Alberta Tar Sands

Alberta Tar Sands or Alabasca River Delta? 

            The debate and disagreement about this site is immediately evident when deciding what to call it. Before being able to dive deeper into the complexity of the issues surrounding the lands of Northern Alberta, the conflict confronts you  when choosing how to refer to these lands. However, the distinction in focus between the two titles is very clear. While referring to them as the Alabasca River Delta accentuates the landscape of the area, referring to it as the Tar Sands brings attention to the substance that many desire to extract from the area. Mining operations have been underway in the area since the 1960’s, but the companies mining this area, mainly Shell Canada, are now trying to expand their operations drastically (Sacred Land Film Project). This has been coupled with a plan to pipe the crude oil from Northern Alberta to refineries in Texas and then to the Gulf of Mexico for export. This pipeline is commonly referred to as the Keystone XL pipeline and has been hotly contested across the US and Canada. According to the Sacred Lands Film Project, “Alberta’s vast oil sands — a mixture of sand, water and a semisolid form of petroleum called bitumen — account for 97 percent of Canada’s proven crude oil reserves, making Canada the largest source of foreign oil for the world’s largest energy consumer, the United States”(Sacred Land Film Project). However, these lands are mainly home to Cree, Dene, and Beaver peoples and, through a series of treaties with the Canadian Government, have a legal right to fish, hunt and worship freely in their ancestral lands(Lim).

While it is clear that a conflict would evolve between the interests of the First Nations communities and the interests of the oil companies, it is important to explore the level of havoc that tar sands mining has wreaked on these communities.

According to The Nation:

Tailings ponds are a byproduct of tar sands processing, left to collect in pools so vast and numerous that they can be seen from outer space. They are not secure: an Environment Canada study from February confirmed that the tailings ponds are leaking into the Athabasca River… Fort Chipewyan, a remote hamlet downstream from Fort McMurray (on the Athabasca), emerged in the national consciousness inn 2006 when its sole doctor, John O’Connor, went public about a high rate of rare cancers in the community.(Lim)

While this issue has been the most widely publicized, it is not the only negative externality of tar sand extraction. The health effects of tailings ponds are coupled with more directly environmental impacts such as the diversion of large amounts of water and the threatening of Caribou populations. According to the Pembina Institute:

Currently, oil sands mining operations are licensed to divert 604 million cubic metres of water annually from the Athabasca River Basin, which is equivalent to the needs of a city of three million people… The amount of water used during low flow periods is of particular concern, especially since the water is not returned to the river system after use as it would be with municipal uses. (Droitsch)

Additionally, the encroachment of tar sands extraction is threatening the Caribou population of the area. Caribou are of significant cultural and spiritual importance to many of the First Nations in the area, and many of the tribes have a constitutional right to hunt these animals. However, the Caribou population has declined 71% since 1996 and are on their way to being completely wiped out of the region (Droitsch). If the tribes of Northern Alberta are effectively stopped from fishing in their rivers, drinking their water, or hunting their caribou then their way of life will have been destroyed. Everything from their sustenance to their religion will have been made impossible because they will have been stripped of their connection the a healthy and rich land. George Poitras of the Mikisew Cree nation put it best when he asserted, “If we don’t have land and we don’t have anywhere to carry out or traditional lifestyles, we lose who we are as a people. So, if there’s no land, then its equivalent in our estimation to genocide of a people” (Huseman).

