Under Western Skies (Tuesday, Part 1)

On Monday, I started my journey up to Canada for my poster presentation at the Under Western Skies conference. My Jeep took me from sunny Missoula to a snowy Calgary, Alberta.

UWS logo

The conference started with a traditional Blackfoot blessing by an elder. He introduced the conference by talking about how we should take every day as a blessing, mentioning that he welcomes the sun every morning despite cloud cover. He also mentioned that we should all look at the Earth as if we are children, so that we can be inquisitive and receptive, as to “learn lessons we have forgotten from the creator.”

The next speaker was Justice Thomas Berger, currently a practicing lawyer in Vancouver, who stopped an Arctic-to-Alberta pipeline 40 years ago by showing the courts evidence of animal migration patterns, mostly. He was appointed in the 70’s to figure out whether a pipeline should be run from the Arctic Circle to the Mackenzie River Valley in the Northwest Territories that would have been the largest ever of it’s time. At the time of this project, Berger was a Justice of the Supreme Court of British Columbia.

He shot down the pipeline by citing antelope calving grounds, migratory bird patterns and beluga whale breeding grounds as barriers to development. Other reasons included increased need for infrastructure in the area, discrepancy with Aboriginal/First Nations/Indigenous people’s lands (aka Native Americans, for those of you reading this from the U.S.) and obvious environmental dangers a pipeline would raise, including spills.

Historic photo shown during the conference of Berger defending native land and wildlife through his decision to deny the pipeline.

In the end, Berger told the council/court that the area should stay wilderness forever “because there are some places that should remain in their natural states for future generations. We are stewards, we are not required to use [wilderness] up.” He did propose that a pipeline go in a different area away from animals and water, under the condition that the Canadian government settle all land rights with the Indigenous peoples in this area and create a wildlife refuge to save the animals he saved. They did both of these things.

My reflection on this is as follows: why can’t the United States do this? The Canadian government use his expertise to check out the pipeline destination. Berger traveled all across Canada in every direction talking to activists, Indigenous people, and those otherwise in the way of the proposed pipeline. After taking everything into account, he didn’t only shoot down the pipeline proposal, but added terms for the Canadian government to meet in case they wanted to build a different pipeline. Take that as you will.

After Berger brought down the house, members of the organization “Idle No More” took the stage to do the same. This group is a grassroots movement which has three values: revolutionary education, Indigenous sovereignty and the protection of land and water. “Idle No More” organizes dance mobs all over Canada in support for Indigenous freedom, explaining to the public that the Canadian government is oppressing their land rights.

Idle No More vision from their website
Idle No More vision from their website

Panelists all shared the same values of community, land and environmental issues. Panelists included community activist and education Dr. Alex Wilson (Opaskwayak Cree Nation from Manitoba), professor Sylvia McAdam (Sawsewayhum tribe, direct descendent of signatories of Treaty 6), student and advocate Erica Violet Lee (Cree from Saskatoon) and white settler, teacher and PhD student Sheelah McLean (who grew up in Treaty 6 territory).

Location of Treaty Lands in Canada. Calgary is on Treaty 7 lands.
Location of Treaty Lands in Canada. Calgary is on Treaty 7 lands.

Wilson talked about her educational role in “Idle No More.” She also explained some environmental issues going on her tribal lands in Manitoba, including nuclear waste, logging, mining and river delta damage.

Lee explained how aboriginal youth are gaining mobilization in their communities, as they are very aware of the issues plaguing their people.

McLean talked a little bit about how her experience was growing up on Treaty 6 lands as a “white settler.” Now she is a leader in “Idle No More” events and explained how IDM needs to break down white supremacy and patriarchy in Canada.

McAdam feels she isn’t an activist, but is just defending her homeland. She doesn’t see herself as a Canadian, and instead sees herself as a citizen of Treaty 6 and her tribe. She also believes that Canada and the British Monarchy are taking advantage of her homeland for logging purposes, and that these actions are violating treaty rights. McAdam also talked about the impending water crisis, explaining that many Indigenous nations in Canada and the United States are undergoing these problems. She mentioned that she heard of the freshwater crisis first as a tribal prophesy when she was child, but she can’t believe that she is seeing the issue plaguing communities in her lifetime.

“It’s not a bad thing to hug the trees. But you have to remember who’s lands those trees are on,” McAdams reminded us.

Tune in for part 2 tomorrow, which covers the second half of Tuesday and my poster presentation.

2 thoughts on “Under Western Skies (Tuesday, Part 1)

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