For roughly five hundred years, indigenous peoples have been struggling against the dominant institutions of society, against imperialism, colonialism, exploitation, impoverishment, segregation, racism, and genocide. The struggle continues today under the present world social order and against the dominant institutions of ‘neoliberalism’ and globalization: the state, corporations, financial institutions and international organizations. Indigenous communities continue to struggle to preserve their cultural identities, languages, histories, and the continuing theft and exploitation of their land. Indigenous resistance against environmental degradation and resource extraction represents the most direct source of resistance against a global environmental crisis which threatens to lead the species to extinction. It is here that many in the scientific community have also taken up the cause of resistance against the destruction of the global environment. While Indigenous and scientific activism share similar objectives in relation to environmental issues, there is a serious lack of convergence between the two groups in terms of sharing knowledge, organization, and activism.
Indigenous groups are often on the front lines of the global environmental crisis – at the point of interaction (or extraction) – they resist against the immediate process of resource extraction and the environmental devastation it causes to their communities and society as a whole. The continued repression, exploitation and discrimination against Indigenous peoples have made the struggle – and the potential consequences of failure – significantly more problematic. This struggle has been ongoing for centuries, and as the species heads toward extinction – as it is along our current trajectory – Indigenous peoples will be on the front lines of that process. Many in the scientific community have been struggling for decades to address major environmental issues. Here, the focus is largely on the issue of climate change, and the approach has largely been to work through institutions in order to create enough pressure to reform. Yet, after decades of organizing through academic and environmental organizations, lobbying governments, corporations and international organizations, progress has been slow and often ineffectual, with major international conferences being hyped up but with little concrete results. Indigenous peoples continue to struggle against the dominant institutions while many in the scientific community continue to struggle within the dominant institutions, though their objectives remain similar.
A major problem and disparity becomes clear: Indigenous peoples – among the most repressed and exploited in the world – are left to struggle directly against the most powerful institutions in the world (states and transnational corporations), while many in the sciences – an area of knowledge which has and continues to hold enormous potential to advance the species – attempt to convince those powerful institutions to profit less at exactly the point in history when they have never profited more. Indigenous communities remain largely impoverished, and the scientific community remains largely dependent for funding upon the very institutions which are destroying the environment: states, corporations and international organizations. Major barriers to scientific inquiry and research can thus be established if the institutions feel threatened, if they choose to steer the sciences into areas exclusively designed to produce ‘profitable’ forms of knowledge and technology. As humanity enters a critical stage – perhaps the most critical we have ever faced as a species – it is important to begin to acknowledge, question, and change the institutional contradictions and constraints of our society.
It seems only logical that a convergence between Indigenous and scientific activism, organization, and the sharing of knowledge should be encouraged and facilitated. Indeed, the future of the species may depend upon it. This paper aims to encourage such a convergence by applying an anarchistic analysis of the social order as it relates to environmental degradation, specifically at the point of interaction with the environment (the source of extraction). In classifying this as an anarchistic analysis, I simply mean that it employs a highly critical perspective of hierarchically organized institutions. This paper does not intend to discuss in any detail the issue of climate change, since that issue is largely a symptom of the problem, which at its source is how the human social order interacts directly with the environment: extraction, pollution, degradation, exploitation and destruction at the point of interaction.
This analysis will seek to critically assess the actions and functions of states, corporations, international organizations, financial institutions, trade agreements and markets in how they affect the environment, primarily at the point of interaction. It is also at this point where Indigenous peoples are taking up the struggle against environmental degradation and human extinction. Through an anarchistic analysis of Indigenous repression and resistance at the point of interaction between the modern social order and the environment (focusing primarily on examples from Canada), this paper hopes to provide encouragement to those in the scientific community seeking to address environmental issues to increase their efforts in working with and for the direct benefit of Indigenous peoples. There exists a historical injustice which can and must be rectified: the most oppressed and exploited peoples over the past five hundred years of a Western-dominated world are on the front lines of struggling for the survival of the species as a whole. Modern science – which has done so much to advance Western ‘civilization’ – can and should make Indigenous issues a priority, not only for their sake, but for the species as a whole. Indeed, it is a matter of survival for the sciences themselves, for they will perish with the species. An anarchistic analysis of the social order hopes to encourage a convergence between Indigenous and scientific knowledge and activism as it relates to resolving the global environmental crisis we now face.
Global Corporate Power
Corporations are among the most powerful institutions in the world. Of the top 150 economies in 2010, 58% were corporations, with companies like Wal-Mart, Royal Dutch Shell, ExxonMobil, and BP topping the charts. According to Fortune’s Global 500 list published in 2012, the top ten corporations in the world were: Royal Dutch Shell, ExxonMobil, Wal-Mart, BP, Sinopec Group, China National Petroleum, State Grid, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, and Toyota Motor. The Global 500 corporations posted record revenues for 2011 at USD 29.5 trillion, up 13.2% from the previous year. Eight of the top ten conglomerates were in the energy sector, with the oil industry alone generating USD 5 trillion in sales, approximately 17% of the total sales of the Global 500. The second largest sector represented in the Global 500 was commercial banks, followed by the auto industry.
A scientific study conducted by the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich analyzed the ‘network of control’ wielded through 43,000 transnational corporations (TNCs), identifying “a relatively small group of companies, mainly banks, with disproportionate power over the global economy.” The researchers identified a ‘core’ of 1,318 companies which owned roughly 80% of the global revenues for the entire network of 43,000 TNCs. Above the core, the researchers identified a ‘super-entity’ of 147 tightly-knit corporations – primarily banks and financial institutions – collectively owning each other’s shares and 40% of the wealth in the total network. One researcher commented, “In effect, less than 1 per cent of the companies were able to control 40 percent of the entire network.”
