The Beaver Lake Cree Nation, Treaty No. 6 Area, Canada—I am driving down a rutted dirt road with Eric Lameman, a member of the Cree nation.
“Over there,” he says, pointing out where he was born in a tent 61 years ago.
We stop the car and look toward a wooded grove.
“That’s the mass grave,” he says softly, indicating a clearing where dozens of Cree who died in a smallpox epidemic over a century ago are buried.
The Cree have been under relentless assault since the arrival of the European colonialists in the 1500s. Now the 500 inhabitants of the Cree reserve, where many live in small, boxy prefabricated houses, are victims of a new iteration of colonial exploitation, one centered on the extraction of oil from the vast Alberta tar sands. This atrocity presages the destruction of the ecosystem on which they depend for life. If the Cree do not stop the exploiters this time, they, along the exploiters, will die.
The reserve is surrounded by the tar sands, one of the largest concentrations of crude oil in the world. The sands produce 98% of Canada’s oil and are the United States’ largest source of imported oil. This oil, among the dirtiest fossil fuels on earth, is a leading cause of atmospheric pollution, releasing massive amounts of carbon dioxide. The production and consumption of one barrel of tar sands crude oil release 17% more carbon dioxide than production and consumption of a standard barrel of oil.
Tar sands oil is a thick, mucky, clay-like substance that is infused with a hydrocarbon called bitumen. The oil around Beaver Lake is extracted by a process known as steam-assisted gravity drainage, which occurs under the earth and is similar to fracking. Farther north, extraction is done by strip-mining the remote boreal forest of Alberta, 2 million acres of which have already been destroyed. The destruction of vast forests, sold to timber companies, and the scraping away of the topsoil have left behind poisoned wastelands. This industrial operation, perhaps the largest such project in the world, is rapidly accelerating the release of the carbon emissions that will, if left unchecked, soon render the planet uninhabitable for humans. The oil is transported thousands of miles to refineries as far away as Houston through pipelines and in tractor-trailer trucks or railroad cars. More than a hundred climate scientists have called for a moratorium on the extraction of tar sands oil. Former NASA scientist James Hansen has warned that if the tar sands oil is fully exploited, it will be “game over for the planet.” He has also called for the CEOs of fossil fuel companies to be tried for high crimes against humanity.
It is hard, until you come here, to grasp the scale of the tar sands exploitation. Surrounding Beaver Lake are well over 35,000 oil and natural gas wells and thousands of miles of pipelines, access roads and seismic lines. (The region also contains the Cold Lake Air Weapons Range, which has appropriated huge tracts of traditional territory from the native inhabitants to test weapons.) Giant processing plants, along with gargantuan extraction machines, including bucket wheelers that are over half a mile long and draglines that are several stories high, ravage hundreds of thousands of acres. These stygian centers of death belch sulfurous fumes, nonstop, and send fiery flares into the murky sky. The air has a metallic taste. Outside the processing centers, there are vast toxic lakes known as tailings ponds, filled with billions of gallons of water and chemicals related to the oil extraction, including mercury and other heavy metals, carcinogenic hydrocarbons, arsenic and strychnine. The sludge from the tailings ponds is leaching into the Athabasca River, which flows into the Mackenzie, the largest river system in Canada. Nothing here, by the end, will support life. The migrating birds that alight at the tailings ponds die in huge numbers. So many birds have been killed that the Canadian government has ordered extraction companies to use noise cannons at some of the sites to scare away arriving flocks. Around these hellish lakes, there is a steady boom-boom-boom from the explosive devices.
The water in much of northern Alberta is no longer safe for human consumption. Drinking water has to be trucked in for the Beaver Lake reserve.
Streams of buses ferry workers, almost all of them men, up and down the roads, night and day. Tens of thousands from across Canada have come to work in the tar sands operations. Many live in Fort McMurray, about 180 miles from Beaver Lake, and work punishing 12-hour shifts for three weeks at a time before having a week off.
The Cree, the Dene and other tribes that live amid the environmental carnage and whose ancestral lands have been appropriated by the government to extract the tar sands oil suffer astronomical rates of respiratory and other illnesses. Cancer rates are 30% higher than in the rest of Alberta, according to the Alberta Cancer Board, which was disbanded soon after releasing this information in 2008.
When he was a child, Eric Lameman was taken from his parents by the government, a common practice a few decades ago, and sent to an Indian boarding school where beatings were routine, speaking Cree or any of the other indigenous languages was forbidden and native religious and cultural practices were outlawed. He says the forced severance from his family and his community, along with the banning of his traditions, was psychologically devastating. He remembers his father and other Cree elders on the reserve performing religious rituals in secret. He would sneak to the woods to watch them as, risking arrest, they clung to their beliefs and spiritual practices.
Lameman defied the efforts to wipe out his identity and his culture, which he nurtured in spite of the attempts to eradicate them. He remained a Cree. And he says it is only his Cree roots that keep him whole and make it possible for him to endure. He suffered extreme poverty. He also had periods of addiction and even episodes of violence. It is hard to avoid personal disintegration when the dominant culture seeks to eradicate your being. Canada’s indigenous people represent 4 percent of the population, but they make up more than a quarter of the inmates in the nation’s federal prisons. Lameman’s wife left him and their young children. She died from alcoholism on the streets of Calgary. He worked as a heavy machine operator in the tar sands. He quit when he realized the land he was despoiling would never recover and he began to get sick. He survives now on welfare.
