U.S. decisions on tar sands imports will impact First Nations communities, leaders say

Sept. 22, 2010

WASHINGTON, D.C. — U.S. officials heard first-hand this week how their decisions about importing oil from the Canadian tar sands are affecting First Nations communities on both sides of the border.

A delegation of Canadian and American First Nations leaders met with officials at the White House Council on Environmental Quality, the State Department, the Department of Interior and others. They also discussed their experiences and concerns with the staff of key congressional representatives and non-governmental organizations.

"What we wanted to bring is the big picture of how tar sands development is impacting a vast territory in the North — from climate change, to chemicals in our water, to the caribou herds that are becoming endangered," said François Paulette, a member of the Smith's Landing Treaty 8 Dene First Nation, and one of three aboriginal leaders taking part in the meetings. "A lot of our people are really concerned."

The trip to Washington, D.C. comes as the Obama administration is considering a proposal to build a massive pipeline from Alberta to Texas, to pump up to 900,000 barrels of tar sands oil per day to the U.S. Gulf Coast. First Nations communities on both sides of the border have passed resolutions opposing the pipeline and have called on governments to hold off on future development out of respect for environmental limits and treaty rights.

"They listened to our concerns, and asked a lot of questions," said Paulette. "We just have to keep coming back and talking to the people who can make the changes we need to see."

Marty Cobenais knows personally what's at stake if the delegation's message doesn't get through. A member of the Red Lake Band of the Chippewa (Ojibwe), Cobenais grew up in a community in Northern Minnesota that's crisscrossed by pipelines. One sprung a leak years ago, but Cobenais says a large amount of the oil was never properly cleaned up and remains in the ground.

"I don't want to see that happen anywhere else," he said.

For George Poitras, former chief of the Mikisew Cree First Nation, the meetings in Washington offer a rare opportunity to bring his concerns about the health impacts of the tar sands directly to decision-makers who could choose to make a difference. Recent studies on the downstream impacts of tar sands operations have revived concerns over high levels of toxins in the Athabasca River, elevated cancer rates among residents, and an increasing number of deformed fish harvested in the area.

"All of these things we're seeing make it hard to believe the government's assurances that the tar sands aren't affecting the health and wellbeing of our communities and our land," Poitras said. "It's extremely frustrating that we have to come to the U.S. to make our concerns heard at home, but we'll do what we have to until the situation changes."

The delegates will leave Washington having delivered one clear and common message: the harm caused by tar sands development outweighs any economic benefits for their communities. If American decision makers approve the Keystone XL pipeline, they will be locking the U.S. into future reliance on fossil fuels, increasing climate change emissions and allowing toxins from the tar sands to continue harming aboriginal communities.  

"We don't need this pipeline," Cobenais said. "It's time our politicians and lawmakers recognized that we have better alternatives."


Download: Canadian Aboriginal concerns with oilsands - a compilation of key issues, resolutions and legal activities


Julia Kilpatrick
The Pembina Institute

Elizabeth Heyd
Natural Resources Defense Council



Canada is among the top 10 emitters of greenhouse gases globally, and the tar sands represent the fastest-growing source of greenhouse gas emissions in Canada. Northern communities, far away from actual mining operations, are already experiencing dramatic changes to their traditional territory and ways of life because of climate change in the Arctic and the Boreal region.

The First Nations leaders' delegation includes:

  • George Poitras, whose community in Fort Chipewyan lies downstream of tar sands operations and has reported high rates of cancer and other illness. Poitras is a former chief of the Mikisew Cree First Nation in Alberta, Canada.
  • François Paulette, a negotiator and consultant for First Nations groups on the impacts of tar sands operations on land and water quality. Paulette is a member of the Smith's Landing Treaty 8 First Nation in the Northwest Territories, Canada, former chief of the Dene Nation, and a Commissioner with the Assembly of First Nations.
  • Marty Cobenais, an active member of the non-profit Indigenous Environmental Network, through which he has met with Tribal Councils to encourage resolutions opposing the Keystone XL pipeline. Cobenais is a member of the Red Lake Band of the Chippewa (Ojibwe) First Nation in northern Minnesota.


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