‘A slow industrial genocide’:
tar sands and the indigenous peoples
of northern Alberta
Jennifer Huseman and Damien Short
In this article we discuss the impact of the tar sands development in northern Alberta on
the indigenous communities of the Treaty 8 region. While the project has brought income
to some, and wealth to the few, its impact on the environment and on the lives of many
indigenous groups is profoundly concerning. Their ability to hunt, trap and ﬁsh has
been severely curtailed and, where it is possible, people are often too fearful of toxins
to drink water and eat ﬁsh from waterways polluted by the ‘externalities’ of tar sands
production. The situation has led some indigenous spokespersons to talk in terms of a
slow industrial genocide being perpetrated against them. We begin the article with a
discussion of the treaty negotiations which paved the way for tar sands development
before moving on to discuss the impacts of modern day tar sands extraction and the
applicability of the genocide concept.
Keywords: indigenous peoples; tar sands; genocide; extreme energy
The end of the Seven Years’ War and the signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1763 resulted in
the British acquiring most of the French-claimed territory in North America. In the same
year there followed the Royal Proclamation which organised Great Britain’s new North
American empire and sought to soothe relations between the British Crown and the
Indians through strict regulation of trade, settlement, and land acquisition on the western
frontier. The proclamation also established a frontier between the colonies and ‘Indian
Country’ and determined that only the Crown could acquire further territory, and only
then with the full consent of the affected populations; and further stated that any ‘lands
whatever, which, not having been ceded to, or purchased by Us, are reserved to them.’
While many colonists at the time dismissed the proclamation – in the manner of George
Washington – as little more than ‘a temporary expedient to quiet the minds of the
Indians’, it became the theoretical cornerstone for subsequent ‘Indian policy’ and the
treaty was its instrument in both Canada and the United States.
Underpinning the proclamation of 1763 was the colonial assertion of Crown sover-
eignty over all Indian lands. Within such a framework, the rights of indigenous peoples
existed only on-sufferance from the Crown. Even so, the fact of prior aboriginal occupation
was eventually deemed to result in an underlying ‘aboriginal title’ – a so-called ‘burden on
During the nineteenth century this burden was supposedly discharged by the
signing of a succession of numbered treaties, which were ‘negotiated’ between Treaty
Commissioners – appointed by the Dominion of Canada – and a variety of designated
ISSN 1364-2987 print/ISSN 1744-053X online
# 2012 Taylor & Francis
Corresponding author. Email: Damien.Short@sas.ac.uk
The International Journal of Human Rights
Vol. 16, No. 1, January 2012, 216–237
aboriginal ‘bands’ created by the Euro-North American colonisers.
In essence the treaties
involved the natives extinguishing their ‘underlying title’ to their land, usually in return for
a variety of economic and material beneﬁts such as cash payments, hunting and ﬁshing
equipment, ammunition and the like. Treaties were most often deemed necessary when
settlement had begun, or was about to begin, and when there was a desire to open up the
land for development. As the people affected by the issues examined in this article predo-
minately fall within the boundaries of the Treaty 8 region,
we will now brieﬂy examine the
construction and content of that particular treaty.
Treaty 8: ‘taking without grabbing’
In 1899, when Treaty 8 was signed, the Cree and Anthapaskans (or Dene) peoples – incl ud-
ing Beavers, Chipewyans, Dogribs, Slaveys, and Yellowknives – were the two major
language groups in the region. The lives of these groups in the North – with its harsh
climate and cyclical ﬂuctuations of animal and plant life – differed dramatically from
the ‘Plains Indians’ in the more temperate South.
The fur trade apart, the Indians of the
North led a subsistence lifestyle based on hunting, ﬁshing and gathering with regional vari-
ations depending on available resources. The Chipewyans relied principally on caribou and
ﬁsh; and the Slavey on moose, but both groups gathered birds eggs and berries and hunted
Each grouping had its own territory but the boundaries were ﬂexible and
there was signiﬁcant sharing of resources between them, as well as with non-Indians.
A fur trade, principally between the Indians and British and French traders, allowed
the Indians to develop their material culture while retaining substantial control over the
terms and relations of the exchanges, and their access to natural resources. The levels
of dependence on such economic relations varied between local indigenous groups, but
at this stage none of them had lost the ability to subsist on their natural resources
alone, which meant there was only a limited incentive to trade. Thus, the material basis
for their traditional cultures remained largely intact despite the availability of economic
development and outside cultural inﬂuences – for in the early stages of trade between
indigenous and non-indigenous people, the social and cultural relations were essentially
characterised by an interdependence based on equality and reciprocity rather than domina-
While the fur trade gave the Indians an understanding of European concepts of the
right to control, buy and sell animals, prior to the treaty, they had no experience of land or
animals as a commodity.
From 1870 until the treaty was eventually signed in 1899, the Canadian government
received advice from missionaries, traders, geologists and geographers on the potential suit-
ability of the proposed Treaty 8 area for settlement, resource extraction and economic
development, and on the condition of the Indian population.
At various points in this
period, reports of signiﬁcant Indian hardship and pleas for aid were received by the govern-
ment, but it invariably declined to offer assistance to Indian peoples with whom it had not
signed a treaty. In lean years, such pleas sometimes came from the Indian ‘bands’ them-
selves, but in 1897 the Indian commissioner of the Northwest Territories reported that
appeals for assistance from non-treaty areas were infrequent – as the Indians were still
‘in an independent condition’.
Seemingly more important to the government than reports of Indian hardships were the
reports from ﬁeld personnel of the Department of the Interior and the Geological Survey
Department which indicated that parts of these territories might be richer in mineral
resources than previously thought.
As Daniel writes:
The International Journal of Human Rights 217
As early as 1793, the explorer Sir Alexander Mackenzie had mentioned that tar and oil could be
found oozing from the banks of the Athabasca. Since that time, few explorers of the area failed
to mention the tar sands or to speculate on its future potential...In 1875-76 A.R.C. Selwyn and
Professor Macoun of the Geological Survey of Canada reported that petroleum existed in the
Athabasca region in ‘almost inexhaustible supplies’...and in 1890 and 1891 R.G. McConnell
‘estimated that there were 4,700 million tons of tar in the region, as well as natural gas,
bitumen, oil and pitch’.
Such reports of plentiful Northern mineral resources convinced the government of the need
for a treaty to be agreed with the Indians of the region in order to extinguish their aforemen-
tioned ‘aboriginal title’. Furthermore, advances in transportation were opening up the
territory to frontiersmen, a process which accelerated sharply in 1896 when gold was
discovered in the Klondike region of north-western Canada. The resultant invasion of
miners on a massive scale produced many conﬂicts with local Indian populations, as
their acceptance of strangers was stretched to the limit, and their way of life seriously
The relatively slow pace of settlement and resource exploration, combined with the
prairie treaties ultimately costing more than the government envisaged, meant that there
was no rush to treaty negotiations in the North. Furthermore, reports from missionaries
and Mounted Police suggested that the Indians were not well disposed to the idea of a
treaty as they feared the loss of the ability to hunt, ﬁsh and trap.
However, the reports
of huge mineral wealth, and the relatively unregulated expansion of prospecting and
settler mining, ultimately pressurised the government into action. A report for the
government by former No rth West Mounted Police ofﬁcer, James Walker, in 1897 made
They (Indians) will be more easily dealt with now than they would be when their country is
overrun with prospectors and valuable mines discovered.
Finally, on 27 June 1898 the cabinet granted approval for treaty negotiations to commence.
The expense of the preceding numbered treaties was ultimately not considered a pressing
concern since the government anticipated that Treaty 8 would be signiﬁcantly cheaper; a
‘slimmed down’ treaty based on the prior treaties but on account of the particular conditions
of the North. The Indians, the government thought, would still be able to subsist adequately
on the unoccupied lands of the North such that a governmental welfare safety net would not
be needed as it was in the Prairie regions. Treaty 8 would also give less money to the Indians
by way of compensation since they were not required to give up most of their land – unli ke
the Prairie treaties.
The Treaty 8 Commission opened negotiations with the Indians at Lesser Slave Lake on
20 June 1899. The records of the negotiations are incomplete and partial – largely deriving
from the federal government side. However, there is some record of Indian oral history and
testimony that offers an alternative view which is vital in understanding the spirit of the
negotiations. In order to gain the extinguishment of aboriginal title they wanted, the
primary task of the government negotiators was to reassure the Indians that their way of
life would remain intact, they would not be conﬁned to reserves and that they would be pro-
tected from the settlers. Commissioner Laird gave the opening speech which set the tone for
the proceedings combining harsh realities with contradictory promises:
As white people are coming in to your country, we thought it well to tell you what is required of
you. The Queen wants all white, half-breeds and Indians to be at peace with one another, and to
218 J. Huseman and D. Short
shake hands when they meet ...We understand stories have been told you, that if you made a
treaty with us you would become servants and slaves; but we wish you to understand that such
is not the case, but that you will be just as free after signing the a treaty as you are now...One
thing Indians must understand, that if they do not make a treaty they must obey the laws of the
land – that will be just the same whether you make a treaty or not: the laws must be obeyed.
Despite the last sentence above (which would apply to government-imposed hunting and
ﬁshing controls) Laird went on to say that ‘Indians who take treaty will be just as free to
hunt and ﬁsh all over as they now are’.
