Shannon M Houle, one of four founders of Idle No More

As singer-songwriter Neil Young prepared to take the stage in Calgary for the last performance of his Honour the Treaties fundraising tour, representatives from the Athabasca Chipweyan First Nations (ACFN) — to whom he plans to donate the money — held an Honour the Treaties teach-in on the reasons for the legal fund.

Most major media attended the earlier news conference, which featured David Suzuki and Alberta scientist David Schindler, as well as ACFN Chief Allan Adam. Young announced that his four-concert tour has overshot its goal, raising more than $75,000. He brushed off criticism that he uses a private jet himself, and that his hyperbole has damaged his credibility, notably his comment that the tar sands area looked like “Hiroshima.”

“We will be positioned to match the legal power of our opposition dollar for dollar,” Young told the CBC, which suggests he could do the same thing again if the opposition raises the stakes.

But why would a celebrity singer and songwriter even get out of bed to help a tiny First Nations band of about 1,000 souls — who live mainly from the wilderness around them — launch constant legal actions, including constitutional challenges against the federal and Alberta governments?

“If you breathe air and drink water, this is about you,” Crystal Lameman told the Honouring the Treaties teach-in audience.

“We’re on the front lines, holding out against the destruction of the largest remaining boreal forest in the world,” said ACFN Chief, Allan Adam. He charged that the federal and Alberta governments are allowing foreign owners to set policy as well as making off with  irreplaceable resources at bargain prices.

“Norway’s tax on oil companies is 74 per cent,” he said, “Alberta’s is 14 per cent. And we’re going into deficit $11 million every day. Seventy per cent of resource revenue leaves the country.” He thumped the speaker’s stand. “We’re a nation of 1,700 people, but we’re fighting for this country.”*

As the DrawALineInTheSand website says, “Current tar sands development in the Treaty 8 territory of north-eastern Alberta has led to the cumulative removal of lands, wildlife and fish habitat as well as the destruction of ecological, aesthetic and sensory systems. [That is, strip mining scrapes away the whole layer of topsoil, trees and all, along with any vegetation or animals.]

“This consequently affects constitutionally protected Treaty Rights of First Nations in the region who are experiencing the loss of continued use of traditional lands and territory for the purposes of hunting, fishing, trapping and gathering in Canada.

“Canada and Alberta environmental protection laws and legislation have been watered down through numerous Bills and Acts passed in recent years. The last remaining stronghold for challenging unsustainable development lies within the rights and title held by First Nations peoples.”

Judging by the ACFN document on legal strategies, any time an oil company puts boots on the ground above Firebag River, ACFN lawyers look up every applicable regulation and regulatory body, and choose the legal remedy most troublesome to the oil companies — in addition to pursuing enforcement to clean up spewing spills.

Current ACFN  regulatory, court, land use planning and consultation challenges include the following:

–  lead plaintiff for a Judicial review of the federal decision to approve Shell Oil Canada Ltd’s Jackpine Mine Expansion project;

–  active in coalition that opposed Shell Oil Canada Ltd’s proposed Pierre River Mine; and

–  led a statutory review of the Lower Athabasca Regional Plan, a land use plan that prioritizes ‘bitumen recovery’ and does nothing to include nor protect Treaty Rights and traditional land uses.

Nor, said Crystal Lameman, do current regulations protect water adequately. “Eighty per cent of the world’s fresh water is in Canada,” she said, “but industry uses 1.7 billion barrels of our fresh water a day.”

“We can’t choose to live without water,” said Shannon Houle. “It’s not a feasible choice.”

Betraying Mother Earth’s balance for the sake of profit is not thinkable within their value system. All the First Nations speakers emphasized their relationship with their land as their identity and their religion. Jess Simpson talked about the upcoming Fith Annual Healing Walk, planned for late June or early July. “We pray and sing as we walk,” she said. “It’s not a rally or a protest march. It’s a healing walk. And it’s incredibly powerful.”

“We are only borrowing all of this from future generations,” Shannon Houle said. “We don’t own the land or have any right to disrespect her. Earth is our mother. We all come from her.”

“Our ability to go out on the land is our ability to claim our identity,” said Fort MacMurray youth worker Gitz Deranger, who watched Ft Mac grow as he did, when his nomadic parents touched base there periodically. Now toxic tailings ponds cover much of their former hunting territory. Yet, he said, “our holy places and our holy books are all wrapped up in being on the land. When we preserve our environment we preserve our identity.”

“I live by the LAWS of the land,” said Houle. “That’s ‘Land’ ‘Air’ ‘Water’ and ‘Sun.’ We need all four of those elements to live. Canada’s boreal forest — entirely within the tar sands — rivals the Amazon rainforest and ocean plankton as one of the three greatest producers of the world’s oxygen.” And tar sands extraction is destroying it.

As deep as their religious beliefs is their certainty that their Treaty rights will trump all of the Harper government’s omnibus bills, including Harperite efforts to hasten privatization of Indian band lands, by unilaterally re-writing the Indian Act. Oral teaching from the families charged to remember everything as “treaty-keepers” tells them that their treaties with the Crown were sealed by sharing the peace pipe – which to them means that the Creator was witness and potential enforcer.

Then there are the legalities. “All treaties are recognized internationally,” said Shannon Houle. “As a sovereign nation entering into an agreement with another sovereign nation, treaty trumps Canadian law. The UN asked Canada to produce its deed to the land within 6 months, and Canada never did. We never surrendered our land. We didn’t understand the concept of selling land. We did understand the concept of sharing.”

“The PMO has admitted the tar sands’ environmental impact affects how First Nations can use their land,” said Lameman. “Yet Section 35 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees native rights. This government has gutted Canada’s environmental legislation. As a result, the nation’s poorest people are carrying the litigation on their backs.”

But she was confident of court victories and ultimately environmental rebuff to the extractive industries. “We are not stakeholders, we are rights holders,” she said, “and there’s a big damn difference.”

Or as teach-in moderator Bill Phipps – a former United Church Moderator who participated in the last Healing Walk – said, “We are all treaty people. We are all descendants of those who signed treaties on our behalf. So it behooves us to understand the treaties. These are issues for all Canadians.”

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*Update: Connie Walker’s CBC report on the ACFN notes that the First Nation’s services to the Alberta oil sector employed about 3000 local residents and generated between $200 and 250 million in revenue last year. ACDEN offers services across a range of engineering disciplines as well as everything from recycling to fleet maintenance. These are affluent, sophisticated people who honour their culture and their breeding by observing the formalities, such as prayers and drumming before speaking, and then introducing themselves by their lineages.

Penney Kome

Penney Kome

Award-winning journalist and author Penney Kome has published six non-fiction books and hundreds of periodical articles, as well as writing a national column for 12 years and a local (Calgary) column...