Reconcile This: Health, Wellness and Safety During a World Pandemic, or Concessions for Extreme Resource Extraction

by Crystal Lameman, guest author

As the world faces unprecedented times, we are presented with an opportunity to change a system that was not working, did not put life and Mother Earth first, and was grounded in the continued taking up of land and resources to fill a bottomless stomach of greed. But for awhile the world stood still, Mother Earth breathed a sigh of relief, our winged, four legged, crawling, and water relatives moved freely and we thought deeply about recovering the land – the echoes ripple the waters, and are heard in the trees, sent from our late friend and relative Arthur Manuel from his seat in the universe that never goes dark.

Many of us have sat and reflected, quiet and immobile, alert to the fact that the extractive industries and the policies that support them never sleep. Contrary to popular belief, the governments have not relented, they have not put people over profit. We are seeing policy, environmental monitoring and regulatory changes in the name of extraction and resource revenue taking place during a time when humanity should be heightened and protective measures for all – two-legged, four-legged, crawling, flying, finned – at the forefront.

We have always tried to be optimistic, so during the pandemic we hoped that in the spirit and intent of our Treaty, and reconciliation, our needs would be met, but they have not. During this pandemic we find ourselves further impacted by the colonial structures imposed on us, resulting in Nations like my own, the Beaver Lake Cree, having to call upon the Government of Canada to uphold the provisions of Treaty No. 6, specifically the Medicine Chest Clause, and the Famine and Pestilence Clauses. All the while my Nation prepares to meet Canada and Alberta’s legal counsel in court on June 4th on another one of their appeals, only this time they want to challenge Beaver Lake’s poverty, denying Beaver Lake is an impoverished Nation, such that it cannot afford the cost of the litigation.

Further, under the guise of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Alberta Energy Regulator (AER) has indefinitely suspended at least 19 environmental monitoring requirements for major oilsands producers, this includes Imperial Oil and CNRL, both of which are operating in my Nation’s territory.

It baffles me how monitoring requirements for environmental health were indefinitely stopped in the name of public safety and safety of essential workers and economic stimulus. Yet, schools were shut down to ensure public safety and safety of essential workers, and businesses not oil- and gas-related who also spur the economy were shut down. 

If that was not enough, Alberta then rescinds environmental protections that banned open-pit coal mines in the Rockies and Foothills, and they put Provincial Parks on the chopping block. Is it merely a coincidence that the Alberta maps of the natural gas deposits, Provincial Parks and coal policy changes interlaid are in the exact same area? 

It is difficult not to question if Alberta has made collective moves during the COVID-19 pandemic to attack our sacred and protected areas, all in the name of extraction and revenue, further adding to the cumulative effects of development on our inherent and Treaty rights. I will add that these moves triggered the duty to consult, the trigger was not pulled, instead further unilateral decisions were made without the Free, Prior and Informed Consent of Indigenous peoples.

Those sacred mountains were not included in Treaty, just as water was not. We never agreed to share those sacred beings, just as we did not agree to share below the depth of a farming plow.

Then there was a glimmer of hope from Ottawa, the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) announced that cultural ceremonies, if done in a way that ensures the health of the people attending, and that social distancing measures are put in place, can and will proceed. Further, the RCMP also said that they do not see themselves going out to ceremonies to arrest people or remove them. However, just prior to the PMO announcement an agency of the government, the RCMP, attempted to intervene on a sun dance ceremony taking place in Saskatchewan. Then less than two weeks later, after the PMO announcement four First Nations men in Manitoba traveling north of the 53rd parallel from Winnipeg, on their way to a ceremony were given hefty fines issued by the RCMP citing non-essential travel, despite the fact the men explained they understood the PMO allowed Indigenous peoples to travel safely to ceremonies. So no, they won’t go to the ceremonies to arrest and remove, instead they’ll fine and deter prior to reaching the protected sovereign areas of the reserve boundaries?

Such conduct is reminiscent of the now shunned federal ban on Indigenous ceremonies and potlatches that lasted over 60 years. 

This is not a question about health and safety, our communities have kept the COVID-19 cases low or at zero, such as the Beaver Lake Cree, because of our proactiveness, and reinvigoration of social distancing practices that kept our people alive in past epidemics like the Spanish flu and Smallpox. This is about the actions by government and their agencies to further entrench systemic racism and oppression, that excludes or isolates Indigenous peoples, like data incongruencies of positive COVID-19 cases reported by Indigenous Services Canada, and over policing and militarization of our people as a means to isolate and control, whether it is intentional or not. 

Rather than focusing on the health, safety and wellness of our communities, we continue to have to walk head up, eyes wide, senses alert to policies and decisions that do not serve Indigenous peoples and communities. Despite the intentional hardships we are dealt with, as long as our ceremony people continue to lift their bundles and pipes, and our women continue to birth our babies we will not sleep, we will not be quiet, we will not stop, and we will continue to question the notion of reconciliation on the basis of words versus actions. 


Join Crystal, together with legal counsel for BLCN Karey Brooks, on a webinar on Thursday May 28th


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