Writing in the Financial Times, a former US Treasury Department official, Robert Altman, referred to financial markets as “a global supra-government,” explaining:
They oust entrenched regimes where normal political processes could not do so. They force austerity, banking bail-outs and other major policy changes. Their influence dwarfs multilateral institutions such as the International Monetary Fund. Indeed, leaving aside unusable nuclear weapons, they have become the most powerful force on earth.
The “global supra-government” of financial markets push countries around the world into imposing austerity measures and structural reforms, which have the result of benefiting the “super-entity” of global corporate power. The power and wealth of these institutions have rapidly accelerated in the past three decades of neoliberal ‘reforms’ promoting austerity, liberalization, deregulation, privatization and financialization. Neoliberal ideology was politically championed by Ronald Reagan in the United States and Margaret Thatcher in Great Britain, but was largely imposed upon the so-called ‘Third World’ (Latin America, Asia, and Africa) through major international organizations like the World Bank and the IMF. The results of this massive transfer of wealth and power to an increasingly connected and small fraction of the world’s population have been devastating for humanity and the world as a whole. This process guided by neoliberal dogma has been most often referred to as ‘globalization.’
As the 1980s debt crisis gripped the ‘Third World,’ the IMF and World Bank came to the ‘rescue’ with newly designed loan agreements called ‘Structural Adjustment Programs’ (SAPs). In return for a loan from these institutions, countries would have to adhere to a set of rigid conditions and reforms, including austerity measures (cutting public spending), the liberalization of trade, privatization, deregulation, and currency devaluation. The United States controls the majority shares of both the World Bank and IMF, while the US Treasury Department and Federal Reserve work very closely with the IMF and its staff. If countries did not adhere to IMF and World Bank ‘conditions,’ they would be cut off from international markets, since this process was facilitated by “unprecedented co-operation between banks from various countries under the aegis of the IMF.” The conditions essentially opened up the borrowing countries to economic imperialism by the IMF, World Bank, and transnational corporations and financial institutions, which were able to gain access and control over the resources and labour markets of poor countries. Thus, the 1980s has been known as the “lost decade of development,” as many ‘Third World’ countries became poorer between 1980 and 1990. Joseph Stiglitz, a former chief economist at the World Bank, wrote that, “such conditions were seen as the intrusion by the new colonial power on the country’s own sovereignty.”
The structural adjustment programs imposed upon the Third World devastated the poor and middle classes of the borrowing countries, often resulting in mass protests against austerity. In fact, between 1976 and 1992, there were 146 protests against IMF- sponsored austerity measures in 39 different countries, including demonstrations, strikes and riots. The governments, in response, would often violently repress protests. The government elites were often more integrated with and allied to the powerful institutions of the global economy, and would often act as domestic enforcers for the demands of international banks and corporations. For many countries imposing structural adjustment programs around the world, authoritarian governments were common. The IMF and World Bank structural adjustment programs also led to the massive growth of slums around the world, to the point where there are now over a billion people living in urban slums (approximately one out of every seven people on earth).
Further, the nations of the Third World became increasingly indebted to the powerful financial institutions and states of the industrial world with the more loans they took. The wealthy elites within the Third World plunder the domestic wealth of their countries in cooperation with global elites, and send their money into Western banking institutions (as ‘capital flight’) as their domestic populations suffer in poverty. The IMF and World Bank programs helped facilitate capital flight through the deregulation and ‘liberalization’ of markets, as well as through the opening up of the economies to unhindered exploitation. Some researchers recently compared the amount of money in the form of aid and loans going into Africa compared to that coming leaving Africa in the form of capital flight, and found that “sub-Saharan Africa is a net creditor to the rest of the world by a substantial margin.” The external debt owed by 33 sub-Saharan African countries to the rest of the world in 2008 stood at USD 177 billion. Between 1970 and 2008, capital flight from those same 33 African countries amounted to USD 944 billion. Thus, “the rest of the world owes more to these African countries than they owe to the rest of the world.”
The neoliberal ideology of ‘profit before people’ – enforced by the dominant states, corporations, banks and international organizations – has led to a world of extreme inequality, previously established by centuries of empire and colonialism, and rapidly accelerated in the past three decades. As of 2004, one in every three human deaths was due to poverty-related causes. In the twenty years following the end of the Cold War, there were approximately 360 million preventable deaths caused by poverty-related issues. Billions of people go hungry, lack access to safe drinking water, adequate shelter, medicine, and electricity. Nearly half of humanity – approximately 3.1 billion people as of 2010 – live below the USD 2.50/day poverty line. It would take roughly USD 500 billion – approximately 1.13% of world income (or two-thirds of the US military budget) – to lift these 3.1 billion people out of extreme poverty. The top 1% own 40% of the world’s wealth, while the bottom 60% hold less than 2% of the world’s wealth. As Thomas Pogge wrote, “we are now at the point where the world is easily rich enough in aggregate to abolish all poverty,” but we are “choosing to prioritize other ends instead.” Roughly 18 million people die from poverty-related causes every year, half of whom are children under the age of five. Pogge places significant blame for these circumstances upon the “global institutional arrangements that foreseeably and avoidably increase the socioeconomic inequalities that cause poverty to persist [...] [policies which] are designed by the more powerful governments for the benefit of their most powerful industries, corporations, and citizens.”
In 2013, Oxfam reported that the fortunes made by the richest 100 people in the world over the course of 2012 (USD 240 billion) would have been enough to lift the world’s poorest people out of poverty four times over. An Oxfam executive, Barbara Stocking, noted that this type of extreme wealth – which saw the world’s richest 1% increase their income by 60% in the previous twenty years – is “economically inefficient, politically corrosive, socially divisive and environmentally destructive [...] We can no longer pretend that the creation of wealth for few will inevitably benefit the many – too often the reverse is true.” A study by the Tax Justice Network in 2012 found that the world’s superrich had hidden between USD 21 and 32 trillion in offshore tax havens, meaning that inequality was “much, much worse than official statistic show,” and that “for three decades extraordinary wealth has been cascading into the offshore accounts of a tiny number of superrich,” with the top 92,000 of the world’s superrich holding at least USD 10 trillion in offshore accounts.
