Tar Sands Solutions Network

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Human Rights

Rapid tar sands development has resulted in devastating social impacts. In northern Alberta, local Indigenous communities are forced to endure highly degraded air and water quality. Eighty per cent of the traditional territory of the Mikisew Cree and Athabasca Chipewyan First Nations has been rendered inaccessible for most of the year by tar sands development, and the Beaver Lake Cree have documented 20,000 treaty rights violations.

The expansion of tar sands refineries has also increased toxic pollution in numerous communities in Canada and the U.S., and pipeline companies have used eminent domain to confiscate private property from ranchers and landowners as they ram new pipelines through.

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Tar sands expansion damages people and communities across North America
Key Issues:
- Indigenous peoples cannot hunt or fish on their land and have significantly higher rates of cancer
- Private property is confiscated and democratic rights trampled for pipeline expansion
Current Status:
First Nations are fighting multiple treaty rights battles and continue to be denied status to participate in expansion hearings

Indigenous peoples rely on healthy ecosystems for their food, water and livelihoods, but the insatiable appetite of the tar sands industry has decimated vast amounts of wildlife habitat and polluted the region’s rivers and streams with toxic and carcinogenic chemicals. The local, mostly Indigenous peoples, can no longer eat fish from local rivers and lakes, because tar sands pollution has left many of the fish deformed and diseased. Some people have even been forced to abandon their homes because air pollution is so noxious.

Fort McKay, which is surrounded on all sides by tar sands development, experiences serious air and water quality problems. The residents of Fort Chipewyan, located farther downstream from the tar sands, experienced a 30% increase in cancer rates and a 7X increase in rare and deadly cancers, which have been linked to pollution from tar sands development.

As a result, many of the Indigenous peoples living in close proximity to the tar sands believe that their constitutionally protected treaty rights have been ignored. Treaty 8, signed more than a hundred years ago, assures Indigenous people the right to hunt and fish on their traditional lands, but the intensity of tar sands development has nearly destroyed their ability to access the land for hunting, trapping and fishing. They have tried to work with governments to find a solution, but have been refused standing to participate in hearings about tar sands expansion, and the courts have refused to hear cases brought against the Alberta and Canadian governments to have their rights respected.

The human rights impacts are not, however, limited to northern Alberta. In both Canada and the United States, landowners have had their land confiscated by eminent domain so corporations can build tar sands pipelines where cattle once grazed and wheat once grew, threatening local water supplies and reducing property values.

Across Canada, the federal Conservative government has turned Canada into a near petro-state. It has intimidated community watchdog groups, gutted environmental legislation to limit democratic participation of citizens, and silenced scientists, all in an effort to pave the way for the expedient approval of massive tar sands development.


Rights Based Approach


Overall the TSSN believes that stopping the Tar Sands needs to be lead by First Nations and other Indigenous communities. First Nations people carry a unique set of priority rights and are the only communities that have a Nation to Nation relationship with both the US and Canadian government. The TSSN uplifts the voice of the communities most impacted by tar sands development through this “rights based approach,” that has successfully created national/international support and initiated much media attention globally on the tar sands issue. This is due to First Nations track record of creating and opening the avenues and opportunities for community leaders and members to tell the story of being impacted by the largest and most destructive energy project on earth.

We understand that the story of First Nations and Native American communities are based in legal constructs that are powerful mechanisms to stop the expansion of the tar sands. There are no other peoples in North America with the same legal abilities as First Nations and Native American communities. 

Human Rights Updates & Resources

Neil Young to host concert to help First Nation fight oil sands development

Michelle Butterfield | Huffington Post Alberta - April 30th 2015

Press Clipping: Neil Young is once again holding a benefit concert for the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation (ACFN). The concert, set for July 3 at Rexall Place in Edmonton, will see Canadian band Blue Rodeo join Young. In a press release announcing July's concert, ACFN Chief Allan Adam said his group is committed to "legal challenges to stop out of control Tar Sands development from destroying our traditional territory and rights as Indigenous peoples."

