Thursday, January 23, 2014

Was It Worth the 15 Minutes of Fame?

Fort Chipewyan, Alberta

I am a beneficiary of Neil Young’s 2014 Canadian tour, or rather my First Nation Athabasca Chipewyan is.

At the beginning of this year, musician Neil Young began a four-city “Honour the Treaties” tour to raise money for litigation to stop Shell’s Jackpine oil sands mine expansion near Fort McMurray, Alberta.  After expenses, all proceeds raise from the four-concert tour is to go to the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation for their litigation defence fund. According to media reports, the amount raised was approximately half a million dollars. A second fundraising contest, to win tickets for the concert and other promotional gifts, ran online at the same time as the concert.  It netted an additional approximately $77,000.   Not bad for a week’s work!

The title of the benefit concert series was “Honouring the Treaties,” although the organizers ought to have titled it “Canada’s Hiroshima” because our Treaty was not the main focus. There was no real conversation on the Treaty, certainly not in any meaningful way, because the emphasis was placed on what Neil was saying.

However, Neil didn’t seem to know enough about the Treaty to speak on this subject, so he
talked about what he knew, and his message was overwhelmingly anti-oil and anti-industry. Even our Chief deferred to Neil.  Our Chief, who was on stage for all of the pre-concert press conferences was virtually silent. It appeared to those of us on the sideline that it continues to be acceptable to allow well intended non-natives speak for us, even in the 21st century.

Neil pulled no punches at his first press conference at Massey Hall, in Toronto, Ontario, where he repeated his earlier analogy of Fort McMurray’s oil sands industry to that of Hiroshima. The intent was to be provocative and controversial, and it was that and more. 

That said there was a small “teach-in” after the press conference prior to the last concert, but by that time, media had fatigue, and even APTN didn’t file a report on this portion of the tour.  There was virtually no news about the “teach-in,” presumably put on to provide information on the Treaties, the one area where information had been lacking on tour.  Regrettably, it came too late to be newsworthy. The story of that day was that the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers left after Neil and David Suzuki would not accommodate their request for a neutral moderator for a debate.

According to the tour organizers, the tour was an overwhelming success. Media, politicians and the public alike responded on a very emotional and visceral level to what Neil was saying. The conversation that followed was very polarized, much of it played out on social media.

Actually, at this moment the public relations battle may have been won.  The tour generated support from many quarters.  But it is also possible that we have not seen the full extent of the ramifications resulting from this anti-oil campaign yet. And I have no doubt, if there are any negative implications, it would not be Neil Young who will bear the brunt, but the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation.
I am of very mixed feelings about the tour. On one hand, I am very proud that our Chief was able to gain the attention of and partner with a high profile celebrity to draw attention to our plight and to raise much-needed funds for litigation.  In my immediate family, Neil Young has always been held in high esteem for his musicianship and songwriting.  Last Christmas, long before Neil became involved with our First Nation, I bought Hubby a very expensive set of Blu-ray discs that are the first instalment of Neil’s Archives as well as Neil’s book Waging Heavy Peace.

On the other hand, I also feel cheated and duped. I feel that the response to Neil’s celebrity and his flamboyant rhetoric overrode our First Nation’s interests and the balanced message our Chief started out expressing. Clearly, the entire tour was on his terms, or at least the media coverage of the tour gave that strong impression. One of the organizers admitted as much, that it was Neil who decided who was on stage with them when an appeal was made to include Dene elders at the press conference.  When I recommended that the message be clarified and moved to a more balanced one, away from the virulent anti-oil and anti-industry position, I was told that Neil’s publicists and the inner group didn’t want to appear they were backing down.  At that point, it became clear that the tour ostensibly about Treaties, was really about anti-oil at all costs.

If the intention was actually about honouring our Treaty, there should have been an effort to engage the public in a transformational conversation about how the treaty is a living document and is just as relevant today as the day it was signed.  Instead the Treaty became secondary, almost an afterthought.

The tour had an opportunity to identify specific serious breaches resulting of the Treaty.  Our Treaty means to us reconciliation, coexistence and sharing.  It also means honouring and protecting the earth and its plants and animals.  