Bishop Breynat conveyed the corollary to the
Indian desire to continue hunting and ﬁshing; ‘the Crees and Chipewyans refused to be
treated like Prairie Indians, and to be parked on reserves ...It was essential to them to
retain complete freedom to move around’.
The report of the commissioners refers to
these Indian concerns and the difﬁculties they had in overcoming them:
Our chief difﬁculty was the apprehension that the hunting and ﬁshing privileges were to be cur-
tailed. The provision in the treaty under which ammunition and twine is to be furnished went
far in the direction of quieting the fears of the Indians, for they admitted that it would be unrea-
sonable to furnish the means of hunting and ﬁshing if laws were to be enacted which would
make hunting and ﬁshing so restricted as to render it impossible to make a livelihood by
such pursuits...they would be as free to hunt and ﬁsh after the treaty as they would be if
they never entered into it...the Indians were generally adverse to being placed on reserves.
It would have been impossible to make a treaty if we had not assured them that there was
no intention of conﬁning them to reserves. We had to very clearly explain to them that the pro-
vision for reserves and allotments of land were made for their protection and to secure to them
in perpetuity a fair portion of the land ceded, in the event of settlement advancing.
And yet, despite such assurances, in the same meetings Commissioner Ross talked about
the inevitability of the country being ‘opened up’ for development by the Whiteman.
Ross was also aware that parliament was intending to extend, in duration and scope, an
existing prohibition on killing buffalo (which was causing real concern amongst the
Indians) but chose not to discuss this during the negotiations since ‘our mission would
likely have been a failure if we had opened up the question’.
Such manipulative contradictions and intentional avoidance certainly secured Indian
agreement, but the Indians took the assurances on face value as guarantees of freedo m to
hunt, ﬁsh and trap throughout the area and as guaranteeing primary rights over ﬁsh and
Thus, today Indian Elders of the Fort Chipewyan area still maintain that the
treaty guaranteed their rights to hunt, ﬁsh and trap without restriction.
That this under-
standing endures is unsurprising since at the time it was repeatedly bolstered by the inter-
ventions of several missionaries who accompanied the commissioners – allegedly to act as
translators and intermediaries but behaving more like salesmen. For example, Father
Lacombe (speaking in Cree) stated ‘Your forest and river life will not be changed by the
Treaty, and you will have your annuities, as well, year by year, as long as the sun shines
and the earth remains. Therefore I ﬁnish my speaking by saying, Accept.’ The missionaries
undoubtedly played a vital role in convinc ing the Indians that the treaty was in their own
Some missionaries, such as Constant Falher – who was present at the nego-
tiations – subsequently reﬂected on this role. In a letter to Bishop Breynat he wrote: ‘if
Bishop Grouard had not advised the chiefs to sign the treaty, telling them that there was
nothing which was not to their advantage; the treaty would still be waiting to be signed
Ultimately, for a speciﬁed list of gifts and reserved land, the ‘bands’ that were signa-
tories to Treaty 8 at Lesser Slave Lake in 1899 had to ‘CEDE, RELEASE, SURRENDER
The International Journal of Human Rights 219
AND YIELD UP to the Government of the Dominion of Canada, for Her Majesty the
Queen and Her successors for ever, all their rights, titles and privileges whatsoever, to
the lands included within the following limits...’ (capitals in the original).
were included for the Cree, Beaver and Chipewyan Indians but the treaty simultaneously
demanded that ‘such portions of the reserves and lands .. .as may at any time be required
for public works, buildings, railways, or roads of whatsoever nature may be appropriated
by Her Majesty’s Government of the Dominion of Canada...’ subject to ‘due
The great difﬁculty with seeing such a treaty as a legitimate surrender of rights of course
derives from the fact that native peoples did not know what the treaties signiﬁed to the
whites, especially seeing as so many had no concept of private, let alone state, property,
so could only guess at what the agreement meant.
As Brody writes: ‘[T]here is a world
of difference between the terms of [Treaty 8] and the understanding the Indian signatories
had of it...Indians did not understand Treaty 8 to be a surrender of rights’.
Most treaties and land surrenders were signed after the Indians had lost control of their territory.
Their only choice was to lose their land with a treaty, or to lose it without one. Usually they
were guaranteed ofﬁcial use of a ‘reserve’, which was held in Trust by the Crown. This was
a measure to protect the Indians from further encroachments, and to offer them security
against the aggressiveness of their white neighbours. Other treaty gifts: free education, free
medical care, cash annuities, groceries etc., also helped to win the Indian people’s good
will. Protecting the Indian was not the main reason for treaties, however. Overriding all
other considerations was the land: the Indians owned it and the white people wanted it.
Even when the Indians posed no threat, treaties were still signed, as a moral or ethical
gesture: a gentleman’s way to take without grabbing.
Today Canada plays a colonial trick arguing that via treaties the British Crown extinguished
‘aboriginal title’, and when it is challenged over its failure to honour the range of obli-
gations speciﬁed in the treaties it argues that it was the British Crown and not Canada
that negotiated the agreements.
This colonial trick, combined with the treaty extinguish-
ment provisions and the ability to encroach upon reserved land, paved the way for modern
industrial development on Treaty 8 Indian lands. It is to this that we now turn.
The tar sands and the Indians of Treaty 8
What are tar sands?
Canada’s tar sands are widely considered to be th e most destructive industrial project on
earth by environmental, human rights, and indigenous activists alike.
‘tar sands’ is a colloquial term used to describe sands that are perhaps more accurately
described as bituminous sands. They constitute a naturally occurring mixture of sand,
clay, water, and bitumen – an exceptionally viscous and dense form of petroleum –
which has, since the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, been referred to as ‘tar’
due to its similar viscosity, odour and colour. However, naturally occurring bitumen is
chemically more similar to asphalt than to tar, and the term oil sands is now more commonly
used by industry and in the producing areas than tar sands since synthetic oil is what is man-
ufactured from the bitumen. Even so, the term oil sands fails to convey the constituent com-
plexity of the sands, and moreover, serves to sanitise the environmentally destructive
industrial processes intrinsic to this particular form of oil production. Indeed the environ-
mental costs (externalities) of this form of unconventional oil production are enormous.
220 J. Huseman and D. Short
Tar sands-derived oil must be extracted by strip mining or the oil made to ﬂow into
wells by ‘in situ’ techniques, which reduce the viscosity by injecting steam, solvents,
and/or hot air into the sands. These processes use much more water than conventional
oil extraction – three barrels of water are used to process one barrel of oil
produce huge ‘tailings ponds’ (‘tailings lakes’ would be more accurate) into which over
480 million gallons of contaminated toxic waste water are dumped daily.
these tailings ponds are so toxic that the energy companies employ people to scoop dead
birds off the surface; and most are unlined.
Taken together, these waste lakes ‘cover
more than 50 square kilometres (12,000 acres) and are so extensive that they can be seen
In addition, producing liquid fuels from such sands requires huge
amounts of energy for steam injection and reﬁning processes which generate considerably
higher levels of greenhouse gases per barrel of ﬁnal product than the production of conven-
If combustion of the product itself is included – known as the ‘well to wheels’
–approach, bituminous sands extraction, upgrade and use generates eight to 37 per cent
higher emissions than conventional oil.
Thus, if one is not seeking to minimise the
impact of these externalities the term ‘tar sands’ is preferable: it suggests the sand has a
more complex constitution and that useable oil must be extracted from the sticky, heavy,
viscous base material (bitumen) through industrial processes which have huge environ-
mental and human costs. It is on these costs, and the nature of their lethal ramiﬁcations
on the indigenous peoples of North America, that we now focus our attention.
Genocide and the right to exist: the tar sands are killing us
Our message to both levels of government, to Albertans, to Canadians and to the world who
may depend on oil sands for their energy solutions, is that we can no longer be sacriﬁced.
(Chief Roxanne Marcel, Mikisew Cree First Nation)
As Native author and activist Andrea Smith noted,
‘when Native peoples ﬁght for
cultural/spiritual preservation, they are ultimately ﬁghting for th e landbase which
grounds their spirituality and culture’. That is, the land or ‘speciﬁc geographical
with which many
indigenous nations/communities identify themselves, funda-
mentally embodies their ‘historical narrative’
and who they are as peoples; with both their
‘practices, rituals, and traditions’,
and their political and socio-economic cohesion as a
group, inextricably bound to the surrounding landscape. Alienation from that landscape,
therefore, inevitably results in the dissolution of an indigenous peoples’ ‘network of prac-
tical social relations ’,
for they will no longer be able to carry out, develop, and preserve
their ‘cultural heritage and traditions’, or ‘pass these traditions on to subsequent gener-
ations’ – thereby rendering them ‘socially dead’.
It is Native peoples’ recognition of
this point that has led some indigenous peoples to refer to the concept of genocide to
describe their past and present day experiences at the hands of the colonial states in
which they live.
