OTTAWA—The Alberta tar sands have been called the most destructive project on Earth, and hidden behind the industry’s well-publicized carbon emissions lies a wide range of very local costs. In the context of unrelenting attacks on their right to hunt and fish on their traditional lands, new leadership is emerging within First Nations communities to challenge industrial encroachment.
Crystal Lameman is a grassroots activist and member of the Beaver Lake Cree Nation, a First Nation located at the heart of planned tar sands expansion, halfway between Edmonton and Fort McMurray.
“First and foremost...I’m a mother,” Lameman told The Dominion over Skype from her home in Beaver Lake, Alberta. “As a mother, I have an obligation to my children…. [I]nevitably, this [industry] could affect my children and their basic human rights to breath clean air and drink clean water.”
Five years ago, under the leadership of Lameman’s uncle, Chief Alfonse Lameman, the Beaver Lake Cree Nation launched an unprecedented legal case against the federal and provincial governments of Canada and Alberta, citing over 19,000 treaty rights violations linked to the cumulative effect of government-permitted industry expansion plans. The governments attempted to have the case thrown out of court, but in April 2013 a judge ruled it would go to trial. If the First Nation’s claim is victorious, the ruling will have implications for roughly half of planned tar sands expansion.
“With this litigation, we have that ability to stop further development within our traditional hunting territory, which could further influence other First Nations [to do the same],” the younger Lameman said of her community’s Treaty 6 legal challenge. If successful, the case would overturn the permits associated with almost half of current industry expansion plans, and it could also set a legal precedent for other First Nations to launch their own lawsuits. “Ultimately, this could end up being a chain of events that could...stop any further development within the tar sands,” she said.
Lameman says her life as an activist began in 2011, following a UK–Beaver Lake exchange of young people concerned about the tar sands, organized by UK student activist network People & Planet. Experiencing the solidarity of activists so far from her home helped embolden Lameman to break through the challenges of speaking out against the industry within Alberta. Since taking part in the UK trip in November 2011, she has been a member of the Indigenous Environment Network’s delegation to the UN’s Rio+20 Summit in Brazil, in June 2012, and was an invited guest at the Nobel Women’s Initiative Conference in Ireland in May 2013.
While relatively new to the struggle, Lameman grounds her activism in longstanding tradition. “It’s deeply rooted in our culture,” she said of First Nations resistance to the tar sands. “Our main obligation is to our creator.... [S]he is the giver of life, that’s what we believe…. [W]hen you have those roots, and that’s your belief, when we see something like the tar sands that are affecting life and your ability to give life, it’s your obligation to protect it.”
While non-Indigenous activists have primarily aimed to mobilize others against the tar sands based on the global costs of the industry, Lameman grounds her choice to become active in her culture. “If I didn’t have this identity, I wouldn’t be doing this work,” she said. “The minute I lose my culture is the minute I lose this challenge.”
Crystal’s relatively recent efforts to organize members of her 900-person community received an unexpected boost in late 2012 with the birth of the Idle No More movement. “Even our own people that work within [the] industry that didn’t want to speak out before, [now] openly and publicly talk about the atrocities, the violations. This is something that didn’t happen before [Idle No More].”
While some have criticized the movement as lacking significant political impact, Lameman has seen it lead to drastic change within the Beaver Lake Cree Nation. “The biggest challenge I had, previous to Idle No More, [was] mobilizing our own people.... [I]t was always us counting on our leaders to speak for us, instead of us speaking out. So when Idle No More came about, for me, it was a breath of fresh air,” she said. “My work has gotten a lot easier, because I saw mobilization within my own community where our people were sleeping.... [T]hey’ve woken up and they’re no longer afraid to speak out now.”
Liam Barrington-Bush is a solidarity activist, journalist, and organizational and social change facilitator/consultant. He first met Crystal Lameman during her trip to England in 2011. Liam tweets as @hackofalltrades.