The Environmental Impact of Inequality
The human social order – dominated by states, corporations, banks and international organizations – has facilitated and maintained enormous inequality and poverty around the world, allowing so few to control so much, while the many are left with little. This global social and economic crisis is exacerbated by the global environmental crisis, in which the same institutions that dominate the global social order are simultaneously devastating the global environment to the point where the future of the species hangs in the balance.
Just as the dominant institutions put ‘profit before people,’ so too do they put profit before the environment, predicating human social interaction with the environment on the ideology of ‘markets’: that what is good for corporations will ultimately be good for the environment. Thus, the pursuit of ‘economic growth’ can continue unhindered – and in fact, should be accelerated – even though it results in massive environmental degradation through the processes of resource extraction, transportation, production and consumption.
Trading arrangements between the powerful rich nations and the ‘periphery’ poor nations allow for the dominant institutions to exploit their economic and political influence over weaker states, taking much more than they give. These trading relationships effectively allow the rich countries to offshore (or export) their environmental degradation to poor countries, treating them as exploitable resource extraction sources. As the resources of poor nations are extracted and exported to the rich nations, the countries are kept in poverty (with the exception of their elites who collude with the powerful countries and corporations), and the environmental costs associated with the high consumption societies of the industrial world are ultimately off-shored to the poor countries, at the point of interaction. Thus, international trade separates the societies of consumption from the effects of extraction and production, while the poor nations are dependent upon exports and exploiting their cheap labour forces. This process has been termed ecological unequal exchange.
Between the mid-1970s and mid-1990s, the majority of the world’s non-renewable resources were transferred from poor to rich nations, accelerating in volume over time (due to technological advancements), while decreasing in costs (to the powerful nations). Thus, between 1980 and 2002, the costs of resource extraction declined by 25% while the volume of resource extraction increased by more than 30%. Environmentally destructive processes of resource extraction in mining and energy sectors have rapidly accelerated over the past few decades, resulting in increased contamination of soils, watersheds and the atmosphere. Negative health effects for local populations accelerate, primarily affecting Indigenous, poor and/or migrant populations, who are subjected to excessive pollutants and industrial waste at nearly every part of the process of extraction, production and transportation of resources and goods.
In an examination of 65 countries between 1960 and 2003, researchers found that the rich countries “externalized” the environmentally destructive consequences of resource over-use to poor, periphery nations and populations, thus “assimilating” the environments of the less-developed nations into the economies of the powerful states, disempowering local populations from having a say in how their resources and environments are treated. Rich societies consume more than can be sustained from their own internal resource wealth, and thus, they must “appropriate” resource wealth from abroad by ‘withdrawing’ the resources in environmentally destructive (and thus, more economically ‘efficient’) ways. Apart from ecologically destructive ‘withdrawals,’ the rich nations also facilitate ecologically destructive ‘additions,’ in the form of pollution and waste which cause environmental and health hazards for the poor societies. This is facilitated through various trading arrangements (such as the development of Export Processing Zones), consisting of minimal to no environmental regulations, cheap labour and minimal restrictions on corporate activities.
While Japan and Western Europe were able to reduce the amount of pollutants and ‘environmental additions’ they made within their own societies between 1976 and 1994, they accelerated their ‘additions’ in waste and pollutants to the poor countries with which they traded, “suggesting a progressive off-shoring over the period onto those peripheral countries” not only of labour exploitation, but of environmental degradation. Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) by transnational corporations has been linked to extensive environmental hazards within the countries in which they are ‘investing,’ including growth in water pollution, infant mortality, pesticide use, and the use of chemicals which are often banned in the rich nations due to high toxicity levels and dangers to health and the environment, and greater levels of carbon dioxide emissions. Indeed, between 1980 and 2000, the total anthropogenic CO2 emissions from the rich countries increased by 21%, while over the same period of time in the poor countries it more than doubled. While forested areas in the rich nations increased by less than 1% between 1990 and 2005, they declined by 6% over the same period of time in poor countries, contributing to soil erosion, desertification, climate change and the destruction of local and regional ecosystems.
According to an analysis of 268 case studies of tropical forest change between 1970 and 2000, researchers found that deforestation had shifted from being directed by states to being directed and implemented by corporations and ‘economic’ interests across much of Latin America, Africa, and Asia. This was largely facilitated by the IMF and World Bank agreements which forced countries to reduce their public spending, and allowed for private economic interests to obtain unprecedented access to resources and markets. The rate of deforestation continued, it simply shifted from being state-led to “enterprise driven.”
Using a sample of some sixty nations, researchers found that IMF and World Bank Structural Adjustment Programs (SAPs) were associated with higher levels of deforestation than in countries which did not sign the SAP agreements, as they allowed rich nations and corporations to “externalize their forest loss” to poor nations. Further, “economic growth” as defined by the World Bank and IMF was related to increased levels of deforestation, leading the researchers to acknowledge that, “economic growth adversely impacts the natural environment.” World Bank development loans to countries (as separate from structural adjustment loans) have also been linked to increased rates of deforestation in poor nations, notably higher rates than those which exist in countries not receiving World Bank loans.
Military institutions and armed warfare also have significant environmental impacts, not simply by engaging in wars, but simply by the energy and resources required for the maintenance of large military structures. As one US military official stated in the early 1990s, “We are in the business of protecting the nation, not the environment.” While the United States is the largest consumer of energy among nations in the world, the Pentagon is “the world’s largest [institutional] consumer of energy.” The combination of US tanks, planes and ships consume roughly 340,000 barrels of oil per day (as of 2007). Most of the oil is consumed by the Air Force, as jet fuel accounted for roughly 71% of the entire military’s oil consumption.
