Our voices are marginalized: Indigenous women speak out against the tar sands

Published in rabble.ca | September 21 , 2012 | Circulation: 250,000 unique monthly readers

Tonight (Sept. 21), Indigenous women directly affected by Canada’s oil sands and their associated pipelines are sharing their stories in Vancouver.

The event — She Speaks: Indigenous Women Speak Out Against the Tar Sands — is part of a series of first-hand accounts across the country bringing women’s voices to bear on the environmental and social impacts of the world’s largest industrial project – and the single greatest human greenhouse gas emitter.

The free event will offer a meal and story-telling at the Aboriginal Friendship Center (1607 East Hastings St) from 5:30 p.m. until 8:30 p.m. tonight.

The Left Coast Post writer David P. Ball, with Angela Marie MacDougall, spoke with two of the women who have journeyed to the West Coast on Media Mornings show (Vancouver Co-op Radio). (Listen to the interview and show).

Crystal Lameman is a Beaver Lake Cree First Nation activist and the Peace River tar sands campaigner for the Indigenous Environmental Network in Alberta. Eriel Tchekwie Deranger is a Dene from the Athbasca Chipewyan First Nation (ACFN) of Northern Alberta, Canada. She is currently the Communications Coordinator for ACFN, who have recently filed a suit against oil giant Shell Oil Canada for their open-pit mining projects.

DAVID P. BALL: Can you tell us about this event happening [today]?

ERIEL TCHEKWIE DERANGER: The event is called She Speaks. The event is basically an opportunity to hear the voices of women living and working in the tar sands extraction zone, as well as others that are fighting tar sands gigaprojects through the extensions of the arms that exist – through pipelines or the financial sector in the UK. […]. I think it’s going to be a fantastic event to hear these voices, and learn the experiences of people from the front-line – learn about how big the arms of the tar sands really go.

DB: Crystal, can you talk a bit about the impacts of the tar sands on your community, and how you’ve experienced those?

CRYSTAL LAMEMAN: As a member of the Beaver Lake Cree Nation, we’ve noticed a drastic change in our ability and our inherent rights as treaty status Indians to be able to go to the land. That’s the biggest thing – our ability to go to the land, to hunt, to fish, to forage, to find medicines that cure us of illnesses. Like the cancers that are plaguing our people, and the cancers plaguing the people up in Athabasca. At one time, we had medicines that could cure cancer, in their purest form – that’s what our oral history tells us. We are now at the point, in a span of 25 to 30 years, where these medicines are going extinct; we’re unable to find them […]. We’re unable to find things that used to grow in abundance.

When you look at our court case – the lawsuit that my nation has brought to the Canadian government – in 2008 when that lawsuit was filed, we cited 17,000 treaty violations. Those treaty violations are with regard to the leases by oil companies within our traditional hunting territory. When you look at 17,000 leases – and to this day, now, we’re at over 19,000 treaty violations – in just that short amount of time it’s gone up 2,000 leases, and it’s getting larger. So, as Indigenous people – as treaty status Indians that have constitutionally protected rights in our ability to always go to the land to hunt, fish and forage – when we have industry… My nation is smack-dab in the middle of 80 per cent of in situ, and our traditional hunting territory has over 19,000 leases in just this area, in the area we’re supposed to always be able to go hunt and fish and forage – that ability is being taken away. It’s being deliberately ignored. As a member of the Beaver Lake Cree Nation, I can speak for myself and my family, and say that it’s greatly affecting us – and it’s greatly affecting the future of our children.

ANGELA MARIE MACDOUGALL: What is the significance of Indigenous women taking the lead on addressing and speaking on against the tar sands?

ED: I think that’s a really fantastic question. We live in a world that’s dominated by men; we live in a patriarchal society. Through colonization, patriarchy has been pushed upon our people. But if you look historically, back before colonization, many of the Indigenous groups in North America had matriarchal lines. Some of those things still exist within our communities and they’re starting to re-emerge. But it’s because the very planet and the very land that we walk on, our people refer to as ‘Mother Earth.’ Mother Earth provides us with everything that we need to live and sustain us as human beings, as creatures, animals and children of Mother Earth. By that very extension, women are life-givers. The planet is a feminine entity. […].