Short has argued at length, in this journal and others, that this under-
standing is in keeping with that of the term’s originator, Raphael Lemkin . Lemkin
viewed physical genocide and cultural genocide, not as two distinct phenomena, but
rather one process that could be accomplished through a variety of means. This position,
based on a functional understanding of national/group structure, whereby the physical
and cultural aspects are seen as interdependent and indivisible, appreciates th at the destruc-
tion of a nation/group could occur when any structural element was destroyed. Even if the
national group’s sovereignty was not recognized by the state, Lemkin thought it had an
inherent right to exist just like the sovereign individual – and that such groups provided
The International Journal of Human Rights 221
the essential basis of human culture as a whole, Thus, he speciﬁcally designed his concept
of ‘genoc ide’ to protect that life.
In other words, Lemkin deﬁned genocide in terms of the violation of a nation’s right to
its collective existence – and so genocide in this sense is quite simply the destruction of a
nation. Such destruction can be achieved through the ‘mass killings of all members of a
nation’; or through ‘a coordinated plan of different actions aiming at the destruction of
essential foundations of the life of national groups’. It is this latter point that is missed or
ignored by those genocide scholars who insist on the centrality of mass killing to the
concept of genocide.
With such understandings, as Dirk Moses suggests, the extraordi-
nary implication is ‘that Lemkin did not properly understand genocide, despite the fact
that he invented the term and went to great trouble to explain its meaning. Instead, most
scholars presume to instruct Lemkin, retrospectively, about his concept, although they
are in fact proposing a different concept, usually mass murder’.
It is a focus on social
death (as opposed to mass killing) which allows us to distinguish the peculiar evil of
genocide from crimes against humanity and mass murder.
Genocidal murders are but
an extreme means to achieve social death, which can be produced without speciﬁc
‘intent to destroy’ – occurring, for instance, through sporadic and uncoordinated action
or as a by-product of an incompatible expansionist economic system.
They might even
result from attempts to do good: to enlighten, to modernise, to evangelise.
Up until the end of the frontier era in the late nineteenth century, genocidal processe s in
North America were largely geared toward, and derived from, expansionist policies
opening up Indian land for a seemingly limitless inﬂux of settlers. In the post-fronti er
period, settlement has unquestionably continued to be a pressing factor – however,
following the industrial revolution, the Euro-North American genocidal logic became
increasingly focused on the elimination of Indian peoples in order to gain access to their
territory for the purpose of resource extraction.
This compulsion intensiﬁed dramatically during the ‘Cold War’ era,
spurred on by an
escalating ‘need’ for both energy resources and nuclear weapons production
in the face of
mounting fears (fabricated or otherwise) regarding aggression/subterfuge emanating from
the ‘Communist Bloc’. Given that it would be impossible to sustain ‘popular enthusiasm’
for this military/technological build-up if mainstream North American society were
exposed to the brunt of the carcinogenic and mutogenic contamination resulting from
such extraction – ‘thereby suffering the endemic health consequences’
– and given
that the majority of the required energy resources were to be found on Indian land
anyway, the literal sacriﬁce of Native North American peoples was yet again ‘deemed
necessary, useful, or at least acceptable’
in the interests of furthering Euro-North
American expansionist/economic endeavors.
Canada and the United States entered this energy race with one of the world’s largest
pools of oil and natural gas, and the exploitation of these valuable and versatile
commodities has long contributed to their economic and political power, as well as to the
proﬁtability of large transnational energy corporations (TNECs) such as BP and Exxon.
In the process, however, most of North America’s easily accessible onshore oil and gas
reservoirs have been all but exhausted. And so to guara ntee a continuous supply of oil and
gas, and the continued proﬁtability of the large TNECs, successive governments have
promoted the exploitation of... ‘extreme energy’ options seemingly without a care for
the resulting dangers.
In recent years, the demand for plentiful and ‘secure’ energy resources has become greater
than ever with the governments of the US and Canada engaged in their ‘war on terror ’,
222 J. Huseman and D. Short
resulting in ‘the single largest energy policy shift in North America since...production peaked
As Macdonald Stainsby argues:
Having failed to pacify Iraq and having engendered new regional opposition in Africa, South
America, and the Middle East, the US empire has driven oil prices up to new heights – a trend
which will continue into the future. Though peak oil has profound implications for the US
dollar and the militarized global economy, these prices have, in the short-term, been master-
fully recast as US imperialism’s latest and greatest asset: the creation of massive new
oil ‘reserves’ in a politically friendly region which can feed the US domestic oil market.
Namely, the tar sands in Northern Alberta, Canada;
where, once again, the desired energy
resource lies almost entirely within the traditional territories of Native North Americans.
This ‘reserve’ is not exactly new, however. Canada initiated oil production in the tar
sands in 1967 – ‘after decades of research and development that began in the early
– with Suncor Energy Inc generating roughly 12,000 barrels per day. Even so,
the tar sands were not regarded as a signiﬁcant player in North America’s bid to prolong
the life of its petroleum-based economy until 2003 – around the time of the American
invasion of Iraq.
Before this period the extremely difﬁcult extraction and production processes involved
in developing tar sands was considered too expensive to be economically viable, but with
oil prices heading toward $150 per barrel, the tar sands not only became viable but the basis
for a sudden American reliance on North American petroleum as a source of fuel.
We can therefore see how, as during the Cold War, the rhetoric of ‘national security’ is
being used in this situation ‘as a pretext to increase energy resource extraction’
America, and – in turn – as a justiﬁcation to once again ‘sacriﬁce’ the lives and lands of
Native peoples to the ‘needs’ of the dominant Euro-North American capitalist society;
making it clear that, then as now, ‘consolidating (the North American) empire abroad is pre-
dicated on consolidating (the North American) empire within (North American) borders.’
Furthermore, it illustrates how, what Wolfe has called, ‘the logic of elimination’
informed frontier massacres, and the formulation of the assimilationist agenda in the
mid-late nineteenth century, has, over the last hundred years or so, transmuted into
perhaps history’s ‘subtlest’
form of physical biological, and cultural extermination yet:
‘invasive industrial interventions’.
As previously stated, many, if not most, indigenous peoples indefatigably avow that
their relationship with their traditional landbases is vital to their physical and cultural sur-
vival as discrete, autonomous groups – that it is ‘constitutive of the Indian cultural identity
and designative of the boundaries of the Indian cultural universe’
– and that, conse-
quently, they cannot be forcibly alienated from their land without genocide being com-
Large-scale resource extraction processes not only alienate Native peoples from
their land by driving them off of it in order to make room for industrial activities, but
also by way of the concomitant toxic by-products that put water supplies, land cover and
wildlife at serious risk, gravely jeopardizing the lives, cultures, and health of indigenous
communities who depend on these resources for their continued existence. As such,
these processes both personify the driving purpose behind the North American genocide
(i.e.: the appropriation and pilfering of Indian land), and also in and of themselves beget
and require further acts of genocide.
This has been corroborated by testimony from indigenous peoples around the world
(which) indicate that they perceive themselves as having been ‘pushed to the edge of a
cliff’ by the environmental problems caused by industrialism.
As Davis and Zannis
The International Journal of Human Rights 223
note, ‘after 1945 traditional colonial terror was transformed into a “genocide machine” as
the nature of capitalist domination became less overtly racist and more attuned to American
The ongoing tar sands mining ‘project’ in Northern Alberta is, without a doubt, the most
disastrous instance of this speciﬁcally contemporary
genocidal phenomenon in North
America to date, producing a ‘virtual catalog of environme ntal destruction’
and a attend-
ant litany of social ills.
This project creates chronic pollution of the lower Athabasca River and adjacent
western Lake Athabasca emanating ‘from licensed discharges; from above-ground and
below-ground pipeline leaks and breaks; and from tailings pond leaks’.
and breaks date back to the initial stages of production in 1967, and ﬁnding information
to document them is an arduous task.
One of the largest early spills occurred in February 1982,
with a minimum of 42
tonnes of oil and contaminant discharged into the Athabasca River from tar sands
company Suncor’s ‘tailings ponds’. Whilst a federal expert at the time noted that a even
a 20 tonne spill could be ‘extremely catastrophic’ to the river system,
there is no evidence
that this incident gave any cause for concern to the employees of Suncor – no data on con-
taminants such as mercury and arsenic in the spill can be found, nor can any study of the
ecological and human health impacts be located.
Consequently, ascertaining what exactly
were the downstream effects on the ecosystem and local people is not possible.
The present situation is also difﬁcult to determine accurately due to ‘the veil that has
been drawn down over provincial river monitoring activities’
However, an indication
of the true gravity of the situation can be found in an admission from Suncor in 1997, in
which they stated that their Tar Island Pond... ‘leaks approximately 1,600 cubic metres
of toxi c ﬂuid into the Athabasca River every day’:
That volume is 1,600 tonnes, roughly 38 times the size of the big spill in 1982 described above.
If that statement is even remotely accurate, the Athabasca River is in trouble.
What’s more, this rampant poisoning of the watershed and landbase is matched only by
their depletion, for simply making room for tar sands mining activities involves the draining
of rivers, lakes and wetlands to subsidize the ‘enormous quantities of water needed to force
the bitu men from the ground;
the diversion of rivers; and stripping of all trees and veg-
etation from the forest’.
Over the last forty years of its production, tar sands mining
has changed Northern Alberta ‘from a pristine environment rich in cultural and biological
diversity to a landscape resembling a war zone marked with 200-foot-deep pits and thou-
sands of acres of destroyed boreal forests’
– and now that Canada is the US’s largest
source of ‘foreign’ oil’
, and production has correspondingly intensiﬁed, this destruction
is accelerating at a startling rate.
