How anti-oil sands rhetoric hurts Aboriginal communities

Commentary, Aboriginal Futures, Joseph Quesnel

I was recently watching a video taped debate between Ezra Levant, author of Ethical Oil, and an environmentalist from B.C., over the ethical nature of oil.

It became evident to me that the extreme side that favours dismantling the oil sand industry does not want to hear reasoned debate over this issue. Throughout Levant’s presentation, protesters gave jeers and catcalls. At one point, someone shouted “the oil sands are an environmental holocaust!” to wild applause. Levant took some time to carefully dismantle this view showing how oil from Sudan is more of a holocaust as the government there uses oil revenues to slaughter innocents in the south.

In his book Ethical Oil, Levant makes the case that is morally unserious to argue about oil sands from the point of view of an energy source that has not been discovered yet. Instead, one must compare oil in Canada with oil from other sources, such as OPEC countries, all of whom have horrible environmental, human rights, and peace-creating records. While not saying oil sands is perfect, Levant proved that on all these areas oil sands oil in Alberta is more ethical than all other sources.

One area he did not discuss was the impact phasing out the oil sands would have on Canadian Aboriginals, arguably out most vulnerable population. Information from the Alberta government reveals that an estimated 23,000 Aboriginal people live in Alberta oil sands areas, with 18 First Nations and six Métis Settlements located in the region. Thousands more live off-reserve and off-settlement.

Of those, there are more than 1,600 Aboriginal employees in permanent oil sands operations jobs in northeast Alberta. This figure does not include construction-related jobs.

From 1998 to 2009, Aboriginal-owned companies secured $3.7 billion woth of contracts from oil sands companies in the region. This includes $810 million in 2009 alone.

The Fort McKay Group of six companies, completely owned by the Fort McKay First Nations, works extensively with oil sands companies, resulting in more than $100 million in annual revenue.

In total, the government source says abut 10 per cent of the oil sands workforce is Aboriginal.

Phasing out or eliminating the oil sands would hurt these communities substantially. We do not live in a fictional world where the bulk of our energy comes from wind and solar and where jobs in those areas are as plentiful as fossil fuel jobs.

Environmentalists often believe they are allies of the indigenous struggle, but how can they justify that when their policies would cause so much harm to indigenous peoples?