Nations with large militaries also use their violent capabilities “to gain disproportionate access to natural resources.” Thus, while the US military may be the largest single purchaser and consumer of energy in the world, one of its primary functions is to secure access to and control over energy resources. In an interview with two McKinsey & Company consultants, the Pentagon’s first-ever assistant secretary of defense for operational energy and programs, Sharon E. Burke, stated bluntly that, “My role is to promote the energy security of our military operations,” including by increasing the “security of supply.”
In a study of natural resource extraction and armed violence, researchers found that, “armed violence is associated with the extraction of many critical and noncritical natural resources, suggesting quite strongly that the natural resource base upon which industrial societies stand is constructed in large part through the use and threatened use of armed violence.” Further, when such armed violence is used in relation to gaining access to and control over natural resources, “it is often employed in response to popular protest or rebellion against these activities.” Most of this violence is carried out by the governments of poor nations, or by mercenaries or rebels, which allows for distancing between the rich nations and corporations which profit from the plundering of resources from the violent means of gaining access to them. After all, the researcher noted, “other key drivers of natural resource exploitation, such as the IMF, World Bank, WTO, and global marketplace, cannot, on their own, guarantee core nation access to and control over vital natural resources.” Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, the United States – and other powerful nations – and the major arms companies within them are the largest arms dealers in the world.
It is clear that for scientists – and anyone else – interested in addressing major environmental issues, the source of the problem lies in the very structure and function of our dominant modern institutions, at the point of interaction. In short: through states, armed violence, banks and corporations, international organizations, trade agreements and global ‘markets,’ the environment has become a primary target of exploitation and destruction. Resources fuel the wealth and power of the very institutions that dominate the world, and to maintain that power, they engage in incredibly destructive activities with negative consequences for the environment and the human species as a whole. The global environmental crisis is intimately related to the global social and economic crises of wealth inequality and poverty, labour exploitation, and ‘economic growth.’ To address the environmental crisis in a meaningful way, this reality must first be acknowledged. This is how an anarchistic understanding of the environmental crisis facing the world and humanity can contribute to advancing how we deal with these profound issues. For the sciences, the implications are grave: their sources of funding and direction for research are dependent upon the very institutions which are destroying the environment and leading humanity to inevitable extinction (if we do not change course). Advancing an anarchistic approach to understanding issues related to Indigenous repression and resistance to environmental degradation can help provide a framework through which those in the scientific community – and elsewhere – can find new avenues for achieving similar goals: the preservation of the environment and the species.
Indigenous Repression and Resistance
Indigenous peoples in the Americas have been struggling against colonialism, exploitation, segregation, repression and even genocide for over 500 years. While the age of formal colonial empires has passed, the struggle has not. Today, Indigenous peoples struggle against far more powerful states than ever before existed, transnational corporations and financial institutions, international organizations, so-called “free trade” agreements and the global ‘marketplace.’ In an increasingly interconnected and globalized world, the struggle for Indigenous peoples to maintain their identity and indeed, even their existence itself, has been increasingly globalizing, but has also been driven by localized actions and movements.
Focusing upon Indigenous peoples in Canada, I hope to briefly analyze how Indigenous groups are repressed, segregated and exploited by the dominant institutions of an incredibly wealthy, developed, resource-rich and ‘democratic’ nation with a comparably ‘good’ international reputation. Further, by examining Indigenous resistance within Canada to the destruction of the natural environment, I hope to encourage scientists and other activists and segments of society who are interested in environmental protection to reach out to Indigenous communities, to share knowledge, organizing, activism, and objectives.
A Legacy of Colonialism
Historically, the Canadian government pursued a policy of ‘assimilation’ of Indigenous peoples for over a century through ‘Indian residential schools,’ in what ultimately amounted to an effective policy of “cultural genocide.” In 1920, Canada’s Deputy Minister of Indian Affairs Duncan Campbell Scott bluntly explained: “I want to get rid of the Indian problem [...] Our object is to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed into the body politics and there is no Indian question, and no Indian Department.”
The segregation, repression and exploitation of Indigenous communities within Canada is not a mere historical reality, it continues to present day. Part of the institutional repression of Indigenous peoples is the prevalence of what could be described as ‘Third World’ conditions within a ‘First World’ nation. Indigenous communities within Canada lack access to safe drinking water at a much higher rate than the general population. Indigenous people and communities in Canada also face much higher levels of food insecurity, poverty, unemployment, poor housing and infant mortality than the rest of the population. Accounting for roughly 4% of the population of Canada (approximately 1.2 million people as of 2006), Indigenous peoples also face higher rates of substance abuse, addiction, and suicide.
Indigenous people – and especially women – make up a disproportionate percentage of the prison population. Further, as Amnesty International noted, “Indigenous women [in Canada] are five to seven times more likely than other women to die as a result of violence.” The Native Women’s Association of Canada has documented roughly 600 cases of missing or murdered indigenous women in Canada, more than half of which have occurred since 2000, while Human Rights Watch reported that the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) in northern British Columbia had “failed to properly investigate the disappearance and apparent murders of [indigenous] women and girls in their jurisdiction.”
Resource Extraction, Environmental Degradation, and Indigenous Peoples
Industries seeking to develop land and extract resources are increasingly turning to Indigenous territories to develop and seek profits on the land and environment upon which such communities are so often dependent for survival. At the point of interaction with the environment, Indigenous peoples are left to struggle with the damaging environmental and health consequences caused by state and corporate interests extracting resources and wealth from the land and environment.