Indigenous peoples living close to and in the midst of tar sand deposits
expressing concern over the lethal impacts that these industrial events have had on their
communities for years, with elders citing caustic changes to river water quality, m eat
quality and to the availability of wild ﬁsh and game.
Concern is growing recently as
health professionals and community members witness more and more friends and family
fall ill with a variety of serious illnesses, and local ﬁsh populations inﬂicted with ever
more severe deformities.
In 2006, local doctor John O’Connor was the ﬁrst medical professional to publicly call
attention to these issues. In his own downstream community of Fort Chipewyan, he cited
disturbingly disproportionate levels of deadly diseases such as leukemia, lymphoma,
224 J. Huseman and D. Short
lupus, colon cancer, and Graves disease. He also noted ﬁve cases of an extremely rare
cancer of the bile duct – cholangiocarcinoma – occurring in the past ﬁve years within
Fort Chip’s population of 1,200; normally, only one in 100,000 people contracts it.
concluded that these abnormally elevated levels of disease were the direct consequence
of steadily rising carcinogens in the sediments and waterways emanating from industrial
activities associated with tar sands mining.
After Dr O’Connor made his ﬁndings public the federal and provincial governments of
Canada not only ignored and dismissed his report,
but went on to attack his credibility –
even going as far as to have a formal complaint brought against him in tandem with the
Alberta College of Physicians and Surgeons (ACPS) for ‘causing undue alarm’.
However, these charges were subsequently dismissed in 2009 when, after years of lobbying
by health ofﬁcials and community members in Fort Chipewyan,
Alberta Health Services
ﬁnally reviewed cancer rates in Fort Chipewyan with a new study, which conﬁrmed much
of O’Connor’s original medical ﬁndings, showing that the number of cancer cases observed
in Fort Chipewyan were in fact ‘higher than expected for all cancers combined and for
speciﬁc types of cancer, such as biliary tract cancer and cancers in the blood and lymphatic
Even so, the study declined to make any pronouncements as to the cause,
that ‘an increase in observed cancers over expected could be due to chance, to increased
detection, or to increased risk (lifestyle, environmental or occupational) in the community’.
They went on to again assure Fort Chipewyan residents that ‘there is no cause for alarm’,
and therefore no need for immediate action, yet indicated that ‘continued monitoring and
analysis are warranted’.
Whilst community members felt vindicated by the conﬁrmation
of elevated cancer rates, they still roundly rejected the report on the basis of its questionable
research methods, its failure to designate a cause, and ‘because they felt researchers didn’t
spend enough time talking to people who live in Fort Chipewyan’.
There have been a number of reports published since O’Connor’s 2006 ﬁndings,
however, which not only corrobora te his original medical conclusions, but his conviction
‘that the governments of Alberta and Canada have been deliberately ignoring evidence
of toxic contamination on downstream indigenous communities’ as a result of tar sands
In 2007, Kevin Timoney, on behalf of the Nunee Health Board Society, released
a study on water and sediment quality as it pertains to wildlife contaminants, the ecosystem
and public health in Fort Chipewyan.
Along with providing further hard scientiﬁc evi-
dence supporting the claims of the residents of Fort Chipewyan, it heavily criticised pre-
vious reports undertaken by the Alberta government,
emphasising their dubious
research methods and the government’s vested interests in the tar sands industry.
also called to account the screening procedures of the Regional Aquatics Moni-
toring Program (RAMP), arguing that they cannot possibly be impartial when much of the
information gathered is then classiﬁed as ‘private data’, and when RAMP has as its funding
source a steering committee which is dominated by the oil industry and the Albertan gov-
ernment – both of which have nothing to gain, and everything to lose should tar sands
mining be deﬁnitively connected to serious public health risks. ‘The result is the appear-
ance of monitoring and management of environmental concerns in the public interest.
The reality is a lack of timely publicly available information and the perpetuation of
business as usual’ (emphasis added).
Timoney concluded that ‘based on the contaminant spill documentation, data, and obser-
vations of elders’ it is reasonable to ‘deduce that inadvertent and intentional pollution’ events
associated with the explosive growth of the tar sands industry in north-eastern Alberta ‘have
and will continue to impact the aquatic health of the lower Athabasca River and adjacent Lake
The International Journal of Human Rights 225
– posing grave risks to ‘environmental and public health that demand immedi-
ate attention independent of provincial and industrial oversight’.
The most authoritative
water quality research to date was conducted by Kelly et al and published in the Proceedings
of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) in 2010 entitled ‘Oil sands development con-
tributes elements toxic at low concentrations to the Athabasca River and its tributaries’.
The study argues that tar sands mining is a greater source of air, land and water pollution
in the Athabasca region than industry and government sources would have us believe. As
one of the authors, David Schindler, summarises:
We have shown the assumption of industry and government, that all pollution of the oil sands
comes from natural sources, is false...Some of the chemicals we document are known carcino-
gens. The concentrations as a result of industry are high enough to harm ﬁsh. So there is good
reason to be concerned.
The report found that water pollution levels were 10 to 50 times higher than normal
downstream of tar sands mining, and that a major oil spill’s worth of bitumen is deposited
on the land each year.
The report also criticised the government of Alberta and RAMP’s
previous ﬁndings and the methods used to gather them.
Kelly et al concluded ‘contrary
to claims made by industry and government in the popular press, the oil sands industry
substantially increases loadings of toxic (‘priority pollutants’) to the (Athabasca River)
and its tributaries via air and water pathways’.
The report caused signiﬁcant ‘controversy’ and resulted in the inevitable questioning of
‘methodology’. For example, a report by the Royal Society of Canada (RSC) on the
‘Environmental and Health Impacts’ of the tar sands
included an implicit criticism of
Kelly et al’s methodology.
Even so, a recently convened government of Alberta panel,
the Water Monitoring Data Review Committee nevertheless concluded that:
Taking into consideration all data and critiques, we generally agree with the conclusion of
Kelly et al. that PACs (polycyclic aromatic compounds) and trace metals are being introduced
into the environment by oil sands operations...The Royal Society of Canada (2010) noted that
Kelly et al. (2009) sampled at only one location in the river at each site (although at two
depths). Kelly et al. have subsequently elaborated upon details of the sample collection proto-
cols in written comments submitted to this Committee (E. Kelly, pers. comm. 2011). There is
nothing to suggest that the methods they used in sample collection were not scientiﬁcally
rigorous. (Emphasis added)
Crucially, it should also be noted that the Royal Society team did not conduct their own
original scientiﬁc research and in the usual western ‘scientiﬁc’ fashion, as Chief Allan
Adam of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation points out, completely ignored indigenous
peoples’ experiences and traditional knowledge of the environment.
Thus, the Kelly et al. ﬁndings could yet prove to be a key instrument in the struggle to
bring about decisive action on tar sands mining. Indeed, taken together with the rest of the
studies published in recent years, industry or government claims that the current level of
rising carcinogens have been produced ‘naturally’ have been refuted.
media attention given to these reports has increased pressure on the Alberta government
such that they recently committed to undertake another investigation into the cancer rates
in Fort Chipewyan.
Bearing all the evidence in mind, especially the views of indigenous peoples from the
affected communities, it could be argued that a kind of reckless ‘biological warfar e’ is being
conducted. It certainly would not be the ﬁrst time in North American history that indigenous
226 J. Huseman and D. Short
people we re knowingly or even intentionally exposed to disease. To be sure, the spread of
disease has been employed as part of the Euroamerican/Eurocanadian campaign to bring
about the disappearance of Native North America at least as early as 1763, ‘when Lord
Jeffery Amherst ordered small-pox infected blankets to be distributed to the Ottawas as a
means of “extirpat[ing] this execrable race”’.
As Andrea Smith asserted, Native
peoples ‘will continue to be seen as expendable and inherently violable as long as they con-
tinue to stand in the way of the theft of Native lands’.
Although strategy has varied over
the centuries, adapting ‘to the times and regions in which it played out’, North American
‘logic of elimination’ – namely to eliminate ‘all indigenous populations that would not
leave their lands and resources’ and ‘abolish their own cultures and languages’
What’s more, the situation is only set to worsen further, as the US is soon hoping to
‘extract up to 25 percent of their daily oil needs from tar sands-based operations in the
: a plan that will involve the decimation of ‘an area the size of Florida’
Northeastern Albe rta, and the construction and expansion of colossal pipelines that will
extend across unceded indigenous territory in BC and the North West Territories, before
heading south and through Indian Country in US
– consequently impacting indigenous
communities not only in Canada, but across the continent.
Whilst the US has been receiving oil from Northern Alberta tar sands operations via its
pipeline infrastructure at varying levels for decades now, up until recently, the overwhelm-
ing majority of it was transported in the form of synthetic crude oil, a substance similar to
conventional crude oil produced by putting the thick, raw bitumen through an ‘upgrading’
Historically, this process has taken place in reﬁneries in Canada that have developed the
capacity to handle exceptionally heavy crudes.
