Indigenous People: A Key to Environmental Rescue

An interview with Clayton Thomas-Muller
Michael Welch 
December 15th 2011

Michael Welsh: Clayton Thomas-Muller, you’re on staff with the Indigenous Environment Network and a founder of Defenders of the Land. What distinguishes them from other Indigenous organizations?

Clayton Thomas-Muller: Defenders of the Land is a new initiative. It was created to provide a forum for the most radical landbased First Nations struggles here in this country. For the last three years we’ve been convening an annual gathering, hosting monthly conference calls, setting up a governance structure comprised of members of frontline First Nations communities that have been engaged directly with the state over land disputes, over asserting treaty rights, Aboriginal rights, over asserting land claims. 

The goal has been to develop a grassroots-led base building strategy with our native people to really invigorate a young generation, to connect them with some veterans of the movement, to make some serious moves forward, and to provide an alternative, I think, to the current PTOs and NAOs. By “PTO” I mean Provincial and Territorial Aboriginal Organizations, and, of course, our National Aboriginal Organizations in Ottawa. Many of these organizations, it’s the feeling of a lot of our grassroots people, have become co-opted because of their arms-length relationship with the federal government or the provincial governments in the context of funding. Many people feel that they have become unable to address some of the most critical issues that we’re facing because of the potential for funding cuts and this sort of thing.

Now, the Indigenous Environmental Network, whom I work as their Tar Sands campaigner, has been around for about 20 years, and is an environmental justice network in the United States and more recently in Canada. In recent years, we’ve really taken our work all across the planet supporting Indigenous communities to protect the sacredness of Mother Earth from toxic contamination and corporate exploitation. We do this through grassroots-led strategies around base building. We engage in civil disobedience. Our flagship program is our Native Energy and Climate Program. We work with tribes, Alaska Native Nations and First Nations from the north slope of Alaska all the way to the Gulf Coast of Mexico, fighting against the fossil fuel regime, fighting against the false solutions that are being put on the table by the U.S. government and the Canadian government to try and address climate change, and fighting for climate and energy justice for our people.

Both organizations share a relationship. IEN, as a network, is supporting Defenders of the Land. Many of the groups that are involved in Defenders are also affiliates with the IEN network. The relationship continues to grow and deepen.

MW: Talk about the Tar Sands campaign in particular, about what they’ve been doing to frustrate Tar Sands development.

CTM:The Tar Sands campaign with IEN is part of our Native Energy and Climate Program. I’m one of five staffers spread out across the continent supporting frontline communities fighting against Big Oil. We started about four and a half years ago at the invitation of one of the families in Fort Chipewyan. We were able to visit Fort Chipewyan and get a sense of the immense impacts that downstream communities are facing as a result of living so near the proximity of the world’s largest construction project. Since then we’ve been directly engaged with Fort Chipewyan, as our primary relationship, but also with dozens of other tribal communities that are also impacted by this massive project. Initiating action camps, trainings, lobby trips, whether its to DC or to the Hill here in Canada in Ottawa, bringing community voices all the way up to the halls of the United Nations and the international climate negotiations to exert pressure on the Canadian government over its energy policy and the human rights impacts that that policy has had on local communities in terms of loss of food security, loss of access to traditional hunting and fishing grounds, and the cancer clusters that so many communities in northern Alberta are now having. Fort Chipewyan, for example, has over the last decade lost over 100 of its 1200 citizens to rare forms of cancer and auto-immune deficiencies which independent science commissioned by the community, has proven is directly linked to the Tar Sands, which of course industry and government have been investing millions of dollars in trying to deny. That work has continued to grow and expand and the international movement against the Tar Sands has really gained a lot of speed. I think that’s where Defenders of the Land comes in. There are members fromTar Sands-impacted communities, not just on the frontline of extraction but also from pipeline-impacted communities that are attached to the Tar Sands that are engaging with other communities that in some instances are fighting the same damn companies.

A Multi-Pronged Campaign

MW: Could you provide some examples of the campaign?

CTM: The campaign itself is actually quite sophisticated. It’s multi-pronged in design, and it has to be. The Tar Sands is the world’s biggest mobilization of workers for one project—77,000 workers over an expanse of land in the Athabasca region that’s roughly the size of England and Wales combined. Billions of dollars of capital have gone in already with more coming from all kinds of international markets, so we’ve had to really split up our resources in terms of supporting frontline communities with education strategies that are popular in design. We do a lot of action camps with communities to train up new spokespersons with different skill-shares. We do a lot of non-violent direct action training in communities so that communities can use non-violent direct action in their toolkit when they’re trying to punch holes in the mainstream media and get their voice heard.

We’ve had a lot of success in our financial campaign targeting European-based financial institutions, and financial institutions here in Canada as well, that are invested in the Tar Sands. We’ve been meeting with a lot of international investment firms who manage institutional shareholders like unions— some of the biggest unions on the planet, some of the biggest pension funds on the planet—who are big shareholders in European-based oil companies like BP and Shell, and France’s oil giant Total, and Norway’s Statoil, who all are operating in the Tar Sands. We’ve been really effective at raising the stakes in terms of the risks associated with operating in the Tar Sands and the risks that are posed by direct intervention by First Nations through Canada’s legal institutions or through other means like civil disobedience.