Vatican official calls for moral awakening on global warming


Stephanie Kirchgaessner | The Guardian - April 29th 2015

Press Clipping: Increasing use of fossil fuels is disrupting Earth on an “almost unfathomable scale”, a top Vatican official has said, warning that a “full conversion” of hearts and minds is needed if global warming is to be conquered. “In our recklessness, we are traversing some of the planet’s most fundamental natural boundaries,” warned Cardinal Peter Turkson, Pope Francis’s point man for peace and justice issues. “And the lesson from the Garden of Eden still rings true today: pride, hubris, self-centredness are always perilous, indeed destructive. The very technology that has brought great reward is now poised to bring great ruin.”

Bringing Together a Movement to #KeepItInTheGround

Lena Moffitt | Sierra Club - April 27th 2015

Press Clipping: Last week, I had the honor of joining an incredible group of indigenous and frontline leaders and activists from across the Americas for the "Climate Equity Summit: Keeping Fossil Fuels in the Ground." The event, organized by Amazon Watch and the Sierra Club, was envisioned as a space to connect the heroic efforts of people fighting coal, oil and gas developments from the Arctic to the Amazon, and create an opportunity for each of these powerful movements to come together into one broader movement to #KeepItInTheGround.

The fossil fuel path is immoral and financially imprudent

Valerie Rockefeller Wayne | Rockefeller Brothers Fund - March 31st 2015

Press Clipping: I am proud of the legacy of John D Rockefeller, who built the greatest fossil fuel enterprise in history. In his day, fossil fuel was a liberating force – it literally changed the face of the earth, freeing many people from toil. The family business is now philanthropy; at the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, which I chair, we use the money made from Standard Oil to advance social change that contributes to a more just, sustainable, and peaceful world. But the key phrase in the encomium above is “in his day”. Consider the words of my great-great grandfather’s rough contemporary, the poet James Russell Lowell, which he wrote about slavery and would later become a resounding hymn: “New occasions teach new duties; time makes ancient good uncouth; they must upward still, and onward, who would keep abreast of truth.”

Bill C-51 protests held across Canada

Morgan Lowrie | Canadian Press - March 17th 2015

Press Clipping: Thousands of Canadians came together to loudly denounce the Conservative government's proposed anti-terror legislation in rallies held across the country on Saturday. In Vancouver, a crowd of about 700 to 800 people gathered in front of the city's art gallery. Aboriginal leaders and civil liberties groups spoke to the crowd through a megaphone, while onlookers cheered and waved signs. Protester Larry Johnny said he feared that First Nations protesting mines in the province could be labelled "terrorists" for speaking out if the bill is passed.

Bill C-51 ‘may fail in its obligation to protect’ Canadians, First Nations chief warns


Zi-ann Lum | Huffington Post Canada - March 12th 2015

Press Clipping: The Mohawk Council of Kahnawà:ke sent an open letter to Stephen Harper on Wednesday expressing concerns about how Bill C-51 may impact the ability of First Nations to defend and support Aboriginal rights and title. Chief Lloyd Oronhiakhète Phillips called the current language of the anti-terror legislation “very concerning, very alarming” – specifically in how its vague definition may open “legitimate protests” to be construed acts of terrorism. “As you know, First Nations across the country are always standing up for our rights, Aboriginal rights, Aboriginal title on land,” he told Kahnawake TV. “Now [there’s] a strong possibility that we’ll be considered terrorists.”

Canadian government pushing First Nations to give up land rights for oil and gas profits

Martin Lukacs | The Guardian - March 4th 2015

Press Clipping: The Harper government is collaborating with the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) to win support for its pipelines and resource agenda by pushing First Nations to sideline their aboriginal rights in exchange for business opportunities, a revelation that is sparking strong criticism from grassroots Indigenous people. “Opposition to these projects by aboriginal groups may doom the development of oil, and natural gas pipelines and related infrastructure,” said envoy Douglas Eyford, "because neither industry nor our trading partners are prepared to idly stand by to wait out the results of judicial proceedings that can take a generation to complete."