The Alberta tar sands (or oil sands) is a primary example of this process. Many environmental, indigenous and human rights organizations consider the tar sands development as perhaps “the most destructive industrial project on earth.” The United Nations Environmental Programme identified the project as “one of the world’s top 100 hotspots of environmental degradation.” The dense oil in the tar sands (diluted bitumen) has to be extracted through strip mining, and requires enormous amounts of resources and energy simply to extract the reserves. It has been documented that for every one barrel of oil processed, three barrels of water are used, resulting in the creation of small lakes (called ‘tailing ponds’), where “over 480 million gallons of contaminated toxic waste water are dumped daily.” These lakes collectively “cover more than 50 square kilometres (12,000 acres) and are so extensive that they can be seen from space.” The processing of the oil sands creates 37% more greenhouse gas emissions than the extraction and processing of conventional oil.
While the United States consumes more oil than anywhere else on earth, Canada is the main supplier of foreign oil to the United States, exporting roughly 1.5 million barrels per day to the US (in 2005), approximately 7% of the daily consumption of oil in the US. The crude bitumen contained in the tar sands has been estimated at 1.7 trillion barrels, lying underneath an area within Alberta which is larger than the entire state of Florida and contains over 140,000 square km of boreal forest. In 2003, the United States Department of Energy officially acknowledged the reserves of crude bitumen in the Alberta tar sands, and elevated Canada’s standing in world oil markets from the 21st most oil-rich nation on earth to the 2nd, with only Saudi Arabia surpassing.
Alberta’s tar sands have attracted the largest oil companies on earth, including Royal Dutch Shell, ExxonMobil, BP, and Total S.A. Local indigenous communities thus not only have to struggle against the devastating environmental, health and social consequences caused by the tar sands development, but they also have to struggle against the federal and provincial governments, and the largest corporations on earth. The Athabasca River (located near the tar sands development) has been depleted and polluted to significant degrees, transforming the region “from a pristine environment rich in cultural and biological diversity to a landscape resembling a war zone marked with 200-foot-deep pits and thousands of acres of destroyed boreal forests.” Indigenous peoples have been raising concerns over this project for years.
Disproportionate levels of cancers and other deadly diseases have been discovered among a local Indigenous band, the Fort Chipewyan in Athabasca. These high levels of cancers and diseases are largely the result of the enormous amounts of land, air, and water pollution caused by the tar sands mining. One Indigenous leader in Fort Chipewyan has referred to the tar sands development as a “slow industrial genocide.” As pipelines are planned to be expanded across Canada and the United States to carry tar sands oil, this will have devastating impacts for “indigenous communities not only in Canada, but across the continent.”
Between 2002 and 2010, the pipeline network through Alberta experienced a rate of oil spills roughly sixteen times higher than in the United States, likely the result of transporting diluted bitumen (DilBit), which has not been commonly transported through the pipelines until recent years. In spite of the greater risks associated with transporting DilBit, the US agency responsible for overseeing the country’s pipelines decided – in October of 2009 – to relax safety regulations regarding the strength of pipelines. In July of 2010, a ruptured Enbridge pipeline in Michigan spilled 800,000 gallons of DilBit, devastating the local communities in what the government referred to as the “worst oil spill in Midwestern history.” In July of 2011, an Exxon pipeline spilled 42,000 gallons of DilBit into the Yellowstone River in Montana.
Idle No More: The Rise of Indigenous Resistance
In 2009, the Canadian Ministry of Indian Affairs and Northern Development announced the Federal Framework for Aboriginal Economic Development which sought to “improve the participation” of Indigenous people “in the Canadian economy,” primarily by seeking “to unlock the full economic potential of Aboriginal Canadians, their communities, and their businesses.” An updated report on the Framework in 2012 reaffirmed the intent “to modernize the lands and resource management regimes on reserve land in order to increase and unlock the value of Aboriginal assets.” As John Ibbitson wrote in the Globe and Mail, “businesses that want to unlock the potential of reserves, from real estate development to forestry and mining, need the legal certainty that a property regime makes possible.”
In late 2012, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservative Party introduced an omnibus Budget Bill (C-45) which amended several aspects of the Indian Act (without proper consultations with Indigenous groups). Bill C-45 also moved forward to “unlock” barriers to resource extraction, environmental degradation, and corporate profits with an amendment to the Navigable Waters Act, which dramatically reduced the number of protected lakes and rivers in Canada from 40,000 to 97 lakes, and from 2.5 million to 63 rivers.
Following the introduction of Bill C-45 to the Canadian Parliament, a group of four Indigenous women in the province of Saskatchewan held a “teach-in” to help increase awareness about the Bill, quickly followed by a series of rallies, protests and flash mobs where Indigenous activists and supporters engaged in ‘round dances’ in shopping malls, organized through social media networks like Twitter and Facebook. This sparked what became known as the ‘Idle No More’ movement, and on December 10, 2012, a National Day of Action took place, holding multiple rallies across the country. The immediate objectives of the Idle No More movement were to have the government “repeal all legislation that violates treaties [with Indigenous peoples], including those that affect environmental regulations,” such as Bill C-45 and the previous omnibus Bill C-38. The longer-term objectives of the movement were to “educate and revitalize aboriginal peoples, empower them and regain sovereignty and independence.”
Pamela Palmater, a spokesperson for Idle No More and a Ryerson University professor noted that Indigenous people in Canada were opposing Bill C-45 “not just because it impacts their rights, but also because we know that it impacts the future generations of both treaty partners,” referring to both Indigenous and non-Indigenous Canadians. “The question,” she added, “really should be whether Canadians will rise to protect their children’s futures alongside First Nations.”