MW: Talk about addressing these international financial investors. What is it that tends to bring them to your viewpoint?

CTM: I think what banking institutions and the financial sector responds to the most is straight economics. What they’re concerned about is project delays, project stoppages, project cancellations. Part of what we’ve been talking to them about is, of course, impending climate policy, which will come down eventually in this country, which, of course, will set a price on carbon and drive up the cost of operating in the Tar Sands, because it’s the most carbon-intensive industry on the planet. The other thing we talk about is Canada’s rapidly changing legal landscape and the emergence of precedent-setting cases around the duty to consult with First Nations—the Haida Gwaii decision, the Delgamuukw decision, the Grassy Narrows decision that happened the other day. Every day we are gaining traction within Canada’s legal framework as First Nations peoples. Aboriginal rights is such a grey area, so one of the things that we’ve been trying to convey to the financial sector is that there are serious liabilities to investing in projects on disputed lands, which, of course, is the large majority of this country.

Whose EndGame?

MW: And that’s a particularly different emphasis than, say, your traditional urban-based environmentalist who says, “We’ve got to stop climate change!” Could you discuss the issue of Indigenous peoples forming those alliances with urban-based environmentalists who want solidarity with the Indigenous peoples? What are some of the challenges that are faced in these sorts of alliances?

CTM: There’s a lot of money being thrown at this issue, which is a good thing. We need more and more resources every day invested into fighting against this project. But one of the challenges that presents is that different conservation groups, different mainstream ENGOs have a different culture of organizing. I think in many instances a lot of these groups haven’t taken the time to truly understand what it means to work with the unique political and legal status that First Nations peoples have. They’re just trying to get the next big story, or stop a particular policy, but it’s not necessarily with an endgame of having First Nations peoples controlling their lands. It has to do with setting up big conservation zones like the Great Bear Rainforest, for example, which severely impacted and eroded the sovereignty of tribes in BC whose lands were turned, essentially, into one of the biggest conservation zones in the country. And now they’re stuck in a situation where, before, they had full control over their unceded territory, and now they’re in a co-management situation with not just industry and the provincial government of BC but also with conservation groups. You have these conflicting intense strategies and that’s what’s playing out in the Tar Sands as well. You have different groups with different agendas and everybody wants to say they work with First Nations, but not everybody understands what the endgame is for First Nations peoples. and how that’s probably, in many instances, at odds with the conservation agenda.

MW: What is the endgame for Indigenous Peoples?

CTM: Well, the endgame for Indigenous Peoples is that we don’t want to have to choose between our way of life and being able to get paid in this cash economy that we’re living in. Over half of First Nations peoples live in urban centres, and that’s not because cities provide such great opportunities. It’s because so many of our communities have been devastated by mega-development, whether it’s the Tar Sands, or hydro, or other forms of development like clear-cut logging. This has severely impeded our ability to continue to practice sustainable economies like we’ve done for thousands of years. In the Tar Sands, what I’ve heard from First Nations is that they want the projects to stop. They want the approvals to stop immediately. They want to be able to continue to hunt, fish and trap. They want their children to have access to the beautiful bounty of that particular part of Mother Earth and the current set-up is quickly eliminating that access. For many of the First Nations in the region their lands are already completely devastated. Fort McKay Cree Nation is a good example. They’re a little sea of green forest surrounded by a wasteland of moonscape in the heart of the Tar Sands mining zone.

MW: At the same time, people, not unreasonably, want to be able to make a good living. I wonder if you could talk a little bit about the pushback, which you pointed to earlier. One of the ways, I imagine, that the people who want to preserve and expand the Tar Sands try to bring Indigenous People on is to try to flash the dollars in front of Indigenous Peoples, Indigenous groups, to say that this is best for their people. Here’s a way of creating jobs and so forth. How do those sorts of potential schisms get dealt with Tar Sands or mega-development in general. You know, people gotta eat. People gotta put food on the table for their kids. And so they’re presented with hard choices. For us at IEN it’s about the system that is being pushed by this Harper majority government, formerly minority, to elevate Tar Sands as the primary backbone of the Canadian economy. In a time of climate change, in a time when science has proven climate change is caused by man-made CO2, here we have our government doing everything it can to stall a post-Kyoto climate treaty, doing everything it can to market dirty oil sands fuel to Europe, to the United States, to Asian markets, and to really stifle the voice of local communities who are dying as a result of this policy. For us, it’s about working with our people to identify alternative economic solutions while addressing the real crisis that’s happening right now in terms of the human health impacts and ecological impacts that the Tar Sands has. For us, the case in BC is a great one to look at. Look at the 81 First Nations, and hundreds of municipalities, businesses, political individuals, institutions that have stood up against the Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline. I mean, Enbridge has put over a billion dollars on the table to try and buy those First Nations out, but they’re saying no and they’re holding the line because in northern BC, there’s 54 000 workers working in the salmon industry alone. That doesn’t include all the eco-tourism.