We are back in his small house, seated in the tiny kitchen. His daughter Crystal Lameman, an internationally known indigenous rights activist, heats juniper in an iron skillet until fumes of the pungent herb drift upward. We cup our hands and pull the smoke into our nostrils. The Cree and others say “smudging” cleanses negative energy, helps bring clarity and vision, and centers those exposed to the scent. We sit quietly.
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The more the Cree recover their traditions to defy the capitalist mantra of hoarding, profit, exploitation, self-promotion and commodification of human beings and the earth, the more their life has an intrinsic value rather than a monetary value. This recovery is the antidote to despair. It grounds the Cree spiritually. It permits transcendence. It at once estranges them from reality and brings them closer to it. Resistance is not only about challenging the extraction companies in court, as the Cree have done in trying to block the tar sands industry and the pipelines from their traditional land; it is about holding fast to another orientation to reality, one that we all must adopt if we are to survive as a species. It is about the recovery of the sacred. The white exploiters seek not only to steal the land and natural resources and commit genocide against indigenous communities but to wipe out this competing ethic.
“I need my people,” Eric Lameman says. “I need the ones that know our history, our language, our spiritual practices and our culture. I rely on them to pass it on to me so I can pass it on.”
The exploiters have sought to corrupt the Cree and bastardize their traditions. Extraction companies have paid off some tribal leaders to support pipelines or surrender tribal territory to oil development. The companies use the quislings to mount propaganda campaigns in favor of extraction, to divide and weaken indigenous communities and to attempt to discredit leaders such as Crystal. The federal government last year staged a Cree religious ceremony, complete with honor songs and drums, to bless the Trans Mountain Expansion Project and Canada’s $4.5 billion purchase of the Trans Mountain pipeline, developments that mean death for the Cree people.
“This is what they call reconciliation,” Eric says bitterly.
“It’s cultural appropriation,” Crystal says. “ ‘Reconciliation’ is a bullshit word. Reconciling with whom? Reconciling what? Reconciling us with the current colonial systems of exploitation? Until they dismantle the structures of exploitation there can be no reconciliation.”
The man camps of tens of thousands of tar sands workers fuel the prostitution industry. Indigenous girls and women, living in squalor and poverty, are lured by the seemingly easy and fast money. Their sexual degradation soon leads to addictions to blunt the pain. This too is a legacy of colonialism. Canada began as a military and commercial outpost of Britain. The Hudson’s Bay Company did not permit European women to immigrate to Canada. Brothels, populated by prostituted indigenous girls and women, were established alongside the military forts and trading posts. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police issued a report in 2015 that found that indigenous, or First Nations, women, who constitute 4.3% of Canada’s female population, are four times more likely to go missing or be murdered than other Canadian women. They are 16% of female murder victims and are the objects of 11% of missing person’s cases involving women.
“I was on a panel in Vancouver,” Crystal Lameman says. “I used the word ‘prostitution.’ A trans person got up and told me to use the term ‘sex work,’ saying it was a choice. Impoverished and vulnerable indigenous girls and women do not choose to be prostitutes. They are forced into that world. Girls are conditioned for this from familial disintegration and sexual abuse. … Sexual abuse, a common experience for girls in residential schools and the foster care system, is another one of the legacies of colonialism.”
The infusion of workers with disposable incomes has also seen an explosion in drugs in northern Alberta such as crack cocaine and crystal meth, and with the drugs has come a rash of suicides among the native population. Suicide and non-suicidal intentional self-injuries are the leading causes of death for First Nations people under the age of 44 in Canada. Young indigenous males are 10 times more likely to kill themselves than other Canadians. Young indigenous females are 21 times more likely to commit suicide. Beaver Lake has not been spared, losing seven people to suicide in a 12-month period in 2014 and 2015. All of them were under the age of 44, and all were drug addicts or alcoholics.
“There are two roads into Fort McMurray,” Crystal says. “There’s Highway 63 and Highway 881, which runs through here. This is one of the stops for the drugs. The traffickers say, ‘Well, there’s a little town, we’ll stop there and drop drugs there too. A lot of the drug runners are from small towns, from these communities. It is a quick way to make money.”
“Our community used to be safe,” she says. “We left the doors unlocked, even when we slept. We would leave our vehicles running. Nobody worried.”
“It’s dangerous now,” she goes on, speaking of the rash of robberies by addicts. She adds, “You can’t get into altercations. It’s the drugs. They affect people’s mental health. People live in fear.”
The resurrection of the old ceremonial practices such as the annual sun dance, along with the traditional medicine camp, harvesting camps and sweat lodges, is about another way of being, one that honors the interconnectedness of all living beings, including the earth on which we depend for life.
“We are seeing the effects,” Crystal says. “Our cultural practices and language embody a belief system that is the opposite of capitalism and globalization, the lust for money and material wealth.”
“I used to think globally,” she says. “I was in D.C. on the front lines. I was in the climate march in New York. I was everywhere. I traveled internationally. I was at every rally. But I wasn’t here, at home, doing the real work. It’s easier being out there, instead of being in our community. Yes, there is this big black cloud, but there is also another, beautiful side. The women in the community are bringing the ceremonies back. The more we return to the land, the closer we are to achieving holistic wellness. My community is not in despair. We are doing our diligence to be well again. I think about my dad. My dad was one of those people he’s talking about [when he says] ‘I had friends that I can’t trust now because they’re not well because of the drugs.’ My dad was one of those in despair. But he has come back to us and to himself.”