Theresa Spence, an Indigenous chief from a northern Ontario community (Attawapiskat) went on a hunger strike for 44 days to support Idle No More and raise awareness about a serious housing crisis in her community. Spence only ended her hunger strike upon being hospitalized and placed on an IV drip. Her community of Attawapiskat had been experiencing a major housing crisis for a number of years, and in 2011, a state of emergency was declared in response to the fact that for over two years, many of the community’s 1,800 residents were “living in makeshift tents and shacks without heat, electricity or indoor plumbing.” James Anaya, a United Nations human rights expert expressed his “deep concern about the dire social and economic condition” of the Attawapiskat community to the Canadian government, which reflected a situation “akin to third world conditions.” The Conservative government of Stephen Harper (which came to power in 2006) blamed the crisis on the internal handling of funds within Attawapiskat, claiming that the government provided CAD 90 million in funding for the community since 2006. However, analysis of the funds revealed that only CAD 5.8 million in funding had gone toward housing over the course of five years. Meanwhile, estimates put the necessary funds to resolve the housing crisis alone at CAD 84 million. The former Minister for Aboriginal Affairs acknowledged that the government had known about the housing crisis for years, saying that it “has been a slow-moving train wreck for a long time.”
In 2005, the community of Attawapiskat had signed a contract with the international mining conglomerate De Beers to develop a diamond mine 90 km near their community. The mine officially opened in 2008, projecting a 12-year contribution to the Ontario economy of CAD 6.7 billion. In 2005, De Beers dumped its sewage sludge into the Attawapiskat community’s lift station, causing a sewage backup which flooded many homes and exacerbated an already-developing housing crisis, followed by another sewage backup potentially caused by De Beers in 2008. Afterward, the company donated trailers to the community to serve as “short-term emergency shelters,” yet they remained in place even four years later.
As the Idle No More movement took off in late 2012 and early 2013, members of the Attawapiskat community undertook road blockades leading to the De Beers mine. The company sought a legal injunction against the protesters, and the blockade was ended just as a large number of police were headed to the community to “remove the barricades.” After successfully blocking the mine from properly functioning for nearly twenty days, the company announced that it was considering taking legal action against the protesters.
The Idle No More mission statement called “on all people to join in a revolution which honors and fulfills Indigenous sovereignty which protects the land and water [...] Colonization continues through attacks to Indigenous rights and damage to the land and water. We must repair these violations, live the spirit and intent of the treaty relationship, work towards justice in action, and protect Mother Earth.” The movement’s manifesto further declared that, “the state of Canada has become one of the wealthiest countries in the world by using the land and resources. Canadian mining, logging, oil and fishing companies are the most powerful in the world due to land and resources. Some of the poorest First Nations communities (such as Attawapiskat) have mines or other developments on their land but do not get a share of the profit.” As Pamela Palmater noted, Idle No More was unique, “because it is purposefully distances from political and corporate influence. There is no elected leader, no paid Executive Director, and no bureaucracy or hierarchy which determines what any person or First Nation can and can’t do [...] This movement is inclusive of all our peoples.”
The Athabasca Chipewyan Indigenous band which had been struggling for years against the tar sands development were further mobilized with the eruption of Idle No More onto the national scene, including by establishing a blockade on Highway 63 leading to the tar sands development. As Chipewyan chief Allan Adam noted, “The way I look at it, the First Nations people are going to cripple this country if things don’t turn out [...] Industry is going to be the target.” He also added: “We know for a fact that industry was the one that lobbied government to make this regulatory reform.” Indeed, this was no hyperbole.
The State in Service to Corporations
Greenpeace obtained – through access to information laws – a letter sent to the Canadian government’s Environment minister and Natural Resources minister dated December of 2011, written by a group called the Energy Framework Initiative (EFI), representing the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, the Canadian Energy Pipeline Association, the Canadian Fuels Association, and the Canadian Gas Association. The letter sought “to address regulatory reform for major energy industries in Canada” in order to advance “both economic growth and environmental performance.” It specifically referenced six laws that it wanted amended, including the National Energy Board Act, the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act, the Fisheries Act, the Species at Risk Act, Migratory Birds Convention Act, and the Navigable Waters Protection Act. Referring to many of these laws as “outdated,” the letter criticized environmental legislation as “almost entirely focused on preventing bad things from happening rather than enabling responsible outcomes.”
Less than a month after receiving the letter, the Canadian Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver lashed out at activists opposing the construction of Enbridge’s Northern Gateway pipeline shipping oil from Alberta’s tar sands to the B.C. coast for shipment to Asia, stating, “Unfortunately, there are environmental and other radical groups that would seek to block this opportunity to diversify our trade… Their goal is to stop any major project no matter what the cost to Canadian families in lost jobs and economic growth. No forestry. No mining. No oil. No gas. No more hydro-electric dams.” Oliver went on, saying that such “radical groups” were threatening “to hijack our regulatory system to achieve their radical ideological agenda,” and accused them of using funding from “foreign special interest groups.”
Documents from the energy industry revealed that big corporations advised the Harper government not to amend the many environmentally related acts separately, but to employ “a more strategic omnibus legislative approach,” which resulted in the two omnibus bills over 2012, Bills C-38 and C-45, which included “hundreds of pages of changes to environmental protection laws [...] weakening rules that protect water and species at risk, introducing new tools to authorize water pollution, as well as restricting public participation in environmental hearings and eliminating thousands of reviews to examine and mitigate environmental impacts of industrial projects.” The energy industry got virtually everything it asked for in the two omnibus bills, including – as their letter to the Harper government suggested – reforming “issues associated with Aboriginal consultation.”
Documents from Environment Canada showed how the minister informed a group of energy industry representatives that the development of pipelines were “top-of-mind” as the government pursued “the modernization of our regulatory system.” When the new legislation passed, the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency announced that it has cancelled roughly 3,000 environmental assessments, including 250 reviews related to pipeline projects. Other documents showed that at the same time the minister was informing energy corporations that he was serving their interests, he was to inform Indigenous leaders that any “changes to the government’s environmental assessment or project approvals regime” were “speculative at this point” and that they would “respect our duties toward Aboriginal peoples.”
As the Harper government became the primary lobbyist for the Alberta tar sands, documents showed how the government compiled a list of “allies” and “adversaries” in its public relations campaign, referring to energy companies, Environment Canada and the National Energy Board as “allies,” and the media, environmental and Indigenous groups as “adversaries.” The Canadian government even ran an “outreach program” where diplomats would attempt to secure support among American journalists for the Keystone XL pipeline project – taking oil from the Alberta tar sands to the Gulf Coast in the United States.