On Ezra Levant

MW: There’s this movement called “ethical oil” that’s come up lately largely inspired, it seems, by this book by Ezra Levant. Could you talk about the attempt to brand Tar Sands oil as ethical oil?

CTM: Yeah, of course. Ezra is a nasty, nasty piece of work and I don’t give him the time of day. He’s done everything he can to try and attempt character assassinations of key individuals from First Nations in northern Alberta. He’s just a sensationalist appealing to the hatred in a very ignorant rightwing community here in this country.

Look, it comes down to geo-political education. People always talk about the fact that Canada went into Afghanistan, but we didn’t go into Iraq. What a great decision by Jean Chrétien, blah blah blah. Well, the reality of it is Tar Sands fuel has been powering the Iraq war. There’s already a couple hundred thousand barrels per day that goes into the Tacoma, Washington strategic naval petroleum refinery through the Houston-based Kinder Morgan pipeline infrastructure that goes diagonally across the province of British Columbia, which is powering up war ships and sending warplanes to the Persian Gulf. This has been happening for over a decade.

If you look at the trajectory of the destabilization of the Middle East by US foreign policy, you’ll see that the violence in the Middle East, and the profitability of the Canadian Tar Sands follow a path that is almost identical. It’s the same thing with the health situation playing out in frontline communities in terms of cancer rates going up. All of these trajectories have followed the same path. Canada, being the biggest energy provider to the United States of America, is perpetuating a lot of the violence that they’re seeing in the Middle East. It’s a very distorted analysis that Ezra has put on the table.

The other issue that we have to take a look at that Ezra Levant and all those in that circle don’t talk about is that hundreds of thousands of people every year now are being killed by violent unpredictable weather that’s associated with a rapidly destabilizing climate. Tar Sands oil is the most heavy, carbon intensive fuel on the planet. Canada is ground zero for this stuff. There are twelve countries that have heavy oil deposits that are engaged with the private-sector oil corporations in Canada for technology for profit deals, for transfer deals that want to develop their Tar Sands deposits. What this represents is the hardwiring of the dirtiest, most carbon-intensive fuel on the planet into the planetary economy for the next hundred years by Big Oil. For Ezra Levant or any of these other fools to get up and say that the Canadian Tar Sands are more ethical, I mean, these are genocidal maniacs.

A 60,000-year track record on ecology

MW: You pointed out that we do need to change our whole system, and we need to wean ourselves off of carbon-based fuels and carbon-based energies, but in the mean time, people have to eat, they have to get gas in their cars…

CTM When we look at Canada as a country and see the immense work that we have in front of us to change our infrastructure to be zero-carbon, to introduce technologies that will help us lessen our contribution to global climate change, the economic stimulus attached to that, the job creation attached to that is incredible. If you look at the amount of workers it takes to maintain, say, photovoltaics, sun-farms, wind-farms, versus the amount of workers it takes to maintain a pipeline, it’s 12:1. The green economy, as a transitionary economy to something that’s even better, and more sustainable down the road, is the way out. It presents us with incredible opportunities for each individual citizen to be able to have good work, to be working in unison with the sacred circle of life, to design our local communities’ sustainable economies in a biological, bio-regional way.

MW: I just wanted to also ask about, historically, the role of Indigenous Peoples in these environmental movements and how far back they go. Could you maybe point out what it is about the Indigenous component in particular that may be key to an ultimate victory in this struggle?

CTM: We are the key. Bottom-line, I don’t want to come off un-humble or anything, but Indigenous peoples have a 60,000-year track record on ecology. We know how to take care of this land. We understand our sacred relationship with our plant and animal relatives. Green jobs? Shit, we had green jobs for millennia. I think, eventually, the big, mainstream environmental organizations are going to figure it out. I talked about the legal landscape—we will continue as First Nations and Aboriginal People to acquire more precedent-setting legal victories in the courts of Canada, asserting our rights, and big NGOs, conservation groups, industry, government, I’m putting them all on notice. They’d better get with the frickin’ program and understand that yes, technology and western solutions play a key role in addressing the complex global issues we face today like climate change, like the end of the era of cheap energy, like the loss of natural capital to sustain this economic paradigm we live in called capitalism, but it’s western solutions coupled with Indigenous traditional ecological knowledge that’s going to take us to that future that we all deserve. Until people deal with their race, class, and all these different dysfunctions that keep our movement fractured, until they get over that stuff, they’re going to get left in the dust. Because a lot of people are getting over it and we’re seeing here in North America, and globally, with this global fight against these austerity measures, because the banks have all ripped us off, we’re seeing that social movement rise … and climate change will be one of the catalyst issues within that social movement that will drive a popular uprising. And we will see Indigenous Peoples play a key role in having that vision for that economic paradigm of the future that will allow us once again as human beings to understand our role in that sacred circle of life.

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