Our Treaty position is not anti-development; it is that development must be carefully scrutinized and justified so that economic gain does not come at too great a cost to our land and our way of life. That should have been the headline. 
  • The approval of the Jackpine expansion should be challenged.  From what I understand it poses too great a risk to the environment.  We have to figure out where to draw the line.
  • The tour could have started a conversation on how our First Nation does not live on a reserve because the reserve land set aside for us is virtually inhabitable. And because we are not on a reserve, exemptions enjoyed by other First Nations are not available to us.
  • It could have brought to the conversation how the Bennett Dam in BC wiped out our traditional trapping and harvesting lifestyle in one season by draining the lake that fed the delta where our people had always harvested. Our members who relied on their traditional occupation were forced to seek alternative employment with industry.
  • The tour could have brought to the conversation that the “cows and ploughs” clause in the Treaty remains unresolved.   This means that the main economic development provision in our Treaty remains unfulfilled.
At this critical point in development, with pressure for expansion on all fronts and an ongoing weakening by the federal government for environmental protections, it is vital that we hold industry accountable.  But I don’t think taking the fight public by shaming and over the top rhetoric was the correct way to get there.  Or at least, at the conclusion of the tour, there should have been a gesture of reconciliation, or a willingness to coexist with industry and an attempt to heal wounded feelings that the tour had caused.

Our First Nation’s relationship with the oil industry is complex.  It is an intricate dance, of give and take, balancing the economic benefits with our responsibility to maintain the integrity of the environment.  We assert our legal rights but always with an awareness that we cannot “match industry dollar for dollar,” as Neil mistakenly put it at one of the press conferences.  A half-million dollar legal defence fund is a grain of sand in the multi-billion dollar energy juggernaut that is the Alberta oil sands.

We are mindful of our traditional harvesting activities, protecting the sensitive wetlands, other pristine ecosystems, and our culture. Our elders advise the process. We jointly work with industry, ironing out these elements as we draft our impact benefit agreements. And again when we partner with them on contracts through our company. It is at this stage where we can’t give up, where we can make the changes required. It is not an easy task, but a necessary one to ensure that this equilibrium is preserved. This relationship took years to cultivate.

The fact is that just about everything we own is directly or indirectly paid for with revenue from the oil sands industry.  We are proud owners of a multi million-dollar company, ACDEN, that services the industry around Fort McMurray.  We own a $38 million state of the art building occupied by ACDEN, which is made possible by revenues from industry.  Our programs, environmental studies, and elders meetings, are all funded by industry dollars.  There are many examples, but the point is the fabric of our community is directly interwoven with the oil industry and whether we want to admit it, we are dependent on it for the livelihood of our members.

I am afraid that the tour’s negative oil campaign, and the notoriety of partnering with Neil Young, may have put us on a self-destructive path. The momentum the tour started has left us in a position that may make it increasingly difficult to continue to partner with industry. The rhetoric generated by the tour seems to have put us in a position that we have to make a choice: are we with industry or against it? Until now we have been able to take a balanced position:  we support responsible development and oppose development that is not responsible.  We partner with industry when it conducts itself responsibly and respectfully.  Now it is beginning to feel as if we have to take a stand.  A choice must be made, are we with industry or against it. We can’t be both. We can’t one day be slamming industry in the media, and the next day sit across from them in a boardroom hashing out contracts without having that impact the negotiation on some level.  You have to be all the way in or you have to be all the way out.

I feel today that the gamble that our leaders have taken with our corporation and the livelihood of our members is reckless.  At this point I am not sure if it was worth the half a million dollars we got for litigation from the tour. That will remain to be determined.

I regret that this tour, and some statements by Neil, that has such potential to shed light on our situation and bring understanding to the complexity of our circumstances, has instead insulted and offended not only those oil industry partners who have conducted business in a responsible manner, but also the municipality of Fort McMurray, and not least of all the hard-working people who make a living in this industry.

And while I would like to be on the bandwagon cheering on our Chief with the rest of the activists, I find I simply can’t. It is lonely to feel like the odd person out, when so many First Nations and environmental activists are cheering on our Chief and the aggressive message that the tour has sent.  Many people who don’t fully understand our economics and how we are entwined to this industry just see us as the little guy fighting the giant. How can they not cheer for him?

I don’t make my living in this industry, and it would be easy for me to join the activist. I understand the arguments against development and the health issues surrounding industry. I understand, but I also understand the community has little choice, and they look to our leadership to mitigate these damages. 