As the Canadian government revised its anti-terrorism strategy in early 2012, it listed “eco-extremists” alongside white supremacists as a threat to national security. A review of Canadian security documents from the national police force (RCMP) and the Canadian intelligence agency (CSIS) revealed that the government saw environmental activism such as blockades of roads or buildings as “forms of attack” and “national security threats.” Greenpeace was identified as “potentially violent,” as it had become “the new normal now for Canada’s security agencies to watch the activities of environmental organizations,” noted one analyst.
Idle No More and Oil Pipelines
The government of Canada acknowledged in early 2013 that it expected – over the following decade – that there would be “a huge boom in Canadian natural resource projects,” potentially worth CAD 600 billion, which is foreseen to be taking place “on or near” Indigenous lands. One Indigenous chief in Manitoba warned that the Idle No More movement “can stop Prime Minister Harper’s resource development plan and his billion-dollar plan to develop resources on our ancestral territory. We have the warriors that are standing up now, that are willing to go that far.”
In an official meeting between the Harper government and the Assembly of First Nations in January of 2013, Indigenous ‘leaders’ presented a list of demands which included ensuring there was a school in every indigenous community, a public inquiry into the missing and murdered Indigenous women, as well as several other very ‘moderate’ reforms. For the government, the objectives were much more specific, as internal documents revealed, written in preparation for Harper’s meeting with Indigenous leaders. As one briefing memo stated, the government was working towards “removing obstacles to major economic development opportunities.”
For the Idle No More movement, which does not consider itself to be ‘represented’ by the Assembly of First Nations leaders, the objective is largely “to put more obstacles up,” as Martin Lukacs wrote in the Guardian. Indigenous peoples, he noted, “are the best and last defense against this fossil fuel scramble,” specifically in mobilizing opposition to “the three-fold expansion of one of the world’s most carbon-intensive projects, the Alberta tar sands.”
In March of 2013, an alliance of Indigenous leaders from across Canada and the United States announced that they were “preparing to fight proposed new pipelines in the courts and through unspecified direct action,” specifically referring to the Northern Gateway, Keystone XL and Kinder Morgan pipeline projects. One Indigenous leader at the formation of the alliance warned, “We’re going to stop these pipelines one way or another.” Another Indigenous leader commented: “We, as a nation, have to wake up [...] We have to wake up to the crazy decision that this government’s making to change the world in a negative way.”
The territories of the ten allied Indigenous groups “are either in the crude-rich tar sands or on the proposed pipeline routes.” One Indigenous leader from northern British Columbia referred to the Canadian government, stating, “They’ve been stealing from us for the last 200 years [...] now they’re going to destroy our land? We’re not going to let that happen [...] If we have to go to court, if we have to stand in front of any of their machines that are going to take the oil through, we are going to do that. We’re up against a wall here. We have nowhere else to go.”
Roughly one week after the Indigenous alliance was formed, an ExxonMobil pipeline carrying Alberta tar sands oil through the United States ruptured in the town of Mayflower, Arkansas, spilling thousands of barrels of oil into residential neighbourhoods and the surrounding environment. Exxon quickly moved in with roughly 600 workers to manage the cleanup and sign checks “to try to win over the townsfolk and seek to limit the fallout.” The United States Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) put in place a “no fly zone” over Mayflower, Arkansas, within days following the oil spill. The ‘no fly zone’ was being overseen by ExxonMobil itself, thus, as Steven Horn commented, “any media or independent observers who want to witness the tar sands spill disaster have to ask Exxon’s permission.”
Between March 11 and April 9 of 2013 (in a span of roughly thirty days), there were 13 reported oil spills on three separate continents, with more than a million gallons of oil and other toxic chemicals spilled in North and South America alone. The oil spills included an Enbridge pipeline leak in the Northwest Territories in Canada (March 19), a tar sands ‘tailing pond’ belonging to Suncor leaking into the Athabasca River in Alberta (March 25), a Canadian Pacific Railway train derailment spilling tar sands oil in Minnesota (March 27), the Exxon spill in Mayflower (March 29), oil-based hydraulic fluid spilling into the Grand River from a power plant in Michigan (March 31), a CN Rail train derailment in Ontario (April 3), a drilling leak in Newfoundland (April 3), the Shell pipeline leak in Texas (April 3), a condensate spill at an Exxon refinery in Louisiana (April 4), and a pump station ‘error’ in Alaska (April 9). Another spill took place in June on Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain pipeline in British Columbia, one of the pipeline extensions being opposed by Indigenous groups.
Meanwhile, Stephen Harper was in New York in May, speaking to the highly influential US think tank, the Council on Foreign Relations, where he explained that the proposed Keystone XL pipeline “absolutely needs to go ahead,” adding that it was “an enormous benefit to the US in terms of long-term energy security.” TransCanada, the company aiming to build the Keystone XL pipeline, along with the government of Alberta, hired a team of lobbyists with connections to the Obama administration and Secretary of State John Kerry in particular to pressure the US government to approve the pipeline. In late April, the president of the American Petroleum Institute confidently declared, “When it’s all said and done, the president will approve the pipeline.” In late May, the CEO of TransCanada said, “I remain extremely confident that we’ll get the green light to build this pipeline.”
Leaders from 11 different Indigenous bands in the United States “stormed out” of a meeting in May being held with federal government officials in South Dakota in protest against the Keystone XL pipeline. The leaders criticized both the project and the Obama administration, with one leader commenting, “We find ourselves victims of another form of genocide, and it’s environmental genocide, and it’s caused by extractive industries.” Another Indigenous leader who walked out of the meeting warned, “What the State Department, what President Obama needs to hear from us, is that we are going to be taking direct action.” TransCanada has even been supplying US police agencies with information about environmental activists and recommendations to pursue charges of “terrorism” against them, noting that the company feared such “potential security concerns” as protests, blockades, court challenges, and even “public meetings.”