However, with Canadian processing
operations running at full capacity, oil companies have started transporting more of the
raw tar sands to US reﬁneries that can either already take the heavier oil or which need
This heavier tar sands derived crude, referred to as ‘DilBit’ (diluted bitumen), is differ-
ent from conventional oil in important ways. It is ‘a highly corrosive, acidic, and potentially
unstable blend of thick raw bitumen and volatile natural gas liquid condensate’,
teristics which can lead to major weakening of pipelines, giving rise to signiﬁcantly higher
risks whilst transporting it.
A clear indication of the exceptionally caustic nature of DilBit is the fact that, despite its
relatively recent construction ,
between 2002–2010 Alberta’s pipeline network had a rate
of spills due to internal corrosion sixteen times higher than that in the US
is almost certainly the result of the considerably higher quantity of DilBit being funneled
through Alberta pipelines – for, as mentioned above, DilBilt has not been common in
the US until recently.
Nonetheless, US pipelines are carrying increasing amounts of this corrosive raw form of
tar sands oil without any proper review or change of pipeline/spill response safety stan-
dards that take would into account the different traits and properties of DilBit, as compared
with conventional oil. On the contrary, in October 2009 the US Pipeline and Hazardous
Materials Safety Administration – the agency charged with oversight of the nation’s 2.1
million miles of pipeline – actually loosened safety regulations pertaining to pipe
This in spite of th e fact that, ‘over the last 10 years, DilBit exports to the
United States have increased almost ﬁvefold, to 550,000 barrels per day (bpd) in 2010
–more than half of the approximately 900,000 bpd of tar sands oil currently ﬂowing into
the United States – and by 2019 Canadian tar sands producers plan to triple this amoun t’.
The International Journal of Human Rights 227
In addition to the caustic effect on internal pipeline infrastructure, this volatile and
gummy substance, also decreases the ability of engineers to detect leaks,
any clean up excruciatingly difﬁcult – the consequences have already been catastrophic,
with perhaps the worst example to date in the US being the 800,000 gallon spill caused
by a ruptured Enbridge pipeline carrying DilBit in southwestern Michigan on the 25 July
2010, which devastated local communities and the Kalamazoo River. The federal govern-
ment called it the ‘worst oil spill in Midwestern history’ (emphasis added).
and over a
year on, clean up efforts are still ongoing.
This spill was followed on 1 July 2011 by
a spill of 42,000 gallons of oil into the Yellowstone River in Montana caused by ruptured
Exxon pipeline carrying DilBit.
These disasters have brought heightened media attention
to the issue of tar sands oil mining generally and to the issue of its transport throughout the
US in unsafe pipelines speciﬁcally. In recent months, attention has turned to these issues as
a result of opposition and protests surrounding the extension of the Keystone XL pipeline.
A potentially enormous new line slated to run from Hardisty, Alberta, through the south-
west corner of Saskatchewan and across the US border, thence diagonally across
Montana, South Dakota, and Nebraska, to the Steele City-to-Cushing segment.
Stansbury, a University of Nebraska water resources enginee r who conducted an indepen-
dent assessment argues that a pipeline of this nature is likely to average some 91 major
spills, and since the proposed pipeline will transect at least 11 major river crossings,
such spills could contaminate the Ogallala Aquifer, a major Great Plains watershed, the
Missouri and Mississippi Rivers, and the Yellowstone River with such deadly toxins as
– and be yet another contributor to the ‘slow industrial genocide’ being inﬂicted
on many indigenous peoples in these regions.
The perilous position of tar sands affected indigenous communities has been greatly
facilitated by the governments of the US and Canada failing to comply with many of
their own laws and through the de facto extinguishment of treaty rights, prioritising
mining over local concerns.
The text of Treaty 8 suggests that th e lands of First
Nations would not be compromised by uncontrolled development which threatened First
Nations culture and ways of life, and yet the remote community of Fort Chipewyan
relied on an 80 per cent subsistence diet until tar sands pollution, boreal forest and ecosys-
tem destruction, and loss of habitat made it impossible to sustain.
Thus, the tar sands now
directly threatens the cultural survival of Fort Chipewyan and other First Nation peoples
living within the so-called tar sands ‘sacriﬁce zone’. Many people are simply too afraid
to drink the water or harvest plants and rear animals, while others value their traditional
knowledge so much that they are prepared to take the risks.
While some First Nations
have legally forced the government of Canada to consult with Indigenous communities
about development projects they have no ability to veto such development of their land.
So called ‘consultation’ processes invariably mean simply telling a community a project
is being proposed which may or may not have impacts on a First Nation and the recognition
of its Treaty rights. To date there is no legal framework within the Constitution of Canada
that recognizes the international principle of Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC) for
the right of First Nations to say ‘no’ to a proposed development, a central tenet of the United
Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP).
As George Poitras, a member of the Mikisew Cree First Nation in Fort Chipewyan,
There’s been a de facto extinguishment of our treaty rights because the government continues to
take up land without any consideration or consultation with the First Nations
obligates the government to consult with us any time there is a potential or adverse impact on
228 J. Huseman and D. Short
our treaty rights–to hunt, ﬁsh, trap and so on. Historically they attempted to colonize us through
policies and legislation that are paternal, colonial, imperial and they continue that attitude...[the
government is] simply not dealing with us as priority rights holders of these lands.
Just as earlier genocidal policies of assimilation disguised themselves as philanthropic
instruments of ‘progress’ and ‘material advancement’ for Native North Americans, resource
extraction initiatives have professed an interest in ‘helping’ Native communities by way of
offering them ‘steady employment’ and ‘economic development’. This is exactly how the
Alberta government ﬁrst ‘enticed First Nations council leadership to lease their treaty
reserve lands to the tar sands industry’ in the 1960s – allowing ‘the ﬁrst tier of tar sands
operations...to come into a region mostly inhabited by Dene, Cree and Me
reality, this mega-project has paid such a meagre fraction of prevailing market royalty
rates that no such advancement has been discernable, rather it has only brought more
death and ruin. Moreover, the loss of land and the ensuing physical ad cultural erosion
has lead to a loss of hope and growing apathy, with many not speaking out ‘because of
the perceived inevitability of tar sands mining’.
And so, ‘the battle over the ongoing
mining comes down to the fundamental right to exist’ (emphasis added).
Poitras of the Mikisew Cree First Nation asserted:
If we don’t have land and we don’t have anywhere to carry out our traditional lifestyles, we lose
who we are as a people. So, if there’s no land, then its equivalent in our estimation to genocide
of a people.
This article began with a discussion of the history of treaty making and highlighted the dif-
fering views of the Indians and the settlers. The primary concern for the Indians was the
continuation of their traditional way of life, to be able to hunt, ﬁsh and roam their territories
as they always had done. For the settlers the primary concern was the ‘extinguishment’ of
any underlying Indian rights to land and the opening up of the area to settler populations and
industrial exploitation. That the treaties were ‘agreed’ and signed despite these contradic-
tory objectives is testament to the duplicitous nature of the settler led ‘negotiations’.
Empty promises were made by priests and the Commissioners themselves, e.g. Commis-
sioner Laird; the ‘Indians who take treaty will be just as free to hunt and ﬁsh all over as
they now are’.
Any rights seemingly conferred by the terms of the treaties were
always subject to the Crown’s assertion of underlying sovereignty. This is acutely
evident in the following passage of Treaty 8:
And Her Majesty the Queen HEREBYAGREES with the said Indians that they shall have right
to pursue their usual vocations of hunting, trapping and ﬁshing throughout the tract surrendered
as heretofore described, subject to such regulations as may from time to time be made by the
Government of the country, acting under the authority of Her Majesty, and saving and except-
ing such tracts as may be required or taken up from time to time for settlement, mining, lum-
bering, trading or other purposes.
Thus, in the text of the treaty, rights to continue traditional practices were subordinate to
settler property interests such as mining leases and the like. Rights to hunt, trap and ﬁsh
could only operate around the fringes of such property interests. An d with the inevitability
of settler colonial expansion the treaties afforded the Indians very little protection indeed.
Much like the diseases both inadvertently and deliberately forced on their communities by
settlers, they have been unable to resist development on their traditional lands and have had
The International Journal of Human Rights 229
little or no say in mining projects that nonetheless have an enormous impact on their way of
life, and cultural and physical health and well-being.
The tar sands mega-project is undoubtedly the worst offender in this regard. As we have
seen, the environmental impact of the tar sands is enormous and the impact on the lives of
the indi genous peoples is equally dramatic. As George Poitras writes:
... if Canada and Alberta today ignore and repeatedly, knowingly infringe on our Constitution-
ally protected Treaty Rights, will our future generations be able to meaningfully exercise their
right to hunt, ﬁsh and trap? Will our people in 20 years from now be able to enjoy a traditional
diet of ﬁsh, moose, ducks, geese, caribou?
Tar sands development has entirely changed the Athabasca delta and watershed landscape
with massive de-forestation of the boreal forests, open-pit mining, depletion of water
systems and watersheds, toxic contamination, destruction of habitat and biodiversity, and
the severe forcible disruption of the indigenous Dene, Cree and Me
tis trap-line cultures:
The river used to be blue. Now it’s brown. Nobody can ﬁsh or drink from it. The air is bad. This
has all happened so fast.
Elsie Fabian, (an elder in a Native Indian community along the Athabasca River).
