“You see there, grandson, that’s a trail that I ride in winter, down through the trees then across this lake. Our ancestors have used that path for generations,” says sixty-something Len Benson, a member of the Beaver Lake Cree Nation, a small clan of indigenous Canadians.
Puttering along in a battery-powered dinghy on a lake on his land, he talks in a hushed voice, with his teenage grandson, Keanu. He tells of expeditions with pack-horses, venturing into the forest and frozen lakes for days, hunting and trapping and of how their ancestors canoed for hundreds of miles, all the way to Hudson Bay, to trade furs.
We see a beaver swimming through dark water that reflects white trunks of birch trees. It arches its tail and slaps it suddenly against the surface before diving below, sending spray, sparkling into the cool summer sky. “It’s warning the others that we’re here,” says Len.
From the forest’s depths there are strange sounds. “That’s an angry squirrel,” smiles Len. “Oh, and you hear that?” he whispers, as a bellow interrupts the cacophony, “that’s a moose…the squirrel is angry with the moose.” Overhead, a Canadian loon bleats as it flaps towards a reddening sky.
This apparently pristine lakeland is, in the eyes of the Cree, fast becoming uninhabitable. “Mother Earth is bleeding to death,” says one man, outside a tepee at a Pow Wow. Here, Cree from clans far and wide have gathered to drum, “like the heartbeat of our Mother” and dance, “in the circle of life” wearing feathers and, sometimes, day-glow neon ‘fancy’ style. Today, Canada’s indigenous people use mobile phones and four-wheel drives but there is great pride in their culture. Living from the land is a big part of that. Many have a moose in the freezer that they shot and butchered themselves.
The wilderness that these people were promised for hunting and fishing is rapidly being destroyed. The hunting grounds cover some 195,000 square kilometres – almost the size of England and Scotland combined. A treaty signed in 1876 allows the Beaver Lake Cree to continue to hunt, trap and fish freely here, “saving and excepting such tracts as may from time to time be required or taken up for settlement, mining, lumbering or other purposes…”
And therein lies the problem. When the treaty was signed, no-one foresaw that this part of Canada would one day be the scene of a rush for the world’s last reserves of oil, trapped in Alberta’s ‘tar sands’. Back then, it all seemed an endless, empty wilderness. Now, all around the Beaver Lake Cree reserve, roads are being carved into the boreal forest and pipelines laid, as parcels of forest are staked out by every major oil company. Mining operations extract bitumen from sand. It is an expensive, energy intensive, emissions-heavy way to get oil. Yet, with dwindling conventional sources far away in troubled countries, Alberta is fully exploiting these resources. The government boasts that the tar sands contain the second largest proven reserves of oil in the world, after the Middle East. The multi-billion dollar industry has created thousands of jobs and energy security for North America. As for carbon emissions, they are being addressed, it says.
300km away from Beaver Lake, around Fort McMurray, the devastation is, however, immense. Here, where the sands are near the surface, open pit mining has led to swathes of forest – a rich carbon-sink – being cut down. Strip mines rumble with the largest dumper trucks in the world and lakes of toxic sludge glisten in the sun. Last year, over a thousand ducks died when they landed on one of these tailing ponds. In the 1950s and 60s, there were serious proposals to nuke the tar sands – melting the tar and creating cavities into which it would drain, all in one big bang. One oil company, Richfield Oil, went as far as buying a nuclear bomb from the US government for $350,000. After Hiroshima, the world was looking for peaceful ways of using its nuclear capabilities, even if it meant exploding bombs underground to boost oil production.
The mining near the Beaver Lake Cree isn’t so obviously devastating. Here, ‘in situ’ mining is taking place, where steam is pumped below ground to melt tar from the sand.
“It still results in toxic waste which they just pump below ground into empty aquifers,” says Benson. “The animals then go to their natural salt licks and they’re getting poisoned.” The above-ground pipelines that criss-cross the forest block the migration of moose and caribou and prevent them from reaching calving grounds says Benson. Sesimic exploration also leads to fragmentation of the forest as lines of trees are cut down.
It is this destruction of the habitat that has led the people of Beaver Lake Cree Nation to believe that the constitutionally enshrined treaty has become worthless. With the help of funding from Britain’s Co-operative Financial Services, this tiny ‘First Nation’ is about to take the governments of Alberta and Canada to court. It promises to be a long and interesting battle: a David and Goliath (or ‘squirrel and moose’?) epic.