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Bearing Witness to Climate Change in Treaty 8 Territory

Bearing Witness to Climate Change in Treaty 8 Territory

By Elaine Coburn, Director of the Centre for Feminist Research

Dr. Angele Alook is Assistant Professor in the School of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies at York University. A member of Bigstone Cree Nation in Treaty 8 territory, her research focuses on the political economy of oil and gas in Alberta. She is a co-investigator on the SSHRC-funded (Partnership Grant) Corporate Mapping Project, where she completed research with the Parkland Institute on Indigenous experiences in Alberta’s oil industry and its gendered impact on working families. Angele is also a member of the Just Powers research team, a SSHRC-funded Insight Grant, enabling her to produce a documentary called Pikopaywin: It is Broken. Featuring stories on the land, Indigenous traditional land users, environmental officers, and elders bear witness to the impact that the fossil fuel industry, forestry and climate change has on traditional Treaty 8 territory. With Dr. Deborah McGregor, Osgoode Hall Law School and Faculty of Environmental and Urban Change (EUC), Angele is co-investigator on the project, “Indigenous Climate Leadership and Self-Determined Futures” funded by York University. 

“The ways that bureaucracy deals with Indigenous peoples is to assign a group of experts to talk to us and the rest simply continue as they always have,” observes Professor Alook. Government, often working hand in hand with corporations, together speak to Indigenous peoples. “But they do not consult us,” continues Professor Alook, “Nor do they respect their treaties with us.” In the words of community Elders, the consequence is that the land that makes up Treaty 8 territory is now broken, devastated by oil and gas wells and the infrastructure that supports them.

In the film produced by Professor Alook, Pikopaywin: It is Broken, she speaks to Elders from her community who bear witness to the devastation that the oil industry has wrought. “We care for the water. We care for the land. Because it is our diet, it is our livelihood,” emphasizes Elder Albert Yellowkneee. Since the oil industry has destroyed much of the land that gives life and livelihood, Yellowknee fears that he is the last generation to experience the land in this way: “What about my children, my grandchildren and my great-grandchildren? Will they have a place to go out into the woods and meditate? Like we do?” For Professor Alook, such conversations were difficult: “Elder Albert brought me and the film crew close to tears. Because he has a trapline, which has been in his family for many generations, and it has been literally cut down, destroyed, by the oil and forestry industry. He is no longer able to offer traditional, land-based teachings in the same way. We are no longer able to practice our treaty rights.”

To create a future for the children of Bigstone Cree Nation in Treaty 8 territory means challenging the government, for its failure to respect treaty rights. This demands confrontation with corporations, who fail to consult with the Bigstone Cree Nation in Treaty 8 territory, much less respect Indigenous self-determination. If this is a very unequal struggle, it is a vitally necessary one. As Elder Verna Orr observes, “If we have no trees, there is no life out there.” And she continues, “My hope is for people to stand together, pray together and be strong. And hopefully, the government and the oil companies will stop taking our trees.” 

Pikopaywin: It is Broken is available through the Just Powers website.