While Indigenous communities in Canada and elsewhere are among the most repressed and exploited within our society, they are also on the front lines of resistance against environmentally destructive practices undertaken by the most powerful institutions in the world. As such, Indigenous groups are not only standing up for environmental issues, but for the future of the species as a whole. With the rapidly accelerating ‘development’ of the tar sands, and the increasing environmental danger of huge new pipelines projects, resistance to how our modern society treats the environment is reaching new heights. Indigenous organizing – much of which is done along anarchistic ideas (such as with the Idle No More movement) – is presenting an unprecedented challenge to institutional power structures. Thus, there is an increased need for environmentalists, scientists, and others who are interested in joining forces with Indigenous groups in the struggle against environmental degradation and the potential extinction of the species. In Canada, there is an even greater impetus for scientists to join forces with Indigenous communities, for there is a state-sponsored assault upon environmental sciences that threaten to devastate the scientific community in the very near term.
The Canadian Government’s Attack on Environmental Science
Since Stephen Harper’s Conservative government came to power in 2006, there has been a steady attack upon the sciences, particularly those related to environmental issues, as the government cut funding for major programs and implemented layoffs. One major facet of this attack has been the ‘muzzling’ of Canadian scientists at international conferences, discussions with the media, and the publication of research. At one conference hosted in Canada, scientists working for Environment Canada were forced to direct all media inquiries through the public relations department in an effort “to intimidate government scientists.” Under new government guidelines, scientists working for the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) cannot publish material until it is reviewed by the department “for any concerns/impacts to DFO policy.” The Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) expressed in a letter to Stephen Harper their “deep dismay and anger at your government’s attack on the independence, integrity and academic freedom of scientific researchers.” Hundreds of Canadian scientists marched on Parliament Hill in July of 2012 in what they called a “funeral procession” against the government’s “systematic attack on science.”
One of the world’s leading science journals, Nature, published an editorial in March of 2012 calling on the Canadian government to stop muzzling and “set its scientists free.” Journalists requesting interviews with Canadian government scientists on issues related to the Arctic or climate change have had to go through public relations officials, provide questions in advance, adhere to “boundaries for what subjects the interview could touch upon,” and have a PR staffer “listen in on the interviews.”
Dozens of government agencies and programs related to environmental sciences have had their budgets slashed, scientists fired, or were discontinued altogether. The Environmental Law Centre at the University of Victoria lodged a formal complaint with Canada’s Federal Information Commissioner about the muzzling of scientists, outlining multiple examples “of taxpayer-funded science being suppressed or limited to prepackaged media lines across six different government departments and agencies.” Natural Resources Canada now requires “pre-approval” from the government before any scientists give interviews on topics such as “climate change” or the “oilsands.”
The attack upon the sciences is part of the Harper government’s 2007 strategy, Mobilizing Science and Technology to Canada’s Advantage, which directed “a major shift away from scientific goals to economic and labour-market priorities,” aiming to focus on science and research which would be directly useful to industry and for commercial purposes. The Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) has been steered by the government “toward industry-related research and away from environmental science.” The government’s minister of state for science and technology noted that the focus for research was to be on “getting those ideas out to our factory floors, if you will, making the product or process or somehow putting that into the marketplace and creating jobs.” Further, the National Research Council (NRC) was “to focus more on practical, commercial science and less on fundamental science” which wouldn’t be as beneficial to corporate interests. The minister of state for science and technology, Gary Goodyear, announced it as “an exciting, new journey – a re-direction that will strengthen Canada’s research and innovation ecosystem for many years to come.” The president of the NRC noted that, “We have shifted the primary focus of our work at NRC from the traditional emphasis of basic research and discovery science in favour of a more targeted approach to research and development.”
As Stephen Harper said, “Science powers commerce,” but apparently to Harper, that is all it should do, even though many scientists and academics disagree. The implications should be obvious: just as society’s interaction with the environment is unsustainable, so too is the dependency of the sciences upon those institutions which are destroying the environment.
Regardless of one’s position in society – as a member of an Indigenous group, an activist group, or within the scientific community – all of human society is facing the threat of extinction, accelerated by our destruction of the environment sourced at the point of interaction (the location of extraction) between the dominant institutions of our world and the natural world itself. Roughly half the world’s population lives in extreme poverty, with billions living in hunger, with poor access to safe drinking water, medicine and shelter, monumental disparities in wealth and inequality, the production and maintenance of unprecedented weapons of death and destruction, we are witnessing an exponentially accelerating plundering of resources and destruction of the environment upon which all life on Earth depends. If there has ever been a time in human history to begin asking big questions about the nature of our society and the legitimacy of the institutions and ideologies which dominate it, this is it.
An anarchistic understanding of the institutions and ideologies which control the world order reveals a society blinded by apathy as it nears extinction. The institutions which dictate the political, economic and social direction of our world are the very same ones destroying the environment to such an extent that the fate of the species is put at extreme risk. To not only continue – but to accelerate – down this path is no longer an acceptable course of action for humanity. It is time that socially segregated populations begin reaching out and working together, to share knowledge, organizational capacity, and engage in mutual action for shared objectives. With that in mind, it would appear to be beneficial not only for those involved – but for humanity as a whole – if Indigenous peoples and segments of the scientific community pursued the objective of protecting the environment together. Acknowledging this is easy enough, the hard part is figuring out the means and methods of turning that acknowledgement into action.
This is again where anarchist principles can become useful, emphasizing the creative capacity of many to contribute new ideas and undertake new initiatives working together as free individuals in collective organizations to achieve shared objectives. This is not an easy task, but it is a necessary one. The very future of humanity may depend upon it.
For notes and sources, download the paper here.