Aboriginal Spirituality and the Oil Sands

Syncrude Oil Sands Mine and Processor
Syncrude Oil Sands, NE Alberta

Every day more people wade into the discussion for and against the oil sands development in Alberta, Canada. While the debate rages about the economic, social, and environmental outcomes, one piece is missing from the media and larger social discussion.

How do the oil sands affect the local aboriginal spirituality?

As aboriginal reservations and settlements are right on or next to oil sand mines and processing plants, they are the first impacted by environmental hazards. In fact, for First Nations and Métis, who live in North Eastern Alberta, oil sands developments are literally in their homes.

First Nations commissioned a traditional land use study, which focused on how the land was and is used. The study shows that development is proposed on spiritual sites of deep significance. It is land where plants are collected for medicine and food, and where members hunt, fish, and trap. They believe these are sacred actions. According to many community Elders, these are spiritual places where these activities are carried out.

Mother Earth guides First Nations people to practice reverence, humility, and reciprocity. Like other native groups who have battled environmentally disastrous projects, the First Nations believe that honoring the earth is a sacred duty. To not investigate, to not be involved in the oil sands development, is to go against their own spiritual belief system that’s thousands of years old.

Peter Fortna and Metis meet to discuss the proposed changes in the Fort McMurray area
Peter Fortna, Cumulative Environmental Management Association, meets to discuss with Metis elders and membership about on-going community engagement and participation in developing the Traditional Knowledge Frameworks for industry.

The overall spiritual approach aboriginals in Canada have towards the environment provides insight into why oil sands development is so problematic. The Assembly of First Nations sums it up perfectly:

“From the realms of the human world, the sky dwellers, the water beings, forest creatures and all other forms of life, the beautiful Mother Earth gives birth to, nurtures and sustains all life. Mother Earth provides us with our food and clean water sources. She bestows us with materials for our homes, clothes and tools. She provides all life with raw materials for our industry, ingenuity and progress. She is the basis of who we are as ‘real human beings’ that include our languages, our cultures, our knowledge and wisdom to know how to conduct ourselves in a good way. If we listen from the place of connection to the Spirit That Lives in All Things, Mother Earth teaches what we need to know to take care of her and all her children. All are provided by our mother, the Earth.”

The greatest spiritual challenge to the aboriginal people is within the community itself. Many members of the First Nations and Métis groups believe that regardless of what they do, the oil sands are here to stay and they should be able to benefit economically from them. The Fort Mackay FN and Métis community have come to an agreement with Brion Energy and will remove all objections as they pertain to the Alberta Energy Regulator’s approval of the Dover Oil Sands Mine in their area. While details have not been released, the band’s members have dropped their call for a green zone between their reserve and the mine.

Others, including many members of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation (ACFN), oppose many oil sand projects, including the Jackpine Mine expansion.

“We are looking out of the best interests of our people, our lands, our rights, and the public,” stated Chief Allan Adam of the ACFN. “Our Elders identified lands that were necessary for the continuation of our rights and survival of species. During the Jackpine Mine hearings the government recognized development is having adverse impacts on our rights. It’s become obvious expansion is out of control and is proceeding without adequately addressing our concerns and the unique rights of First Nations.”

Chief Adam and Neil Young at the rally
Chief Adam of Fort Chipewyan and singer Neil Young at the Honour the Treaties discussion, 2014.

What the future holds for the aboriginal people of Northern Alberta is very much unknown. Their constant involvement in how the oil sands develops is for certain, and with that they will bring their cultural and spiritual beliefs to the forefront.

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About the Author

Tereasa Maillie is a writer and researcher. She also has a very un-secret life as a producer and playwright. Her work has appeared in various poetry and short story anthologies. Her previous work includes the history of oil and gas in Alberta, Chinese medicine, First Nations and Métis history. You can find her on Twitter+, Google +, and her blog HistoryMinion.