Many people in indigenous communities feel that they are in the ﬁnal stages of a battle for
survival that began in North America in the seventeenth century, and have called their past
and present situation, brought on by settlers and colonial governments, genocide. Their use
of the term is not emotive or imprecise, but rather, as we have argued, is in keeping with
Lemkin’s concept and highlights the enormity of what the tar sands are doing to the
Indians of Treaty 8 and beyond.
Thus, the Alberta government should halt tar sands expansion, clean up and address the
root causes of tar sands associated pollution and environmental degradation, ameliorate the
effects of the health issues facing indigenous peoples as a result of tar sands operations.
National and international ﬁnancial and banking institutions should immediately withdraw
funding from the tar sands expansion and operations.
If these steps are not taken, it
behoves the international community to intervene and force the hands of both the Canadian
and US governments, and the ﬁnancial and banking institutions, to take these necessary
Many indigenous peoples have been calling for this kind action from the internati onal
community for some time now – feeling that they will not ﬁnd remedy or justice from the
very institutions that are committing these crimes. To be sure, they ‘have been very inter-
ested in engaging international law, arguing that as descendants of indigenou s nations, they
deserve protection under international human rights laws’.
The clearest recent example
of this to date being the indigenous participation and willpower behind the drafting and
passing of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which arguably
allows their sovereign rights to take precedent over US or other nation-states domestic
so long of course that the ‘territorial integrity’ (Article 46) of the colonial
nation state is not compromised.
The time for action to halt tar sands expansion is long overdue for the reasons discussed
herein but also because of the wider issue of anthropogenic climate change. Indeed, if we
take the latest climate science,
or even the warnings of the notoriously conservative Inter-
national Energy Agency,
seriously then indigenous peoples and the rest of us are fast
approaching the ‘tipping point’ of runaway climate change (likely to result in an ‘extinction
230 J. Huseman and D. Short
event’) such that investing further in tar sands production is tantamount to throwing
bucketfuls of petrol on a ﬁre.
1. M. Mercredi, ‘Slow Industrial Genocide’, The Dominion, 23 November 2009, http://www.
2. C. Samson, A Way of Life that Does Not Exist, London: Verso, 2003, 42. Further citations to
this work are given in the text.
3. Ibid., 42.
4. St. Catherine’s Milling and Lumber Co. v. The Queen (1888) 14 App. Cas. 46 (J.C.P.C.),
summary available at http://www.bloorstreet.com/200block/rstcth.htm.
5. Treaty negotiations, and the ultimate extinguishment of Indian title, were facilitated by the
imposition on the natives of coloniser forms of social and political organisation. In the
years following 1867, the new Dominion of Canada sought to ‘enfranchise’ Indians through
a succession of Indian Acts which ‘registered’ Indians, gave them band numbers, deﬁned
them as ‘wards of the state’, created Indian ‘reserves’ under Crown title and arranged
native-controlled local government. See Samson, A Way of Life that Does Not Exist, 42.
6. The treaty area most affected by tar sands projects.
Fumoleau, As Long as this Land Shall Last, 2nd edition (Calgary, Alberta: University of
Calgary Press, 2004), 18.
8. A.D. Fisher, ‘The Cree of Canada: some ecological and evolutionary considerations’, in Cul-
tural Ecology: readings on the Canadian Indians and Eskimos, ed. B. Cox (Toronto: McClel-
land and Stewart, 1973), 126 – 39.
9. R. Daniel, ‘The spirit and terms of Treaty 8’, in The Spirit of the Alberta Treaties, ed. R. Price,
(Alberta: University of Alberta Press, 1999), pp. 47–100, 49.
11. Ibid., 53.
12. Ibid., 55.
13. Record Group 10, Public Archives of Canada, Ottawa, 3708: 19502-1.
14. Daniel, ‘The spirit and terms of Treaty 8’, 58.
16. Fumoleau, Land Shall Last, 65–66.
17. Ibid., 65.
18. Daniel, ‘The spirit and terms of Treaty 8’, 75.
19. Ibid., 76.
20. Fumoleau, Land Shall Last, 78.
21. Canada, Treaty 8, 6–7.
22. Daniel, ‘The spirit and terms of Treaty 8’,77.
23. 26 July 1899, Record Group 10, Public Archives of Canada, Ottawa, 6732: 420 – 2.
24. See Daniel, ‘The spirit and terms of Treaty 8’, 83; and the interviews with Elders 144–160.
25. Fumoleau, Land Shall Last, 78.
26. Daniel, ‘The spirit and terms of Treaty 8’, 84.
27. Fumoleau, Land Shall Last, 67.
28. Fumoleau, Land Shall Last, 71,
29. Treaty 8, http://www.solon.org/Aboriginal/Canada/Treaty-8.html.
30. Samson, A Way of Life that Does Not Exist, 43.
31. Brody, M Maps and Dreams, 1981, 68.
32. Fumoleau, Land Shall Last, 18.
33. Samson, A Way of Life that Does Not Exist, 44.
34. The United Nations Environment Program, for example, has identiﬁed the tar sands ‘as one of
the world’s top 100 hotspots of environmental degradation’. See International Boreal Conser-
vation (IBCC), Canada’s Tar Sands: America’s #1 Source of Oil Has Dangerous Global
Consequences, 2008, http://www.borealbirds.org/resources/factsheet-ibcc-tarsands.pdf.
35. WWF, ‘Scraping the bottom of the barrel?’, 2008, 27, http://assets.panda.org/downloads/
36. IBCC, Canada’s Tar Sands,3.
The International Journal of Human Rights 231
37. G. Monbiot, ‘The urgent threat to world peace is ... Canada’, 1 December 2009, http://www.
38. ‘The Syncrude tailings pond is now the largest dam on earth, to be rivalled only by China’s
Three Gorges Dam’, IBCC, Canada Tar Sands,3.
39. See for a conservative estimate see the citation of a US Department of Energy study in Natural
Resources Defence Council, ‘Setting the Record Straight: Lifecycle Emissions of Tar Sands’,
2, www.docs.nrdc.org/energy/ﬁles/ene_10110501a.pdf; and for the upper range see Joseph
J. Romm, Hell and High Water: The Global Warming Solution (New York: Harper Perennial,
2008), 181–82; and http://www.greenpeace.org/france/PageFiles/266537/dirtyoil.pdf.
40. Natural Resources Defence Council, ‘Setting the record straight: lifecycle emissions of tar
sands’, 2, www.docs.nrdc.org/energy/ﬁles/ene_10110501a.pdf.
41. Quoted from Liv Inger Somby’s article, published on Galdu (Resource Centre for the Rights of
Indigenous Peoples), 3 November 2009, http://www.galdu.org/web/index.php?odas=
42. Kim Peterson, ‘Oil Versus Water: Toxic Water Poses Threat to Alberta’s Indigenous
Communicaties’, The Dominon, http://www.dominionpaper.ca/articles/1429.
43. A. Smith, Conquest: Sexual Violence and American Indian Genocide (Cambridge, MA: South
End Press, 2005), 121.
44. W. Churchill, Since Predator Came: Notes from the Struggle for American Indian Liberation ,
2nd ed., (Oakland, CA, and Edinburgh, UK: AK Press, 2005), 168.
45. But of course not all people who deﬁne themselves as indigenous have a strong physical or
spiritual connection to land generally or to a speciﬁc geographical setting. As Yin
C. Paradies writes: ‘although the poor and the rich Indigene, the cultural reviver and the
quintessential cosmopolitan, the fair, dark, good, bad and disinterested may have little in
common, they are nonetheless all equally but variously Indigenous’ (2006, p 363). Yin
C. Paradies, ‘Beyond black and white: essentialism, hybridity and Indigeneity,’ Journal of
Sociology 42 (2006): 355– 367.
46. M. Abed, ‘Clarifying the concept of genocide’, Metaphilosophy 37, nos. 3–4 (2006): 308–330,
47. Abed, ‘Clarifying the concept of genocide’, 327.
48. C. Powell, ‘What do genocides kill? A relational conception of genocide. Journal of Genocide
Research 9, no. 4 (2007): 527 – 547, 538.
49. Abed, ‘Clarifying the concept of genocide’, 327. As Abed has so poignantly argued, ‘social
death is the harm that makes genocide an ethically unique form’ of destruction (38).
50. D. Short, ‘Cultural genocide and indigenous peoples: a sociological approach’, The
International Journal of Human Rights 14, no. 6 (2010): 831– 846; and D. Short, ‘Australia:
a continuing genocide?’, Journal of Genocide Research 12, nos.1–2, (2010) : 45 –68.
51. C. Powell, ‘What do genocides kill? A relational conception of genocide’, Journal of Genocide
Research 9, no. 4 (2007): 527 – 547, 534.
52. Two examples of this perspective are Frank Chalk and Kurt Jonassohn, The History and Soci-
ology of Genocide: Analyses and Case Studies (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990), 25;
and Adam Jones in his textbook Genocide: A Comprehensive Introduction (New York;
Routledge, 2006). Jones wrote; ‘I consider mass killing to be deﬁnitional to genocide...in
charting my own course, I am wary of labelling as “genocide” cases where mass killing has
53. A. Dirk Moses, ‘Raphael Lemkin, culture, and the concept of genocide’, in Oxford Handbook
of Genocide Studies, ed., Donald Bloxham and A. Dirk Moses, Oxford: Oxford University
Press, 2010, 3.
