Water, waste, sour gas

By Randy Lawrence, Edmonton, in The People's Voice,
January, 1995

Questions of jurisdiction and the nature of native land claims and self government are being raised anew by a variety of issues in western Canada. At Energy Resources Conservation Board (ERCB) hearings in Edmonton, the Lubicon Cree Indian Nation battles to stop a UNOCAL sour gas plant from starting up just 2.5 km south of their proposed new reserve. Meanwhile, Woods Cree communities along the south shore of Lesser Slave Lake in northern Alberta are resisting a proposal to import toxic waste from across North America to a public/private facility at Swan Hills. And in early November, a nine-month study period began into an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) on a proposal to bury high-level nuclear waste in northwest Saskatchewan.

In seeming direct contradiction, the Lesser Slave Lake Indian Regional Council in Alberta is seeking to shut down a local toxic waste facility, while the Meadow Lake Tribal Council in Saskatchewan attempts to strike a deal with Atomic Energy Canada Ltd. (AECL) to accept nuclear waste for permanent disposal in the northern part of the MLTC's "tribal area." In virtually all these issues, the desire for indigenous self-government has been cited.

Basic constitutional issues are being raised in the ERCB hearings into a prefabricated sour gas plant hastily erected by Union Oil of California (UNOCAL) near Lubicon Lake last summer. The Lubicon Band, which has been fighting for a land claims settlement (including a reserve) for over 50 years, denied that it was properly informed about the project, or that it gave explicit permission to build the plant. The Lubicon demands have now been turned down by yet another federal government, as the Liberals continue the Mulroney strategy of divide-and-conquer in the region. Some community members are expected back in court in Edmonton early this year, on provincial charges relating to the 1990 torching of an illegal logging camp on traditional Lubicon territory.

The sour gas plant represents a direct challenge to unceded Lubicon sovereignty east of the Peace River, and a particular threat to the entire Lubicon project of ultimately moving their present squatter community at Little Buffalo, permanently back to their ancestral home. The Lubicons have the support of many local, national and international groups, including the Rainforest Action Network. RAN has made common cause with the band against predatory transnational forestry giants like Daishowa-Marubeni International, headquartered in San Francisco. It has already organized a consumer boycott of Unocal's Union 76 gas stations in California. The ERCB hearings are to resume shortly in Little Buffalo, where UNOCAL will doubtless use the "Woodland Cree Band" created by the Mulroney government in the area as a convenient colonialist foil.

The Lesser Slave Lake Indian Regional Council has not been particularly vocal about indigenous rights, other than to oppose Bill C-31 (i.e. the inclusion of the Canadian Charter in First Nations self-government). But the council is in an important struggle on indigenous land rights. Through two NRCB hearings since 1991, the Sucker Creek Band has consistently opposed the handling of toxic waste in their traditional hunting and gathering area, airshed and watershed. Just as consistently, the Alberta government since the late 1980s has promoted the Swan Hills region, between Edmonton and Lesser Slave Lake, as a final destination for hazardous wastes. Ottawa and the other western provinces have all acquiesced in this strategy.

But in the course of the hearing it became obvious that the Swan Hills waste facility, jointly owned and operated by an Alberta crown corporation and Chem Security, a subsidiary of Calgary-based Trimac Corp., is a financial black hole. Running directly counter to the Klein government's "no handouts" claims, a secret $100 million loan guarantee has been revealed. Despite the undermining of the NRCB's credibility by its own government, the Board approved the waste imports on Nov. 22. Several appeals are expected.

Finally, in Saskatchewan, the Meadow Lake Tribal Council, headquartered at the Flying Dust Reserve outside Meadow Lake, has announced a plan to accept nuclear waste on a continent-wide basis. Deep burial would take place in the Canadian Shield, probably north of La Loche and the Clearwater River, on the way to the Cluff Lake uranium mine. It has been revealed that the MLTC, using funds from AECL, has been negotiating since early 1994 with the Mescalero Apaches of New Mexico, who would "take care of" low-level nuclear waste. AECL has held "open houses" in Regina, Saskatoon and North Battleford to discuss the MLTC proposal, signalling an ominous new stage in a long effort by the federal crown corporation to remove the waste "hurdle" from the larger anti-nuclear argument.

Federal Environmental Assessment Review Office (FEARO) hearings, possibly in late 1995, are apparently scheduled at present only for those provinces perceived to have a vested interest in the nuclear fuel cycle. AECL does major business in New Brunswick, Ontario, Manitoba and Saskatchewan. A "final solution" to the nuclear waste issue would fit in perfectly with current plans to sell large CANDU reactors to China, and small "low-tech" CANDU 3's around the world, with an understanding that spent fuel would be returned to Canada. It would give new life to a moribund, lethal technology, which has relied on dubious sales to Romania and South Korea in recent years just to stay in existence in Canada.

The way the waste issue has been raised by the MLTC tends to turn conventional notions of indigenous self-government upside down. The Tribal Council is an unlikely amalgam, quasi-colonialist in origin, of two southern Treaty 6 Cree bands and half a dozen, mostly Chipewyan Treaty 10 (1906) communities. The MLTC is within its rights and responsibilities saying it should have a direct share in "development" in its own traditional territory, and that outsiders should not make all the profits. But the Council has been doing quite well through its existing stake in local development, including clearcut logging. And there's some classic buck-passing in prospect. The MLTC says it will not really move on the nuclear waste issue until FEARO declares the disposal plan "safe." But then the project would be deemed to be on "Indian land," beyond government control!

Speaking on CBC Radio's Sunday Morning (Nov. 20), Roy Ahenakew, executive director of the MLTC, has even likened burying nuclear waste to the indigenous spiritual practice of "giving something back to Mother Earth." He was opposed as usual by Leon Iron, from the Canoe Lake-based Sakaw-Aski Elders Association and the protectors of Mother Earth in the middle of the tribal area. While the Chretien government pushes nuclear technology, it has yet to respond to a 40-year old claim directly involving the Canoe Lake Band and Alberta's Cold Lake Band, in the Primrose Lake bombing range. (See P.V., Sept. 1994)

Such issues, combined with the impasses at Davis Inlet, James Bay, Oka, and other indigenous centres across Canada, show the depth and breadth of the First Nations self-determination issue as a whole, as we approach the quincentenary of Giovanni Caboto's 1497 arrival on the east coast.

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