 So why do I care so much?  Because it is my community, I was raised there, and I care what happens at the
community level.  I am certain the community is also conflicted about industry. Members from the community are going to work at camps for over 14 hours a day, living away from their families for days at a time, they are aware of what industry is about, but with few alternatives available, they make that choice for the betterment of their family.  It is a balancing act.  It has been for a long time now. How can you ask them to risk what they have sacrificed to have a roof over their head and food in their belly?

I know my position is not a popular one, and I am sure people will see me as a sell-out, and less of a warrior.  Some of my brothers confronted the FBI at Wounded Knee in the 1970s.  I come from a family of activists, so my position is that much more difficult.

It is essential to look beyond the emotional surface of the issues, and to deliberate them on deeper levels.  This is a community, where I grew up, that has struggled to overcome many hardships to be in the position we find ourselves, a position of economic influence, that is very close to economic independence from government funding because of our relationship with the oil industry.  The risks must be balanced against the probability of the success.

I can’t shake the feeling that there is too much at stake for my community and that the direction we take next will determine if we win or lose what Neil Young’s “Honouring the Treaties” Tour started.  All I know is that if I were Chief I would ensure that all of my members were on board, and I would discuss with them the risks and benefits of taking this stand. More importantly, I would get a clear mandate from my members moving forward. 

Indeed, something that began as positive and empowering has left a bad aftertaste, for me at least. I find myself surrounded by people with extreme opinions, extreme feelings, pride on one side and anger and resentment on the other.  It does not seem to bode well for our First Nation or for a calm discussion of what our Treaty means, and how it must be honoured.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Pictures can be Deceiving

Holy Angeles Residence
This is a letter I wrote to the National Post on January 12, 2014 in response to their article on January 11, on residential schools. January 20, 2014 my letter, with others, was published in the letters to the editor section of the paper.

January 12, 2014

Dear Editor of the National Post:

A clear evening with the snow glittering like tiny fragments of diamonds, we walked to the residential school in silence.  I could hardly contain my excitement. 

Because I had been hospitalized, my first day at the Holy Angels Residential School, in Alberta, was in December.  A student ran outside to tell my sister we had arrived.  Outside, one of the other girls gave me a piece of dry-meat as they pulled me around the playground on a sled. Children’s laughter echoed in the darkness. An idyllic picture, maybe. 

I was lucky and was not abused, but I now know abuses were occurring.  I remember the smiling faces, but only now I also see pain behind the smiles.

After Vatican II, positive changes were being made.  But at the same time terrible things continued, not always at the hands of the nuns, but certainly under their watch.Incidents recounted by some of my family bring tears to my eyes. I see how their lives were shattered before they even had a chance to live them. I fully appreciate that they really didn’t stand a chance for any normalcy. Their innocence was lost, or rather, taken, inside that school. Their deep scars are invisible to those of us who didn’t experience what they went through.

There is no justification for what happened certainly not saying: “They received an education that enabled them to cope with life.”  The truth is, their school experience destroyed their ability to cope.

E. A. Pratt
Dunrobin Ontario
Student at Holy Angels Residential School, Fort Chipewyan, Alberta


I am top 2nd to the right
A few years ago I could not have written the above letter.  In my mind, I thought it was a blessing that I went to residential school. I enjoyed school, and Holy Angels had a nice library where I spent my time reading.

I recall many happy events, we had movie night, games night, went camping in the summer at Dorey Lake. At Christmas we received gifts before we went home for the holidays.  And my older sister, Dora, was working down the hall, as a cook, cooking our meals. 

But most of all, I treasure the lifelong bond I formed with the other students. We have an intimate connection through a shared experience, which very few can appreciate. 

Perhaps, I was one of the few lucky ones who was unscathed by this experience. I mistakenly thought that because we were one of the last students in Holy Angels Residential School before it was closed in the early 80's, and things were changing for the positive, that the other students had the same experience I had.  I could have not been more mistaken.

As it happened, I wrongly assumed because of these changes, being there was not as bad as what older generations went through. Under the earlier directive of DuncanCampbell Scott, an early 20th century Indian Affairs official said;
“our objective is to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada that has not     been absorbed into the body politic and there is no Indian question, and no Indian       department.” 

