In July 2009, in the remote community of Beaver Lake, Alberta, journalists from the BBC beheld a most unusual sight: two well-dressed British bankers taking part in a traditional Cree ceremony.
From their business dress and stiff dancing the bankers looked out of place, but it was not their familiarity or fascination with Cree culture that brought them there. They were representing the UK-based Co-operative Bank, known for its aim of practicing ethical investing, which had just agreed to financially assist the Cree with their dramatic legal challenge. The Beaver Lake Cree claim that after 130 years, the rights they were guaranteed by treaty are being ignored by the governments of Alberta and Canada to allow for the development of one of the largest deposits of oil ever found.
Within the claimed traditional hunting grounds of the Cree lies what some argue is the single largest deposit of oil on the planet. By recoverable volume, the Alberta Oil Sands deposit is second only to the oil fields of Saudi Arabia. However, unlike the free-flowing Saudi oil, the process of removing the tar-like bitumen from the sandy soil is energy intensive and, in some cases, extremely invasive. Mining companies remove the oil through in-situ steam injection or strip-mining, both of which carry significant environmental consequences. Currently, most of the oil sand is recovered via strip-mining, where the oil must be washed from the sand with hot water, resulting in significant tailings effluent that is disposed of in massive tailings ponds. These ponds are often situated adjacent to natural bodies of water. Squeezing oil from sand has required drilling, mining, habitat removal, and creation of some twenty square miles of tailings ponds, dramatically changing the habitat of the Beaver Lake Cree’s traditional hunting grounds. These changes constitute a real and significant threat to the Cree’s way of life.
With help from the Co-operative Bank and others, the Beaver Lake Cree hope to put a halt to the rapid expansion of the oil sands mining operations. Their complaint cites Treaty Six, signed in 1876 with the Canadian government, as the authority for challenging the mining expansion, pitting rights guaranteed by a 130-year-old treaty against the economic potential of an estimated three million barrels of oil per day. In the treaty, the Beaver Lake Cree and many other native peoples in Alberta and Saskatchewan agreed to “cede, release, surrender and yield up to the Dominion of Canada . . . all their rights, titles and privileges” to their lands. In exchange, the government agreed to protect their “right to pursue their avocations of hunting and fishing throughout the tract surrendered.”
If the claims of environmental degradation on the Beaver Lake Cree hunting grounds prove to be true, then the rights guaranteed by Treaty Six are surely being curtailed. Unfortunately, little scientific testing has been done to quantify the destruction that the Beaver Lake Cree observe around them.
Fortunately for the Beaver Lake Cree, a recent case decided in British Columbia argued by their attorney Jack Woodward, suggests that courts still recognize and uphold such rights. In Tsilhqot’in First Nation v. British Columbia, the court held that the Tsilhqot’in had rights to hunt, trap, and trade in over 400,000 hectares of their territory and that these rights had been violated. A similar success for the Beaver Lake Cree would help set a precedent in Canada that development of natural resources should not come at the expense of indigenous and human rights.