54. See Short, ‘Cultural genocide and indigenous peoples’; and Abed, ‘Clarifying the concept of
genocide’, on this point.
55. See Patrick Wolfe, ‘Settler colonialism and the elimination of the native’, Journal of Genocide
Research 8, no. 4 (2008): 387 – 409.
56. Powell, (2007: 538).
57. The ‘Cold War’ era roughly began circa 1945, ‘pitting the US and its ‘Free World’ allies against
the “Communist Bloc”...’. See W. Churchill, A Little Matter of Genocide: Holocaust and Denial
in the Americas, 1492 to the Present (San Francisco, CA: City Light Books, 1997), 289.
58. Indian land was also used extensively for nuclear weapons testing during this period.
59. Churchill, A Little Matter of Genocide, 304.
232 J. Huseman and D. Short
60. Ibid., 324.
61. It this way, the concept of a ‘national sacriﬁce area’ was ﬁrst established in ofﬁcial North
American governmental policy, whereby certain areas of the U.S/Canada could be demarcated
for over-development and exploitation in the name of so-called ‘national priorities’, ‘irrespec-
tive of the resulting permanent environmental damages’. See J. Higgins-Freese and
J. Tomhave, ‘Race, sacriﬁce, and native lands’, Earth Light Magazine 46 (2002), http://
www.earthlight.org/2002/essay46_sacriﬁce.html. As Churchill attested, ‘having the last of
their territory zoned ‘so as to forbid human habitation’ would’ obviously ‘precipitate (the) ulti-
mate dispersal’ of the impacted Native group, thus ‘causing its disappearance as a ‘human
group’ per se’. See Churchill, A Little Matter of Genocide, 185. We must therefore conclude
that this policy is genocidal, ‘no more...no less’. In addition, one can see how ‘colonizers
attempt to deny...reality by forcing those people who have already been rendered dirty,
impure, and hence expendable to face the most immediate consequences of environmental
destruction’. See Smith, Conquest, 57.
62. M.T. Klare, (2010) ‘The relentless pursuit of extreme energy: a new oil rush endangers the
Gulf of Mexico and the planet’, The Hufﬁngton Post, 19 May 2010, http://www.
64. ‘Although Canada is often seen as a junior partner in many imperial ventures, it has taken the
lead in the subjugation of the people of Afghanistan and Haiti. Perhaps more signiﬁcant, if less
well known, is Canada’s role in subordinating the planet to the needs of the oil and gas indus-
try’. See M. Stainsby, ‘Into a black hole’, Upping the Anti: A Journal of Theory and Action 5
(2007): 87–100, 89.
65. Ibid., 89.
66. Ibid., 89.
67. ‘The recoverable oil reserves in Alberta’s tar sands are so bountiful that they vie with oil
reserves in Saudi Arabia and Venezuela for top status’. See K. Peterson, ‘Oil versus water:
toxic water poses threat to Alberta’s indigenous communities’, The Dominion: A Grassroots
News Cooperative, (tar sands special issue) 48 (2007): 12 – 31, 12.
68. M. Humphries, ‘Congressional Research Service’, North American Oil Sands: History of
Development, Prospects for the Future (US:CRS, 2008), http://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/
69. E. Black, ‘America with no plan for oil interruption: ironically, as price per barrel drops, Amer-
ican oil supply from Canada imperiled‘, The Cutting Edge News, 3 November 2008, http://
70. Smith, Conquest, 180.
71. Smith, Conquest, 179. This is sometimes referred to as ‘internal colonialism’.
72. Patrick Wolfe, ‘Settler colonialism and the elimination of the native’, Journal of Genocide
Research 8, no. 4, (2006): 387–409, 388.
73. Churchill, A Little Matter of Genocide, 319; emphasis added.
74. W. LaDuke, All Our Relations: Native Struggles for Land and Life (Cambridge, MA: South
End Press, 1999), 2.
75. W.C. Bradford, Beyond Reparations: An American Indian Theory of Justice (The Berkeley
Electronic Press, 2004):7, http://law.bepress.com/expresso/eps/170.
76. Smith, Conquest, 122; and on the ‘forcible’ point see Short, D (2010) ‘Cultural Genocide...’.
77. H. Zinn, ‘Introduction’, in Ecocide of Native America: Environmental Destruction of Indian
Lands and Peoples, eds., D.A. Grinde and B.E. Johansen (Santa Fe, NM: Clear Light Publish-
ers, 1995), 1.
78. In A. Dirk Moses, ‘Conceptual blockages and deﬁnitional dilemmas in the ‘racial century’:
genocides of indigenous peoples and the Holocaust’, Patterns of Prejudice 36, no. 4
(2002): 7–36, 24.
79. Churchill, A Little Matter of Genocide,9.
80. Zinn, ‘Introduction’, 3.
81. The ﬁrst 40 years of its operation has already seen an incredible ‘inﬂux of workers, machinery
and infrastructure’ into the area, which has had severely detrimental impacts on local Native
communities ‘socially, politically, and culturally’. See LaDuke, All Our Relations
, 84. This has
included rises in alcohol and drug abuse, ‘violence, prostitution, elder and spousal abuse’, and
abandoned children ‘fathered by workers who are long gone’. See M. Stainsby, ‘The richest
The International Journal of Human Rights 233
ﬁrst nation in Canada: ecological and political life in Fort McKay’, The Dominion: A Grass-
roots News Cooperative 48( 2007): 18– 35, 35. Sociologists have referred to these particular
‘ramiﬁcations of...development as the ‘boom town syndrome’. It is not considered to be a
healthy environment for the host population and is exacerbated when the local host community
is a different colour, race, and culture from the newcomers’. See LaDuke, All Our Relations,84
82. K.P. Timoney, on behalf of the Nunee Health Board Society,A Study of Water and Sediment
Quality Related to Public Health Issues, Fort Chipewyan, Alberta (Nunee Health Board
Society: Fort Chipewyan, Alberta, 2007), http://www.borealbirds.org/resources/timoney-
83. Ibid., 50.
84. Ibid., 52.
85. Ibid., 53.
86. Ibid., 53.
87. ‘As a result of this spill, commercial ﬁshing by local people was cancelled due to an oily taste
in the ﬁsh’. Ibid., 53.
88. Ibid., 53.
89. Ibid., 53; furthermore, ‘a 2008 study by Environmental Defense showed that the tailings ponds
were leaking 11 million litres of liquid into the surrounding environment everyday’. See
I. Willms, ‘Photo Essay: Fort Chipewyan lives in the shadow of Alberta’s oil sands’, This Maga-
zine, 1November 2011, http://this.org/magazine/2011/11/01/fort-chipewyan-photo-essay/.
90. Ibid., 53.
91. IBCC, Canada’s Tar Sands, 3. ‘Tar sands companies are currently licensed to use over 90
billion gallons of water from the Athabasca River per year – enough water to satisfy the
needs of a city of two million people’ (ibid., 3), furthermore, ‘most if not all of this water
us taken out of the natural cycle and never replaced’. See K. Thomas, ‘A new wave of exploi-
tation: Canada, Alberta Defy UN, sell off rights to disputed Lubicon land’, The Dominion: A
Grassroots News Cooperative 48, (2007): 24–38, 38.
92. IBCC, Canada’s Tar Sands,1.
93. C. Thomas-Muller, ‘We speak for ourselves: indigenous peoples challenge the fossil fuel
regime in Alberta’, The Dominion: A Grassroots News Cooperative48 (2007): 13.
94. IBCC, Canada’s Tar Sands,1.
95. ‘These are the communities of Mikisew Cree First Nation and the Athabasca Chipewyan First
Nation at Fort Chipewyan, Fort McMurray First Nation, Fort McKay First Nation, and to the
south, the Chipewyan Prairie First Nation. They are all members of the Athabasca Tribal
Council’ (Indigenous Environmental Network (ca.2008) Information Sheet No. 1, Tar
Sands: Indigenous Peoples and the Giga Project, http://dirtyoilsands.org/ﬁles/IEN_CITSC_
96. ‘The observations of the elders are remarkably consistent. They say that the river water tastes
differently now – oily, sour, or salty. When the river water is boiled, it leaves a brown scum in
the pot. Fish (and muskrat) ﬂesh is softer now, and watery. Ducks, muskrats, and ﬁshes taste
differently now. There is now a slimy, sticky, or gummy material...in their ﬁshing nets in
winter; this started in perhaps the mid-1990s’. See Timoney, A Study of Water and Sediment
97. ‘Oilsands poisoning ﬁsh, say scientists, ﬁsherman’, CBC News, 16 September 2010, http://www.
98. M. Rolbin-Ghanie, ‘What in tar nation? Life amongst the tar sands’, The Dominion: A Grass-
roots News Cooperative 48 (2007): 2–38; 21.
99. In response to O’Connor’s ﬁndings, Alberta Health and Wellness released their own report in
2006 which ‘declined to conclude the cancer rate in Fort Chipewyan was elevated’ (ibid., 6).
