waterways, wildlife, or the ecosystem more broadly.
Beaver Lake Cree territory is dotted with 35,000 pieces of oil and gas infrastructure, and its land is pock-marked by 21,700 kilometres of seismic lines, 4,028 kilometres of pipeline and 948 kilometres of road. In fact, nearly 90 percent of the nation’s land is occupied by industrial development. This commercial activity has fundamentally altered the environment and effectively erased an ecosystem.
The Beaver Lake Cree are a Treaty 6 nation. There are many ways in which Canada has failed to live up to its treaty commitments, in particular by permitting the wholesale extraction of resources lying below “the depth of a plow.” Yet the Crown also guaranteed that the Beaver Lake Cree (and other signatories) would retain the right to hunt, fish, and live more or less as they were living for thousands of years within their territory. As the Nation puts it, Canada promised that they “would be able to maintain their way of life.”
The first oil and gas installation didn’t eliminate that possibility. Neither did the 100th, the 1,000th, or the 30,000th, individually. But somewhere between occupying zero percent of their land and 88 percent of their land, a line was crossed by permitting so much industrial development that hunting, fishing, and an entire way of life were no longer possible.
Which is why the nation sued both Canada and Alberta in 2008. Fifteen years later, the case has yet to be heard, primarily because the provincial and federal governments have been using every legal tool in their arsenal to delay it. They are afraid of the challenge it poses to Canada’s claim of absolute sovereignty over Treaty land.
This battle over Treaty rights and industrial overdevelopment is one of the core stories featured in Toronto publisher Between the Lines’ The End of This World: Climate Justice in So-Called Canada. According to the authors, it illustrates both where the climate justice movement needs to go and, at least partially, how we get there.
In the face of the Trudeau government’s attempts to limit and co-opt the radical concept of “just transition,” Crystal Lameman, a member of the Beaver Lake Cree, and her co-authors present a holistic and internationalist vision of what the term means. They do this by presenting a series of principles meant to guide action towards justice both within and across borders at the same time as accelerating climate mitigation to successfully limit warming to 1.5C. First and foremost amongst these principles is that “a just transition asserts Indigenous sovereignty here and abroad.”
The authors justify this focus throughout the book by illustrating the fundamental differences between Indigenous ways of being and those stemming from European culture (or from capitalism and colonialism). Indeed, the Indigenous peoples of Turtle Island and around the world tend to view humans as part of a web of relationships with the Earth and its more-than-human contents. The dominant European culture, meanwhile, situates us in an oppositional “us-versus-them” dynamic focused on domination, seeing humans as separate from nature. The implications of that ontological difference are made manifest by the fact that despite centuries of marginalization and oppression, Indigenous peoples today steward 80 percent of the planet’s remaining biodiversity.
With this in mind, the book attempts to paint a hopeful picture of a near-future where the Canadian government has reimagined its Treaty relationships and established structures of shared governance over the country’s land base. In this vision, Indigenous communities are the primary decision-makers regarding development on their land. Fossil fuel companies are mostly nationalized and their rapid wind-down is co-managed by the government and the nations whose land it occupies, preventing capture and abuse by Crown corporations like BC Hydro and Nalcor Energy. Universal public services are provisioned and based on Indigenous principles of care.
In short, the authors show us that a Canada that actually lives up to and prioritizes its Treaty obligations can be a country that works for all of us, accelerating every aspect of a truly just transition.
Circling back to the Beaver Lake Cree lawsuit, it is, according to the nation, the first case challenging Canada’s approach to approving industrial development on Treaty lands. The authors and the Beaver Lake Cree agree: when they win (after Canada runs out of methods by which to delay the trial) it will set a precedent that has the potential to transform Canada’s relationships with Indigenous peoples and its approach to land use and industrial development writ large.
The legal challenge offers what the authors identify as a “non-reformist reform,” a concept developed by French-Austrian philosopher André Gorz meant to identify reforms to the capitalist status quo that hold potential for or build momentum towards longer term anti-capitalist outcomes. It is meant as a way to distinguish tactics that legitimate and maintain the prevailing order from those that may have near-term benefits while still contributing to the long-term goal of ending capitalism.
There is no question that pursuing this legal challenge is a non-reformist reform: it holds immense potential value in the short-term for the Beaver Lake Cree, for other Treaty nations, and for all of us fighting for a livable future. It also holds the potential to contribute to the longer term project of eroding the capitalist state’s claim to legitimacy.
But that latter transformative potential is just that, potential—even if they win in court. Progress isn’t guaranteed.
Originally posted in Canadian Dimension
For more on the Canadian Indigenous Climate Action check out this Sounds of SAND interview with ICA Executive Direction Eriel Tchekwie Deranger