Bill Erasmus is regional chief of the Assembly of First Nations and the national chief of the Dene, a Canadian indigenous group. He spoke by phone from Germany to EurActiv’s Marc Hall. This interview was edited into a shorter form.
Tell us about the situation of tar sands in Canada. What is your personal experience?
Where I’m from we have 31 communities that are immediately downstream from the tar sands development. So they are part of the Dene Nation. And we are part of the greater First Nation community in Canada, which encompasses approximately 630 other communities. We are north of Alberta.
The way the water system works is that in the west, southwest, south, and southeast of us, the water comes north, and so the tar sands lie within that water basin. And the tar sands - the reason we get affected is because of a number of reasons.
One, we get affected because when they extract the bitumen, when they mine it, in order to break it down and make it into oil, they use a great deal of chemicals and in the chemicals, which are very toxic, they include arsenic. Chemicals like arsenic then are put into huge ponds. They’re called tailings ponds.
And the mining, you have to understand, has been going on now since the 1960s. And so these tailings ponds are huge. They’re now lakes, which eventually dry up, but before they dry up they leach into the environment and come downstream to us. And we have people who are now having to wrestle with new diseases like [different] cancers, diabetes and so on. Our people are now not able to hunt and fish and trap like they used to so we are getting directly affected.
The other one is the large amount of water that is being used. In order to develop one barrel of oil, there’s three to four barrels of water being used.
But you as indigenous peoples have rights over that land…
The other point is that as indigenous peoples we are nations, in a country called Canada, and we have agreements with the Crown, with the British crown. I have a copy, for example, of treaty number 11 which happened in June of 1921 and this treaty is between our people, the Dene, and King George V. The agreement that we have with the Crown supersedes the authority that the federal government in Canada has or the provincial government. And we took these treaties to court.
The other treaty that we’re a part of, which is right where the tar sands are, is treaty number eight. We proved in court that these are peace and friendship instruments. They are international instruments. They perpetuate the right that we’ve always had. In other words, as people that were never conquered or never defeated in war, the resource belongs to us. So the oil actually belongs to our people.
I live approximately 800-900 miles north of where it’s extracted and so we’re downstream. I’m a member of the Yellow Knife Dene, which is the tribe that I’m a part of, but the toxins and the destruction that I talked about occur all the way down the Mackenzie valley and into the Beaufort Sea and then going into the circumpolar world. So this is a global issue, that global waters are being polluted. So this is an international issue that Canada needs to address. So we bring this to the world.
What should the European Union be doing? The Commission seems to be sticking by its decision to label crude oil from tar sands as more polluting than other types of conventional crude oil. Is this the right approach, one which could effectively cripple the international market from oil from these tar sands?
Well the whole issue of the European Union dealing with crude is very crucial not only to people here in Europe but to everywhere around the world. We’re very thankful that the EU is looking at this question because they are very cognisant of the fact that pollutants are affecting us and that they’re man-made, and that the answer has to be by man.
In other words, we as human beings have to do something about it. We can’t deny that climate change is occurring. We can’t deny that the future of mother earth is in question. And so the European Union is now saying that places like the tar sands can no longer continue as they have in the past, if they want to sell their oil to Europe.
We’re very happy this is occurring. We know that Canada is lobbying against that. And there’s a number of concerns that we have. One is that this whole issue of oil in such that the government is choosing sides. They are not listening to the general population. They are not listening to the indigenous people. They are choosing to side with industry, which has no plan. Industry has no industrial development plan in Canada or in the US, or in North America. Their plan is to expand, expand the tar sands. We are aware that Canada wants to become the number one oil country in the world, and they’re doing it at our expense.
Canada is trying to sell this idea in the EU by saying that tar sands will create jobs for European citizens as well over in Canada…
Yes. It’s a very weak argument. The issue is not jobs. The issue is the future of the Earth. I think what Canada needs to be asked is, rather than the European Union changing their view on the high standard that they have, Alberta needs to come back, Canada needs to come back and say, well you know what, you have made the highest standard possible and we will meet the test, and it might take us a little while because we need scientific research to help us get rid of the tailings ponds, we need to spend some money. That’s what Canada should be saying, rather than coming over here and embarrassing themselves and other people in Canada by trying to change the minds of the people over here, who are way advanced in this technology.
Have you been speaking directly to the EU, to the European Commission and national ministers?
This lobbying effort is still in its early stages, and we encourage Germany, for example, to not sit on the fence. We encourage Germany to not be neutral. We encourage Germany to work closely with us, the indigenous people and the majority of people in Canada, because if the Canadian government listened to the people in Canada, they would change their tactics when it comes to the tar sands.
And so we’re saying, Germany please talk to us, please have a discussion amongst yourselves in the country. Remember that Canada was one-time the leading country in the world when it came to human rights, indigenous rights. They were also leading when it came to the environment, when the first real meeting happened in 1990. Twenty years later, they’ve gone so far to the right that they’re an embarrassment, not only in Canada but internationally, and I can say that as an indigenous leader because I’ve been a leader throughout those years.
So people here need to know that Canada pulling out of the Kyoto accord was not the wishes of the people in Canada. People are very concerned. People are not happy with the Canadian government. And they did that without speaking to the Canadian public - it’s the Canadian cabinet, which was the handful of people that did it.
So is Canada’s green image changing?
Well Canada’s political position in terms of non-renewables has changed dramatically.
The thing that distresses people is that the federal government in Canada and the Alberta government is choosing not to listen to anyone. They have it in their minds that they’re going to extract the oil, and they’re doing pretty well as they wish.
We know that Canada talks about ethical oil but the reality is that the oil right now as it is in northern oil is classified as dirty oil, and we support that notion. And it’s called dirty oil because of the carbon, the CO2 release that takes place. And people here and people in Canada need to understand that.
The Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation took both the Alberta and federal government to court on the species at risk when it came to boreal caribou. And they won the court case because Canada is not living up to their legislative standards to protect the caribou. They then came back with a plan that said that the problem is the wolves. The problem is not the wolves. The problem is the mining of the tar sands.
What does this mean for your First Nation and its connection to the land? Is there a spiritual dimension to this?
People now are very afraid to fish in Lake Athabasca, and the Great Slave Lake now and into the Mackenzie river. We’re starting to do testing. We’re finding we can no longer drink the water like we used to. When I was a child we would just dip the glass into the water and drink it. That cannot be done anymore. So the pristine environment is obviously changing and it’s a direct cause of what happens up stream from us. And so we need to sit down and talk about this and Canada.
So it’s deeply affecting your community back home?
Oh absolutely and it’s not only indigenous people. It’s everyone, the whole population in the Northwest Territories. And as I said, because it goes into the greater ocean water network, it affects everyone all over the world.