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

Time to tell CSIS to bug out!


Bob Peart | Sierra Club BC - August 13th 2015

Blog Post: It’s outrageous and completely unacceptable that the National Energy Board, Big Oil, the RCMP and CSIS would collude in domestic spying on peaceful, law-abiding citizens. And make no mistake—if anyone is breaking the law, it’s our country’s security apparatus. These are deeply disturbing trends. Canada is creeping dangerously close to the methods of a police state, in which national security becomes the pretext for intimidation and curtailing personal freedoms.

Pope Francis blames ‘human selfishness’ for global warming


June 18th 2015

Press Clipping: Pope Francis has blamed human selfishness for global warming in his long-awaited encyclical calling for action on climate change. In the letter, he urges the rich to change their lifestyles to avert the destruction of the ecosystem. Pope Francis writes that: "We have come to see ourselves as her lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will. The violence present in our hearts, wounded by sin, is also reflected in the symptoms of sickness evident in the soil, in the water, in the air and in all forms of life."

Sounding environmental alarms shouldn’t lead to harassment

David Suzuki - June 18th 2015

Blog Post: I’ve spoken to thousands of environmental and community activists during many years of meeting with Canadians across this country. I’ve heard too many stories of people being harassed, ostracized, sued for standing up to large corporations and even fired from jobs because of their environmental advocacy. Canadians must continue to speak out for our water, land, air and wildlife, for justice for Indigenous Peoples, and for a clean energy future, without fear of harassment, intimidation and hatred.

Will Pope’s much-anticipated encyclical be a clarion call on climate change?


Sylvia Poggioli | NPR - June 16th 2015

Press Clipping: On Thursday, the Vatican will release the pontiff's hotly anticipated encyclical on the environment and poverty. The rollout of the teaching document has been timed to have maximum impact ahead of the U.N. climate change conference in December aimed at slowing global warming. Mary Evelyn Tucker, professor of religion and ecology at Yale University, believes the papal document will stress not just sustainability, but development centered on human beings and on justice. "Not development that allows the poor to sink and the rich to rise, so this is a new integration called eco-justice."

Leave tar sands oil in ground: 110 scientists invoke First Nation treaty rights


ICTMN Staff | Indian Country Today Media Network - June 16th 2015

Press Clipping: As news about the climate heats up, a rare alliance of more than 100 scientists—from economists to biologists to geophysicists—have written an open letter to the Conservative government of Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper asking him to stop development in the Alberta oil sands. Among the 10 reasons they gave in an open letter released on June 10 was number six: "Development and transport of oil sands is inconsistent with the title and rights of many Aboriginal Peoples of North America."

Jobs, justice, climate: A new climate movement is rising from below

Naomi Klein | Council of Canadians - June 8th 2015

Blog Post: We're coming together in Toronto on July 5 for a march for jobs, justice, and climate action. What you're seeing are the first steps towards a new kind of climate movement. It's a climate movement that recognizes that time is too short to allow our divisions to keep us from building the kind of coalitions that will safeguard life on earth. We're ready for the next economy. And we know the leadership isn't going to come from the political class, so it's going to have to come from below.

Truth and Reconciliation recommendations could change ‘business-as-usual’ in energy sector


Derek Leahy | Desmog Canada - June 5th 2015

Press Clipping: Six years of research and thousands of survivor testimonies led the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to conclude residential schools were central to a century-long Canadian government indigenous policy that “can best be described as 'cultural genocide.’” The commission’s 94 recommendations are intended to close the gap between indigenous and non-indigenous Canadians. If implemented by the federal government, the recommendations would bring changes to key policy areas such as education, healthcare and justice. The recommendations could also change business-as-usual in the energy sector.

Canadian law profs’ statement on Tsleil-Waututh Nation rejection of Kinder Morgan pipeline


Gordon Christie et al. - May 28th 2015

Press Clipping: We write as professors of law at several Canadian law schools to recognize and commemorate the May 26, 2015 release of Tsleil-Waututh Nation’s Assessment of the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain Pipeline and Tanker Expansion Proposal. In the landmark Supreme Court of Canada decision Tsilhqot’in Nation v. British Columbia, Canada’s highest court affirmed that Aboriginal title encompasses a right to “proactively use and manage the land.” The Tsleil-Waututh Assessment is a pioneering example of a First Nation acting on this authority to review and decide whether a project should proceed in its territory.