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United Nations officials were visibly perturbed when the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights met in a conference room in Geneva last year to consider the long-standing land rights dispute between the Lubicon Lake Indian Nation and the governments of Canada and Alberta.
Just seven months earlier, the UN Human Rights Committee (UNHRC) had re-affirmed a 1990 ruling that found Canada was violating the Lubicon people's human rights and told the Canadian government to negotiate a land rights settlement with the northern Alberta based First Nation. The Committee had also ruled that Canada "should consult with the Band before granting licences for economic exploitation of the disputed land, and ensure that in no case such exploitation jeopardizes the rights recognized under the [International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights]."
In the seven months following the October 2005 UNHRC decision, the Alberta government ignored the ruling entirely. Without so much as a courtesy call to the Lubicon Nation, Alberta sold conventional oil and gas leases and exploration licences to over 65,000 hectares of Lubicon Traditional Territory, approved 50 new oil and gas wells and approved almost 50 new pipelines on Lubicon lands.
Then, as UN officials gathered in May 2006 to review the Lubicon case, Alberta announced over 50,000 hectares of Lubicon territory would be put on the auction block for new tar sands exploitation without notifying or consulting the Lubicon people.
Upon wrapping up the hearings, the UN officials issued a sharply-worded ruling again, pushing Canada to resolve the dispute and consult with the Lubicon people before issuing new leases or licenses on their lands.
The Canadian and Albertan governments have done neither.
The Lubicon Lake people are an Indigenous Nation of approximately 500 people living near Peace River in northern Alberta, Canada. They have never surrendered their rights to their Traditional Territory in any legally or historically recognized way. When a treaty was negotiated with other Indigenous peoples in the region in 1899, treaty negotiators never travelled inland to Lubicon territory and they were therefore left out of the treaty process. Even by its own Constitutionally-enshrined process, Canada has never secured rights to the lands in dispute.
Despite the unresolved land rights – which in any society that valued the rule of law should have given pause to further encroachment – Lubicon Traditional Territory has been ravaged by multi-billion dollar resource exploitation activity including logging and large-scale oil and gas extraction. Over $13 billion in oil and gas resources have been taken from their lands. By 2002, over 1,700 oil and gas well sites and countless kilometres of pipelines were situated within Lubicon Traditional Territory.
These massive resource exploitation activities have decimated the Traditional Lubicon hunting and trapping economy and way of life, and threaten the very existence of the Lubicon Lake People as a distinct Indigenous society. With the onset of resource exploitation has come terrible social and health problems which the Lubicon people never had to face before, such as asthma and other respiratory problems, cancers of all kinds, skin diseases and miscarriages.
Although the Lubicon people have fought for years to establish a modern treaty with Canada that would provide them with reserve lands, basic amenities like running water and decent housing, a new economy and some control over environmental and wildlife matters in their Traditional lands, Canada has let the situation deteriorate further. Canada has not sent a negotiator to the table since December 2003.
The Alberta government, for its part, has further exploited the lack of a land rights settlement by opening up the area for "heavy oil" exploitation in recent years.
"Heavy Oil" is a nicer-sounding word for tar sands that, when heated, can be extracted through oil wells rather than strip-mined.
Since the province of Alberta began promoting the exploitation of tar sands in the area, huge operations have sprung up downwind and downstream from the Lubicon community despite Lubicon objections. And beginning in 2004, a number of companies proposed to begin large-scale "heavy oil" extraction projects on 63-square miles right in the heart of Lubicon Territory immediately adjacent to proposed Lubicon reserve lands and surrounding two lakes upon which they rely for fish. These companies plan to drill 512 "heavy oil" wells in this sensitive area, ultimately producing an estimated 820 million barrels of oil.
The 50,000 hectares of tar-sands auctioned off while the Lubicons were at the UN were in addition to these prior developments. And this year another 15,500 hectares just north of the proposed Lubicon reserve lands have been sold to tar sands companies.
Liquefying the "heavy oil" so it can be pumped out of the ground is done with superheated water or steam and typically requires that 3 to 6 barrels of water be injected into the subsurface for each barrel of oil produced. Most, if not all, of this water is taken out of the natural cycle and lost forever. Where this huge volume of water will come from and the environmental consequences of injecting it in to the fragile boreal subsurface are unknown. Some years ago, an experimental heavy oil/tar sands facility to the west of the Lubicons built a pipeline to a neighboring lake to obtain the water they required. Within a few months they had drained the lake so far that it froze solid in the winter, killing all the fish.
Until recently, it was also unclear how the huge energy needs of this process could be sustained by the companies in the area. Now a new company has announced plans to build a nuclear reactor near Peace River to power tar sands exploitation, claiming that 70 per cent of their power output will go to fuel a major tar sands project in the region.
This new tar sands boom in the Peace River area has the potential to be even more damaging than the first wave of resource exploitation in the early 1980s.
The Lubicon people suffered the full environmental, economic, cultural, social and health impacts of that first wave of conventional oil and gas exploitation in their unceded territory.
With a new wave of even more damaging resource exploitation arriving at their doorstep, the Lubicon people are bracing for the worst. Reckless water use, oil spills, further degradation of the groundwater, increased toxic emissions, further decimation of fisheries and wildlife, more roads, trucking, seismic lines and the spectre of nuclear waste haunt their future.
A better future is possible. The United Nations committee identified two easy steps towards that future--negotiations and consultation.
But that would require that Canadian governments listen to the UN rather than openly flaunting their rulings and selling off the very lands and resources that are under dispute even as the UN is hearing the matter.
Kevin Thomas is the Chief Negotiator for the Lubicon Lake Indian Nation
The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.