The Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation (ACFN) is a Denesuline community based in Fort Chipewyan, Alberta. Its territory spans and includes lands within the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, the Lower Athabasca and North West Saskatchewan planning regions. Members of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation hold rights that are protected by section 35 of the Constitution Act, 1982 and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
Since time immemorial and long before ACFN entered into Treaty, Denesuline Peoples of its region lived and continue to live and sustain themselves, their families and their community from Mother Earth and all that she provides. Denesuline Peoples had an intricate relationship with Mother Earth and customary practices allowed them to live in harmony with her as she kept their physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual well-being in balance. This relationship included customary practices that entailed the care of Mother Earth along with the ability for economic development and survival: the very essence of Denesołine culture and identity.
Industrialization of ACFN’s traditional territories has lead to the cumulative removal of lands, wildlife and fish habitat as well as the destruction of ecological, aesthetic and sensory systems. This will consequently affect Treaty promises, cultural and spiritual renewal, procurement of resources, and Denesuline Peoples connection and use of landscape that is integral to traditional use. In truth, the current industrialization occurring in North-eastern Alberta is putting ecosystems, the watersheds that sustain them, and the First Nations who depend upon them, at risk for large-scale impacts that will permanently change the biophysical and socio-cultural landscape of the region.
This industrialization has thrust the ACFN to the forefront of the tar sands controversy. Canada and Alberta’s elected leaders have been promoting tar sands development on ACFN traditional lands at a pace that appears irresponsible and irreparably destructive. Canada has avoided its duty to properly enforce the Fisheries Act, Navigable Waters Protection Act, Species at Risk Act, Constitution Act and Treaty No. 8. Alberta is actively changing its laws to pave the way for devastation of ACFN lands and rights. Throughout a vast tract of ACFN’s traditional territory the ecology is being completely destroyed in order to extract bitumen. Alberta has granted Shell Canada the rights to mine out the land to the boundaries of Poplar Point (Reserve 201G), in the heart of the ACFN homelands.
The Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation (ACFN) filed suit against Shell Oil Canada in September of 2011. Papers were served to Shell executives in November.
The Case against Shell arose from Shell not meeting contractual agreements made with ACFN in 2003 and 2006 regarding two open pit mining tar sands projects. Shell had made promises to provide adequate resources for the community to participate in mitigation discussion, to map out traditional areas and study potential impacts of Shell projects on sacred sites, and for the community to implement a community monitoring program.
After years of unmet agreements with Shell Oil, the Athabasca Chipewyan people decided to risk everything by challenging Shell’s practices and filing suit represented by Othuis Kleer Townshed Firm. The agreements in question were meant to ensure Shell would provide measures to lessen impact of these mines on ACFN, including agreements to address environmental issues and mitigation. Shell’s failure to meet these agreements with ACFN has led to harmful impacts on the environment and ACFN’s constitutionally protected rights and culture.
In addition to the lawsuit against Shell, ACFN has defined a protection zone North of Fort McMurray, Alberta within their Treaty territory. This protection zone was developed with guidance provided by the Elder’s Council and the Elder’s Declaration of 2010.
The ACFN plan to oppose all future tar sands projects proposed within their traditional homelands, with particular interest in the projects proposed within the Protection Zone.
Tar sands have been widely recognized as the most destructive project on earth because of the serious impacts on treaty and aboriginal rights, ecological destruction and global green house gas emissions (GHG). Recently submitted proposals from Shell Oil and Teck Resources to expand current tar sands operations would more then double production in the region. This would translate into further encroachment of open pit mines on ACFN traditional lands, and into the pristine wilderness of the Pierre River, a previously untouched area.