Sadly, it seems that people don’t respond to a problem until it hits a critical stage, leaving underlying issues to rot until a critical mass disaster strikes.

Sadly, this is true regarding the attention now paid to the Lubicon Lake Cree First Nation — it took a pipeline spill and the threat of forest fires near Slave Lake to propel it to national media attention.

And while this focus has been on the twin disasters which threaten this small Northern Alberta community around Little Buffalo, it is only the most public face of the environmental and health disasters which threaten the lives of the Lubicon Cree and their natural environment.

To touch quickly on the catalyst for this attention:

On April 29, 2011, within unceded Lubicon territory, the Plains Midstream Canada (an indirect subsidiary of Plains All American Pipeline) pipeline burst and caused nearly 4.5 million litres of tar sands crude and diluent to spill uncontrollably out onto Lubicon Cree traditional territory. Ironically, it is called the “rainbow pipeline.” This was the largest spill in Alberta since 1975. The spill occurred on the Friday before the federal election but was not nationally reported until after.

Plans All American Pipeline refer to the burst pipeline as “the incident” in their (the only) press release  on April 29, 2011, stating, “Environmental assessment staff, spill response specialists, and monitoring equipment are being mobilized. Our crews are working to contain the spill, minimize its impact, and begin clean-up efforts. Southbound crude oil flows on the Rainbow Pipeline from the Nipisi Terminal to Edmonton remain in service.”

It’s nice that the press release noted what the corporation considers to be its most crucial fact last, that the pipeline “remains in service”.

Regarding its earnings, “Net income attributable to Plains for the fourth quarter 2009 was $110 million… Looking forward, our current 2011 organic capital program totals $550 million, a 55% increase over 2010. Additionally, we are well positioned to continue to pursue strategic and accretive acquisitions.”

Members of the Lubicon community and allied groups such as Indigenous Sovereignty and Solidarity Network (ISSN), Environmental Justice Toronto (EJT) and NGOs like Greenpeace Canada and Amnesty International (AI) are critical of the official response to the oil spill and its cleanup; including the effort of one of the Alberta monitoring institution responsible — the Alberta Energy Resources Conservation Board (ERCB). Reserve members werecritical of the lack of communication between the ERCB and the community.

In a community message hosted on the Greenpeace website concerning how the oil spills was affecting air quality in and around a local Little Buffalo school (reporting that children were suffering from nausea, burning eyes and headache), “Instead of attending an in-person community meeting, the ERCB faxed a one-page fact sheet to Little Buffalo School.”

The ECB has stated that it feels the spill is under control and there is no threat to the community. Regarding air quality, it conducted a series of tests and have “detected no hydrocarbon levels above Alberta Ambient Air Quality guidelines.” The distant relationship between the ERCB and the community did little to reassure anyone.

In an Environment Justice Toronto — a group which held a Lubicon community support meeting on Monday — statement, “Corporate negligence, coupled with government inaction, compounded by the racism of indifference has left the community reeling. They have been forced now to take matters into their own hands.”

The Lubicon Cree are calling for the following immediate measures:

— The ERCB should meet with the Lubicon community to effectively answer community members’ questions.

— There should be an independent environmental assessment that reports to community.

— A health response team should be stationed in Lubicon community immediately to respond to those who continue to get sick, especially children.

Forest fires which were raging uncontrolled destroyed an estimated 40% of the Slave Lake area and burned near the location of the pipeline break. These facts only served to further exacerbate the impact of the oil spill in the region. The threat from the fires caused Plains Midstream Canada to temporary suspend its clean-up efforts.

This time

This time it was the Rainbow pipeline that burst. This time. But in truth, the area is riddled with oil pipelines that crisscross the territory like an underground cancer.

Melina Laboucan-Massimo, a member of the Lubicon Cree First Nation and a Greenpeace climate and energy campaigner said: “The Plains All American spill marks the second pipeline spill in Alberta in just a week, with Kinder Morgan spilling just days before. This is an alarm bell for Alberta residents. If this 45-year-old pipeline were to break elsewhere along its route there would be more safety and health hazards. Communities across Alberta and B.C. are demanding an end to this type of risky development; yet the government refuses to listen. Instead it continues on as business as usual without plans for the cleaner, healthier, sustainable future that is possible.”

According to Amnesty International (AI), there are more than 2,300 kms of oil and gas pipelines through the traditional lands of the Lubicon Cree. In 2008, AI reports, “when the province of Alberta approved the last major pipeline across Lubicon land (TransCanada Pipeline’s North Central Corridor project), the Alberta government Utility Commission denied the Lubicon the opportunity to present their concerns. The Commission ruled that the Lubicon had not established that the project was harmful to their rights. The pipeline was then built over the community’s objections.”

International human rights bodies such as the United Nations (UN) have long been critical of the poverty and environmental destruction within Lubicon territory. In 1979, large scale development began in their territory which threatened the hunting, trapping and other traditional activities that had made the Lubicon Cree largely self-sufficient. Since 1979, there have been more than 2,600 oil and gas wells drilled into the land, as well expanding situ tar sands projects, all to the objections of the community.

Despite the fact that the Lubicon Cree have never entered into a treaty with the Canadian government — the last round of federal negotiations fell apart in 2003 — the Alberta government has leased approximately 70 per cent of Lubicon territory to natural extraction industries. In a treaty no-man’s zone, the government is operating with relative impunity. The lack of a treaty is considered by the Lubicon as the basis for their demand of a nation-to-nation relationship between the Lubicon Cree nation and the Canadian government.

Development continues regardless of a lengthy rap sheet of international condemnation

The UN Human Rights Committee ruled back in 1990 that Canada was in violation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, “by failing to properly protect Lubicon land rights from the impact of resource extraction activities.”

In 2006 and 2007, it received condemnation by the UN Human Rights Committee again. In 2006, by the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. In 2008, by the UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights to Adequate Housing. Since 2008, by the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. In 2009, by the UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights and fundamental freedoms of indigenous people.

Amnesty International released this report on the impact of oil and gas resource extraction in 2010 titled: From Homeland to Oil Sands.

“New maps of resource development on the traditional territory of the Lubicon Cree in northern Alberta reveal a reckless disregard for Lubicon rights in the licensing of oil and gas development on their land. The maps commissioned by Amnesty International use government and industry data to demonstrate the scale of development since oil extraction began on Lubicon land in 1979.” They can be viewed here.

Of ongoing concern for the Lubicon Cree is the access to clear water with all the resource development in the area, declared a human right by the UN. The Lubicon community of Little Buffalo has no running water and no sanitation system. Quoting a video produced by Little Buffalo Media, “before the Alberta government permitted large-scale oil and gas development on their land, the Lubicon took their drinking water from the muskeg and the lakes and streams. They can no longer safely do so.”

And yet the extraction from Lubicon land by the government continues.


For more information, please see:
Amnesty International Lubicon’s page
Speak up for the rights of the Lubicon Cree on Facebook

Krystalline Kraus

krystalline kraus is an intrepid explorer and reporter from Toronto, Canada. A veteran activist and journalist for, she needs no aviator goggles, gas mask or red cape but proceeds fearlessly...