Women are very impacted, not just by tar sands, but through the very extension of colonization of this continent and this country, women lost their rights; women lost their identities, and patriarchy was forced upon our people. For over centuries, our women’s voices have been muted. We’ve been drastically impacted. When the earth is being damaged, hurt and destroyed through industrial development, that feminine entity is being hurt. The women feel it. Our cycles are in tune with the water, the planet, the moon and so on. We feel these things deeper – as life-givers, we feel that connection to our children – that next generation. It’s not to say that men don’t feel these things, but as women our voices are often marginalized, even within the environmental sector, even within our Indigenous leadership. We see men constantly taking those front-lines, and those front-voices. Yet there are many women behind all of these things happening in the environmental sector and the Indigenous leadership front – there are always women behind the scenes doing things, making things move, bringing life to the movement. It’s time that we start to listen to those voices, and allow those to speak – or ‘She Speaks,’ Indigenous voices against the tar sands.

DB: Events on this theme are happening in different places across the country, from what I’ve heard from some of my Toronto contacts. What is the hope in terms of getting this particular message out about the tar sands impact on women, and women speaking out?

ED: This has been a long journey. I’ve been working on tar sands issues for about eight years now, maybe close to ten. As an Indigenous woman, I’ve often felt really marginalized – my voice. It’s fantastic that this is starting to happen. We need to start seeing is this emergence of strong women, as strong leaders, to hold our communities up – and to hold our voices up. Because our women really do hold our communities together. I know that Crystal’s going out east to join the tours there – maybe you want to speak about what you hope to see out east?

CL: For me, the main thing that I want to see is that idea that, in our Indigenous knowledge systems, we talk about the interconnectedness. I have a strong desire to have that strong connection – that interconnectedness – with all nations. I don’t only mean Indigenous women. We have a belief, too, that we’re all related. A lot of the times I speak, I say, ‘All my relations,’ because we believe that. By re-introducing our voices as Indigenous women – and re-introducing the knowledge systems that we have about us coming from a matriarchal society – that by creating this strong connection all across Turtle Island, not just in Canada – a connection of women – that, for myself, a lot of time here back home, I feel alone.

As a mother, those times when I feel alone – not having the support I desire – I feel like giving up. But I look at my children, and I know that I can’t, because I have an obligation to them; I gave them life. I have an obligation to our one true Mother. So, I think having this connection with our Indigenous women – the ones that are standing up and reclaiming their voice, reclaiming who they are, and refusing these systems that have been forced upon us, like Eriel was saying: patriarchy. I hope to gain a strong network, so that I never feel alone – so that those times that I struggle, I know there’s other women out there. To be able to take the issue of the tar sands exploration and development in Alberta over there and introduce that, so that people in Six Nations can see first-hand from a voice this is what’s happening to our people, and it affects them too. When you introduce things that way, especially to women, they automatically feel that obligation.

DB: I have a closing question for you as we wrap up today: in a previous conversation, we talked about your nation’s lawsuit against Shell, and you said something about the reason you are looking at corporations as a source of power today, as opposed to going after governments only. Could you talk a bit about that, and what kind of strategy and hope you have, in terms of addressing the rights of your people?

ED: Today, we’ve seen a real shift in power dynamics in government and people – in everyday people, Indigenous people, whoever lives in Canada or the United States, it doesn’t matter where you live – but what we’re seeing is that the power structures are changing. It’s not really the governments that necessarily hold all the power. It’s these corporations. We’ve seen how corporations have put their tentacles into how government machines work. The tar sands is a prime example of that. What we’ve seen in Alberta and Canada is these multinational oil companies really change the way that environmental standards are being set, reclamation standards are being set, the way consultation is even done with First Nations people. These are all responsibilities that used to be on the shoulder of the government, both provincially and federally, and we’re seeing that these are being sloughed off onto corporation. The only reason that can really be is that these corporations have the money – have the money to be able to buy the rights to do these things. By-and-large, governments let them. So when we talk about changing the game, we’re no longer trying to change the game by knocking on politicians’ and MPs’ doors – not to say that isn’t an avenue of doing things, of course it is one of them, and you have to explore all of them – but corporations hold paramount, and they are the ones with power.

Oftentimes, what are we doing? We’re taking our strategies, and we’re targeting these multinational corporations – the ones with the money and the power, the ones that have the ability to change things. So ACFN, we’re targeting Shell Oil right now; we’ve sued them for unmet past agreements that our previous leadership had made with them, where they’re not living up to these agreements – to allow us to be part of litigation, to allow us to sit at the table with these corporations, to fully understand these projects – and we’re challenging these projects. It’s not just that: we’re not just challenging Shell. We’re looking at all these different corporations: What they’re doing to our land? How are they changing the game? What are they infiltrating within the government? And why is the government no longer taking responsibility? We ask them these questions pointedly. We’ve gone to the Shell AGMs in the past, we have meetings with the executives of these organizations – more regularly than we do with our own governments! That says a lot about the way things have changed in Alberta, in Canada, and globally.

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