Many researchers have found trouble gaining access to the religions of these tribes, but a good amount is known regarding the religious practices and beliefs of the more southern Cree. As with most all indigenous religions, it is difficult to separate the religion of the Cree from their land. However, they tend to keep the locations of more specifically sacred sites a secret (Cree Info). Outside knowledge of these locations would compromise their sanctity for the Cree. Though it is known that the Cree are very repetitive and regimented in their religious practice. In other words, they don’t like to change or alter any aspect of their practice, including the locations of different ceremonies (Dusenberry). However, the most distinguishing aspect of Cree religion is that it is far most animistic than other indigenous religions. They focus very much on the spirits of all animals. This is not to say that they ignore the sanctity of natural elements and landscapes, but rather that they focus on how these aspects of nature provide for the animals that they so revere(Dusenberry). In a description of a Cree rain dance the focus on the animal and its spirit is very evident; “It is a thirsting dance when we ask Ki-sei-men’-to for rain so that the grass will grow to feed the buffalo”(Dusenberry, 223). Therefore, more so than a particular part of a stream or a particular mountain, sanctity for the Cree seems to have to do with all the areas that the animal spirits roam. This means their sacred areas are vast and is conceptually something that would be difficult for Anglos to comprehend initially.

From this perspective it is clear to see that the Cree and surrounding tribes would not only be deeply upset by the negative health effects that the tar sands are having on their people, but would be equally disturbed by the fact that this project is destroying the habitats for the fish, Caribou, and other wildlife in the area. Chief Janvier of the Chipewyan Prairie Dene tribe explains that, “The extinction of caribou would mean the extinction of our people. The caribou is our sacred animal; it is a measure of our way of life. When the caribou are dying, the land is dying” (Huseman). This explains why the First Nations of the area are joining with environmental groups in order to fight the expansion and deregulation of the oil industry in the courts and on the ground. One positive point in this story has to do with the relative success that First Nations have had in Canadian courtrooms. In Canada, the government has a far better record in honoring their treaties with indigenous populations and therefore and effective legal approach for them has been to focus on their rights to hunt and fish these lands unobstructed.

The response to these claims is clear to see. It revolves in much the same way as most economic development does. The large industry is chasing a profit and distracts the local people from the environmental risk and destruction by focusing attention on the potential for jobs and the possibility of better economic fortunes for the community. When in fact, the case is often that some in the community benefit, but the vast majority of the profit stays with the large corporation. This leaves the community with little more than the environmental negative externalities after it is all said and done. Or as Rose Desjarlais, a Dene elder, puts it, “What will money do when our forests and waters are gone? It has to stop, but we need help”(Sacred Lands Film Project).

In the context of our readings around sacred land, it is clear to see that the environmental degradation and the extinction of wildlife in northern Alberta remove the sanctity of the land for the First Nations. If the animal spirits are being killed of or are sick, the land from which they used to gain the sustenance loses its sacred nature. This removes the entire orientation of their religion as there is no longer a sacred connection between land and animal spirits that they can draw on. In terms of Eliade, the land is becoming profane as it is separated from the connections and relationships that make it sacred. In terms of Lane, you could see the situation as the land being stripped of all the objects and connections that create hierophany for these people.

In any case, the First Nations of Northern Alberta are not prepared to give up their sacred attachment to this land. It appears that they are willing to try any approach and partner with anyone willing in order to save their sacred space. It is important to see that they are more concerned with the health of their land and animals, than with the cancers and illnesses this contamination is causing for their people. This speaks to the power of this sacred connection and to the importance of it not being severed.


Works Cited

“The Land and Its People.” Sacred Land Film Project » Athabasca River Delta. 7 Oct. 2011. Web. 3 Oct. 2014.


“Cree Religious Practices.” 2014. Web.


Droitsch, Danielle, and Terra Simieritsch. “Canadian Aborignal Concerns With Oil Sands.” The Pembina Institute (Sept. 2011)


Dusenberry, Verne. The Montana Cree: A Study In Religious Persistence. Norman: U of Oklahoma, 1998. Print.


Huseman, Jennifer, and Damien Short. “A Slow Industrial Genocide: Tar Sands and the Indigenous Peoples of Northen Alberta.” The International Journal of Human Rights (2011): 216-37. Print.


Lane, Belden. “Giving Voice to Place: Three Models for Understanding Sacred Space.” Reilgion and American Culture. Print


Lim, Andea. “Tarred Industry.” Mother Jones September 29, 2014. Print

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