Timoney suggests that this was perhaps due to the fact that the government ‘used questionable
statistical methods and assumptions and underestimated levels of arsenic in water and sedi-
ment and the ﬁsh consumption rate of many Fort Chipewyan residents (ibid., 4).
100. ‘Will Dr. John O’Connor ever be cleared?’, Tar Sands Watch, 20 July 2009, http://www.
101. ‘Fort Chip cancer rates higher than expected: report’, CBC News, 6 February 2009, http://
234 J. Huseman and D. Short
102. Alberta Cancer Board, Cancer Incidents in Fort Chipewyan, Alberta, 1995–2006, February
2009 (Alberta Cancer Board, Division of Population Health and Information Surveillance:
Alberta, Canada), http://www.ualberta.ca/~avnish/rls-2009-02-06-fort-chipewyan-study.pdf.
The report concluded that levels of the rare cancer cholangiocarcinoma were not higher
than expected, however (ibid.).
103. However, ‘according to Natural Resources Defence Council senior scientist Dr. Gina Solo-
mon...almost all of the cancer types that were elevated have been linked scientiﬁcally to
chemicals in oil or tar ’. See D. Droitsch and T. Simieritsch, on behalf of The Pembina Institute,
Canadian Aboriginal Concerns with Oil Sands: A compilation of key issues, resolutions and
legal activities, September 2010, http://www.pembina.org/pub/2083.
104. Alberta Health Services, Fort Chipewyan Cancer Study Findings Released, 6 February 2009,
105. CBC News, Fort Chip Cancer Rates Higher Than Expected.
106. IEN, Information Sheet No. 1,2.
107. Timoney, A Study of Water and Sediment Quality.
109. Timoney, A Study of Water and Sediment Quality, 71 & 72.
110. Ibid., 72.
111. Ibid., 56, 73.
112. Ibid., 73.
113. E.N. Kelly, D.W. Schindler, P.V. Hodson, J.W. Short, R. Radmanovich, and C.C. Nielsen, Oil
sands development contributes elements toxic at low concentrations to the Athabasca River
and its tributaries’, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences PNAS, US, 2 July
114. S. Bell, S., ‘Oilsands pollution worse than expected’, Slave River Journal, 7 December 2009,
116. As mentioned above, so did Timoney’s 2007 report, A Study of Water and Sediment Quality
117. Kelly et al., Oil sands development contributes,5.
118. Royal Society of Canada, ‘Expert Panel Report: Environmental and Health Impacts of
Canada’s Oil Sands Industry’, www.rsc.ca/.../RSC%20report%20complete%20secured%
119. Ibid., 107, 148.
120. Water Monitoring Data Review Committee, ‘Evaluation of Four Reports on Contamination
of the Athabasca River System by Oil Sands Operations’, http://environment.alberta.ca/
121. Sierra Club Prairie, ‘Royal Society Report on Tar Sands ignores Traditional Knowledge Indi-
genous Peoples, Community Members and Allies raise concerns’, http://www.sierraclub.ca/
122. ‘Making “cents” of the tar sands’, Respecting Aboriginal Values and Environmental Needs,20
September 2011, http://raventrust.com/blog/2011-09/making-cents-of-the-tar-sands.html.
123. ‘Cancer Rates Downstream from Oilsands to be Probed’, CBC News, 19 August 2011, http://
124. W. Churchill, Kill the Indian, Save the Man: The Genocidal Impact of American Indian Resi-
dential School (San Francisco, CA: City Light Books, 2004), 34. Another case in point, and
contrary to popular belief, is that the expression ‘Final Solution’, in a genocidal sense, was
not, in fact, coined by the Nazis, but by Canadian Indian Affairs Superintendent Duncan
Campbell Scott in a letter from April of 1910 written ‘in response to a concern raised by a
west coast Indian Affairs ofﬁcial about the high level of death in the coastal residential
schools’. Scott wrote: ‘It is readily acknowledged that Indian children lose their natural resist-
ance to disease by habituating so closely in these schools, and that as a consequence they die at
a much higher rate than in their villages. But this alone does not justify a change in the
of this Department, which is geared towards a
ﬁnal solution to our Indian Problem’. See
K.D. Annett, Hidden from History: The Canadian Holocaust – The Untold Story of the Gen-
ocide of Aboriginal Peoples by Church and State in Canada. 2
ed. (Vancouver: The Truth
Commission into Genocide in Canada and Unceded Coast Salish Territory, 2005), 15
(emphasis added). That these deaths were the result of intentional inﬂiction of disease was
The International Journal of Human Rights 235
further corroborated by contemporary top Canadian Indian Affairs medical ofﬁcer, Doctor
Peter Bryce, who stated in an ofﬁcial report in 1907: ‘I believe the conditions are being delib-
erately created in our residential schools to spread infectious diseases...The mortality rate in
the schools often exceeds ﬁfty percent. This is a national crime’. See Annett, Hidden from
History, 20 (emphasis added).
125. Smith, Conquest, 69.
126. Annet, Hidden From History, 44.
127. Stainsby, ‘Into a black hole’, 89.
128. IBCC, Canada’s Tar Sands, 1; This will give Alberta the fastest rate of deforestation in the
world outside the Amazon.
129. Stainsby, ‘Into a black hole’, 89.
130. National Resource Defense Council, et al. (2011) Tar Sands Pipelines Safety Risks [Online]
NDRC, et al.: USA. February 2011. Available at: http://www.nrdc.org/energy/ﬁles/
tarsandssafetyrisks.pdf [Retrieved August 2011].
131. Ibid., 5.
132. Ibid., 4.
133. Ibid., 9; ‘Over half of the pipelines currently operating in Alberta have been built in the last
twenty years as the tar sands region developed’, ibid., 8.
134. Ibid., 9.
135. Ibid., 8.
136. STL Today (2010) Worries over defective steel force TransCanada to check oil pipeline
[Online] (Posted 10
December 2010) Available at: http://www.stltoday.com/news/local/
137. NRDC, et al., Tar Sands Pipelines Safety Risks,5.
138. ‘...as DilBit ﬂows through a pipeline, pressure changes within the pipeline can cause the
natural gas liquid condensate component to move from liquid to gas phase. This forms a
gas bubble that can impede the ﬂow of oil. Because this phenomenon—known as column sep-
aration—presents many of the same signs as a leak to pipeline operators, real leaks may go
unnoticed. Because the proper response to column separation is to pump more oil through
the pipeline, misdiagnoses can be devastating’, ibid., 6–7.
139. Onearth Magazine, NDRC, ‘Michigan spill increases concern over tar sands pipelines’, 6
August 2010, http://www.onearth.org/article/michigan-oil-spill-tar-sands-concerns.
140. Onearth Magazine, NDRC, ‘A year after pipeline spill, tar sands oil still plagues a Michigan
community’, 25 July 2011, http://www.onearth.org/article/tar-sands-oil-plagues-a-michigan-
141. Onearth Magazine, NDRC, ‘Montana’s Yellowstone River oil spill: the shape of things to
come?’, 6 July 2011, http://www.onearth.org/article/yellowstone-river-oil-spill.
142. See ‘Stop tar sands: scars upon sacred land iv: ‘a slow industrial genocide’, http://www.
143. See this report on a recent Benzene leak, http://switchboard.nrdc.org/blogs/aswift/suncor_
144. Mecredi, ‘Slow Industrial Genocide’.
145. For an in-depth discussion of this see Stainsby’s article, ‘Into a black hole’.
146. IEN Tar Sands and Indigenous Rights Brieﬁng, 6.
147. IEN Tar Sands and Indigenous Rights Brieﬁng, 6.
148. K. Petersen, ‘Oil Versus Water: Toxic water poses threat to Alberta’s Indigenous communities’,
The Dominion 48, (2007).
150. EIN, ca. 2008, 3.
151. Stainsby, ‘The richest ﬁrst nation in Canada, 18.
152. K. Petersen, ‘Oil Versus Water, 31.
153. K. Petersen, ‘Oil Versus Water, 31.
154. Daniel, ‘The spirit and terms of Treaty 8’, 76.
155. See Treaty 8, http://www.ainc-inac.gc.ca/eng/1100100028813.
156. G. Poitras, ‘Why am I attending?’, 24 September 2011, http://edmortimer.wordpress.com/
236 J. Huseman and D. Short
157. C. Thomas-Muller, ‘Tar sands: environmental justice, treaty rights and indigenous peoples’,
2008, at http://canadiandimension.com/articles/1760.
159. See for example this damning expose of the Royal Bank of Scotland’s funding of the tar sands
160. Smith, Conquest, 182.
162. For example see K. Anderson and A. Bows, ‘Beyond “dangerous” climate change: emission
scenarios for a new world’, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, 369 no. 1934
(2011): 20-44, http://rsta.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/369/1934/20.full.
163. See IEA’s latest report at http://www.worldenergyoutlook.org/.
164. See D. Carrington, ‘The burning issue of energy cannot wait for economic good times’,
The Guardian, November 2011, http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/damian-carrington-
Notes on contributors
Jennifer Huseman, MA (Human Rights) is an independent researcher who has worked for many
years on indigenous peoples’ rights and genocide. Damien Short is a senior lecturer in human
rights in the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, School of Advanced Study, University of London.
Damien has published widely on indigenous rights, reconciliation processes and, more recently,
The International Journal of Human Rights 237