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The Shifting Forest – An overview of the impact of Oilsands extraction upon the Mikisew Cree First Nation

The Shifting Forest – An overview of the impact of Oilsands extraction upon the Mikisew Cree First Nation

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An essay for the 2012 Undergraduate Awards (International Programme) Competition by Farhan Samanani. Originally submitted for Indigenous Populations and Resource Management at University of St. Andrews, with lecturer Dr Tony Crook in the category of Social Studies
An essay for the 2012 Undergraduate Awards (International Programme) Competition by Farhan Samanani. Originally submitted for Indigenous Populations and Resource Management at University of St. Andrews, with lecturer Dr Tony Crook in the category of Social Studies

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Published by: Undergraduate Awards on Aug 31, 2012
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05/13/2014

 
The Shifting Forest – An overview of the impact of Oilsandsextraction upon the Mikisew Cree First Nation
 Abstract:This case-study examines the impact of the various bitumen-extraction projects whichcomprise the operations of the Northern Alberta Oilsands upon the Mikisew Cree First  Nation (herein referred to as the MCFN), with specifically regard to the impact uponthe traditional life-world of the MCFN. In doing so, it first provides an overview of theoperations and environmental impacts of the oilsands and examines the reasons forthese impacts, arguing that severe environmental impacts have transpired and remain highly likely to continue. Secondly, it examines the “traditional” Cree life-world, with particular regard to land-use, presenting an ontology wherein theenvironment (and its condition) both creates, and is shaped by, human agency. Finally, it will examine contemporary MCFN society, and analyze the relationshipbetween the traditional life-world and contemporary issues.The objective of this case-study is to illustrate the impact of mineral extraction uponthe MCFN. Conventional processes of impact assessment – even when drawing oncontemporary opinions and testimonies of stakeholders – tend to ignore historical context and eschew ethnographic depth. By examining the impact of Oilsandsextraction within the context of the historical trajectory of the challenges and aspirations of MCFN society, and by focusing on the ontological implications of changing resource relations, this case-study endeavours to offer a critical overview of the impacts, challenges and possibilities of Oilsands extraction for the MCFN.
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 Keywords: Mikisew Cree First Nations, Oilsands, Corporate Social Responsibility, development,materiality
1. Overview of Oilsands Operations and Impacts
 Attracting 60% of all global petroleum investment (Nikiforuk, 2008, 1), Canada’soilsands occupy an area roughly the size of Greece (Suzuki, 2011). Despite investmentstotalling around 200 billion, “no comprehensive assessment of environmental,economic, or social impact has been done”, nor has the Federal or ProvincialGovernment developed a plan for oilsands utilization (Nikiforuk. 2008, 2). Instead, thedirection of development has been driven solely by investment, simultaneously positioning Canada as the largest supplier of US oil and giving foreign investorssubstantial control over the fate of the Albertan environment (Ibid, 2, 69). Bitumen isdug up, heated and centrifugally separated from dirt, or else it is pumped directly out of the ground by forcing steam deep underground (Earley, 2003, 59). It takes theexcavation of two tons of earth and use of three barrels of water to produce one barrel of oil, while every day, the industry uses enough natural gas to heat six million homes(Nikiforuk. 2008, 3-4). Over 2 million barrels are produced daily, and production hasrequired the creation of over 50 square miles of tailings ponds, which tower over 270feet above the forest floor and hold the toxic, sludgy water which has been used toseparate the bitumen from the dirt, or to force it out of the ground (Ibid; Earley, 2003,59). Undoubtedly, the oilsands are one of the largest projects on earth, whether in termsof capital investment, scale of development, or environmental impact.
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Both the Federal and Provincial governments have primarily envisioned their role aspromoting and facilitating investment, rather than regulating and mitigating impacts – with public outcomes increasingly left in private hands (Altamirano-Jiménez, 2004,352). Projects are almost unequivocally approved, and regulation and monitoring are woefully inadequate at best, if not deliberately negligent (Nikiforuk 2008, 28-30;Suzuki, 2011). The Alberta Energy Resources Conservation Board – responsible forapproving proposals – has an inherent conflict of interest; it’s the body responsible bothfor the collection of royalties, and the approval and regulation of production. This hascreated space for competing discourses on the impacts of the oilsands to emerge.However, the existence of competing discourses itself favours industry – as long asclaims of impacts remain contestable, it’s unlikely that restrictive legislation will bepassed (Suzuki, 2011). All of this serves to ensure the near-inevitably of oilsandsdevelopment and pressures effected groups to respond to, rather than resistdevelopment (See Westman, 2006).The industry narrative typically maintains that while some environmental impact isinevitable, everything possible is done to minimize it, and ultimately full land-reclamation is possible. The industry presents its consultation with environmentalexperts, local populations and other land-users as a ‘social-license’ to operate and justifies the ‘short-term’ impacts in terms of broadly accessible economic benefits(Petroleum Communication Foundation, 2004). However, outside of corporate andgovernmental publications, the picture is dramatically different. Credible research hasshown that heavy metals and toxic compounds found in the tailings ponds have madetheir way into the water system, through precipitation and seepage, at levels toxic to
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