Oil Sands Truth: Shut Down the Tar Sands

The Beaver Lake Cree Nation vs the Tar Sands

The Beaver Lake Cree Nation vs the Tar Sands

July 15th, 2009

The following article was written by Drew Mildon, a lawyer at the Canadian law firm Woodward and Company. Woodward and Company is overseeing the Beaver Lake Cree Nation law suit against the Government of Canada.

The Cooperative Financial Services delegates flew into Edmonton on Canada day. They brought along with them Emily Beament, a member of the British Press Association, a BBC film crew and Paul Myles from Ecologist Magazine. We drove north to Lac La Biche, passing through Fort Saskatchewan – the refinery and upgrading center of Alberta, the nexus of so many pipelines – pushing the natural gas needed to drive the engines of the oil industry. Past the Dow Chemical plant and the miles and miles of puffing smokestacks. Across the road from all this industry a few skinny cattle graze and you begin to give serious thought to how enticed you’ll be next time you see the words “Alberta Beef.”

On Thursday morning, we meet our plane at the tiny green terminal building of the Lac La Biche airport. We fly north over the vast green forests, bogs and fens of the boreal. Seismic lines old and new checkering and cris-crossing and carving the wood into unnatural patterns in long desperate lines that stretch as far as the eye can see. Everywhere little squares of SAGD’s old and new scar the landscape.

In Fort McMurray the “Beeb” crew tape up the helicopters with duct tape and external cameras for the flight out over the heart of the problem. We slide up the valley of the Clearwater River and its pretty, pretty like river valleys are supposed to be, and then you come up over the rise and its all there in front of you. And. it. is. devastating. There are moments when, 2,000 ft up, the entire horizon is open pit mines and upgraders, a thousand of those tiny trucks down there, each three stories high and carrying 100 tons of tar sands, these hundreds of foot high pipes burning off sour gas in eternal shooting flames (because its cheaper than upgrading it) – and the lakes (no ponds, no) the lakes of strange grayish yellow that go on and on and on. There’s a new lake district in Alberta – but you wouldn’t want to pop in there to cool off on a hot sunny day. There’s another moment, when each of us on that helicopter, each of us committed, by the laws of our childhood, by our faiths, by our sense of duty, by what ever moral or ethical bubble guides us, committed to the care and the protection of this good earth which sustains us, which fills us with food and life and cool, cool water and we all think – “this is too big, too terrible and it cannot be stopped.” And I am weeping, weeping with the sickness of it, weeping with the anger and hatred for those who direct this thing, for those who profit from this thing.

Remember the scene in the animated version of Watership Down? Where the rabbits who escaped the warren late catch up and describe the bulldozers and the gas poured down the holes?

In my early 20s I was diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder – and looking down on this fucked up mess I think: “This will all start over again. I will wake every night now, shivering and shaking and unable to scream and this will be the thing that is in my head – this image I will carry with me all of my life.” But it is a good thing to go, and to see, and to bear witness, I think.

We retire to the Benson hunting lodge for the evening. It’s a buffalo ranch next to the Beaver Lake reserve, and it is incredible peaceful and serene. In the early morning you wake to the soft snorting of the buffalo and the deer jump golden in the slanting light from their nighttime safety slip among the herd. And we pack up to drive around to some of the SAGD and pipelines in the area. Everything seems mild after the tar sands pits – but you don’t have to look long at the miles of gleaming silver pipelines running six-abreast to understand why the caribou went away. On the side of a massive upgrader a huge sign, one presumes about worker safety, reads “Stop and think!!!” Yes, perhaps we should.

But in the evening we are back at the Beaver Lake cultural grounds for the Pow Wow. And it is a hell of a show. It is the plains First Nations at their very finest, at their most joyful and their most proud and it is a truly amazing thing to behold. It is one of those moments when I feel most blessed in my vocation. When we first arrive there are cameras and journalists everywhere, Chief Lameman and the Pow Wow marshals emerge from the tent where they have just completed a pipe ceremony – to respond to the reports and the mics in their faces. And they are soft-spoken, thoughtful – and determined as hell.

We walk into the Grand Entry, following Chief Lameman and his Council, Germaine Anderson, Jerry Gladue, and Hank Gladue. As we stand in the center of the ring and hundreds of swirling dancers in traditional gear move around us – it’s enough to make a scrawny white guy a bit nervous. And it is so, so cool. I think the pasty Brits from Manchesters’ eyes are going to fall out of their heads. No one is prepared for the precision and power of the spectacle, or the strength and power of Cree drumming and singing. Your body just moves to it. We are honoured by Chief and Council with blankets and as we try to slip quietly to the sidelines we’re instructed – “No, no – you have to dance one round with your blankets.” I laugh, thinking they’re having me off (as the Brits would say). And the photographer for the Journal says “I think he’s serious.” And I think the photographer just sees a good opportunity for some funny shots of lawyers trying to dance. So after one dance I try to slip away again – only to be told by a grinning Kookum – “No, no, once you start you have to dance until it’s over.” So someone is having me off – but who am I to complain? The beat rides your blood. Some of the children have recognized Colin from pictures around the Band office – and they gather around him – teaching him their styles.

The next day it’s back to the Pow Wow and a breakfast of Bannock burgers and Indian tacos. We aim for the less-professional looking stands, hoping for the perfect home-made bison burger. On the way I’m asked by Colin if there’s any sort of “shamanistic” tradition amongst the Cree and I grin – knowing what lies ahead in the next few days. As we walk in, a local healer is standing, chatting with my colleagues.

Throughout the day the announcers at the Pow Wow are welcoming the visitors from over the big pond – and cracking wise about words like “Blimey” (apparently from “God Blind Me!”). That afternoon Colin goes up to give away some presents from the Cooperative – and the announcer invites folks up from outside Treaty 6 and Colin is surrounded by children – the perfect pale slim summer Santa. And Colin and Paul present a check for $100,000 Canadian to Chief Lameman and a director from RAVEN – to help protect the lands, to help constraint the tar sands in their seemingly insurmountable march. Chief Al says – “without the land we have nothing, we must protect it.” My boss, big Jack Woodward, standing tall in his misshapen cowboy hat takes the mic, and sets the crowd on fire. He gives them a new copy of an old treaty – says that promises must be kept. And the shouts and war cries fill the Pow Wow ring, and my heart. And I think “Hi, hi. It is an honour to serve the People.”


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