Fortunately, by the time I was in residential school we were no longer prevented from speaking our native language, we were allowed to keep our long hair, we were also allowed to go home on weekends and accepted visitors in the pallor.  Times were changing and in large part for the better.  However, under that fabric of change, there still existed the notion that by our charges that we were still less human in the eyes of our guardians.    

As I learnt more about the horrific experiences of some of the students. These stories broke my heart, especially those in my own immediate family, it became clear to me that no good came from being in residential schools. 

As I reflect back, I remember, students running away only to be returned to the school crying. Until hearing some of the accounts by former students, I could not begin to imagine the horrible things they had to endure.  I was there, and didn’t know what was happening.  And what happened, cannot be denied or justified. To do that is to dishonour the experiences of many, many, many, children. 

Canadian Residential Schools in fact has ruined the lives of generations of First Nations peoples in Canada. Under no viewpoint can this destruction be rationalized. It was horrific and left in its wake many broken children. 

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Are You the Driver

Life Happens! 

I am the driver.  I am in control of how my life unfolds and how I navigate the bumps along the way.  If you take my wheel, I might let you, for a while.  But then I will gently take it back because I accept that, I, alone am responsible for where I am going. 

I am a people watcher. I have excellent intuitive skills and in knowing what someone is about to do. When I am driving, I notice drivers around me, and I can tell when someone is about to change lanes beside me.  I modify what I am going to do by reacting to what others around me are about to do.  This is a lesson from driver training class, to always share the road because no two people can be in the same space at the same time. That is chaos. 

I am a risks taker. I have been known to pick up hitchhikers.  Once, while driving with a co-worker, I stopped to pick up a hitchhiker, but just as I watched him running towards my vehicle I had this feeling I should just drive away leaving him in my rear view mirror.  But, I didn’t because it would be discourteous.  Nothing happened. However, later we heard on the news that a mental patient had escaped from the institute near where we stopped.  Lesson here is always trust your gut, even if you might hurt someone’s feelings or look bad.

I am a big picture kind of girl. Here again, lessons from my driver instructor, who emphasized in class to always see the "big picture".  If there is an obstacle blocking your view, don’t just speed ahead, slow down and pull back until you see the big picture, what is ahead, beside, and behind you.  When it is clear on all sides, make a decision, don’t hesitate, and just proceed forward.

I like to be prepared and ask questions.  I like to think of all possibilities and things that can happen down the road. Much like having an emergency kit in my car with the usually stuff, candle, blanket, and chocolates. Although, the chocolates I have to keep replenishing for some reason. Be prepared by having the right tools at the ready.  That said, it does not mean I am not occasionally spontaneous, sometimes, I like to just get in my car and drive just for the experience.

Timing is important. I detest being late and will continuously allow for possible interruptions. Most of the time I am early, which gives me time to pause and clear my head before proceeding. If there is a delay, as has happened recently due to someone I picked up who was not ready on time.  I decided to accept it without anxiety, and allow that whenever we got there will be fine.  In this instance, there was a horrible accident, and if I had my way, I would have been there right in the middle of that accident.  If time is out of your control, it is best to just go with it.

I am flexible.  But I admit, at times it takes more effort for me to change directions.  It’s all about inertia, once I am moving down a path, it’s more difficult to halt and go in a different direction.  However, when I trust my instincts, it is nothing for me to do a u-turn right then and there, usually with gusto. It is a rush to proceed into the unknown sometimes.

I am goal driven. This is the thing that most defines me. I have to know where I am going, what my goal is,  and at the end of the day what waits for me.  I need to be prepared. It’s like having a map, although, I don’t read like maps because I get carsickness if I try reading them in a moving car. But, I do love the GPS in my car. I love it, but don’t blindly trust it.  I must know, for myself, where I am going generally before I get into the driver's seat, so when I am given directions, I know them to be somewhat correct. I've heard too many stories of people ending up in the ditch because they followed their GPS instead of using their brain.  Always question, am I on the right road. 

Life to me is about knowing what I can control, accepting what I can't control, asking questions, and trusting my instincts. These understandings have guided me as I traveled. They are important because, as we know,  life happens, whether it is according to our plan or not.  Ultimately, it is how we react and adjust to the plan that makes the journey exciting. But most importantly, don't forget to have fun and pick up people along the way, with whom you can  enjoy the scenery.  Although, just not those on the road close to the mental institute. Just saying! 

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