What do you do when your land is threatened, when your rights are ignored, when your community\'s health and safety are essentially sold to the highest corporate bidder? Chief Allan Adam of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation (ACFN)—1,000 members living on four reserves in northeastern Alberta, Canada—knows what to do: fight.
Alberta, Canada, is the ACFN's home—traditionally, culturally, geographically, politically. But that home is threatened because of the oil and tar sands industry. Oil and natural gas wells leave toxic wastes that contaminate plants as well as animals and their feeding habitats. They create huge amounts of greenhouse gases. They infringe on natives' rights to hunt, fish, and gather. And they are correlated with numerous health problems, including particular kinds of cancer. Those wells continue to pollute the land, water, and air.
At one point Adam and the ACFN were hoping that the provincial government would stop the encroachment on their land, but in 2012 Alberta came up with a plan that put only minor restrictions on development and, according to Adam, fell drastically short of the protections needed.
"This is not our plan; it's the government's plan to annihilate our lands and our future," he said. "There are no commitments to our people and no protection of our lands and rights. We thought we were working towards a partnership with the government, but this plan doesn't reflect that."
For its part, Alberta's government says that it will continue to try to engage the ACFN community, but that it had to balance "job creation and recreational opportunities" with environmental and cultural protections. A spokesman for the government said that "we need to take into account a number of perspectives and try to balance them the best that we can and that is what we believe we have done with this plan."
But Adam claims that the plan is not nearly balanced enough, especially in terms of protecting wildlife such as caribou and bison and in respecting ACFN treaty rights. He's gone to court, numerous times, to have the ruling overturned. "The approval of the project," he says, "was hypocritical; on one hand they outlined all of the various violations of laws and legislation but ultimately approved the project 'in the public interest.' Frankly, it's insulting and unlawful."
The ACFN maintains that they're not against development; in fact, they've established relationships with several industrial companies. But they do point to an "Elders Declaration" that protects their land. "We will hold the line and challenge all proposals, projects, and approvals," says Adam, "that impact the lands, territory, and rights that are necessary for our cultural and treaty rights."
Adam and the ACFN have been drawing big names to their cause. In 2013, rocker Neil Young launched an "Honour the Treaties" tour, donating all proceeds of ticket sales to ACFN's legal fund. Other celebrities—some concerned with the environment, others with native peoples' rights, or both—have joined in.
Regardless of what continues to happen in the courts—and so far, decisions have gone against the ACFN—Adam will continue to defend the land and his people at negotiating tables, public hearings, courts, and rallies, no matter what the cost:
"We are fighting, and people across the country are waking up. I am here to tell you that the sleeping giant is being awakened, and this country will never be the same again until the issues affecting First Nations are addressed."
Keep up with his work at www.acfn.com