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Summary, Background, & Tenure Arrangements
The Bigstone Cree Nation is made up of six reserves. Wabasca 166,166A-B,166C, 166D, The Desmarais Settlement, and Jen Baptiste Gambler 183. Many of the band members reside nearby, in hamlets near each of these reserves. These hamlets include Wabasca, Sandy Lake, Calling Lake, Peerless Lake and Chipewyan Lake. This nation has a total population of 6954, with 2400 people on reserve, 700 people living in isolated communities, and with 3854 living off reserve. This nation has seen a large amount of national attention due to its land agreement signing in 2007, and when the Albertan government went through with the agreement in 2010, this marked the biggest land settlement in Alberta's history. In this agreement, the Bigstone Cree Nation has able to receive 57,000 hectares of land. The Bigstone Cree Nation is part of two forestry related agreements with two different companies, with one of the agreements taking place on Bigstone Cree territory, in which they have a TQ (Timber Quota) Certificate, as well as a Timber permit, to be able to extract 53,286 cubic metres of wood in conjunction with S-11 Logging, joining few other Nations with similar licenses. They also have connections with the company Alberta-Pacific Forest Industries. They also have connections with the company Alberta-Pacific Forest Industries. As this nation is in a northern area in Alberta, where there is a large amount of oil extraction, a lot of their cultural and traditional practices are impeded with the activities of oil companies. The Bigstone Cree Nation is part of the Treaty 8 lands, which encompasses approximately 840,000km2 in Alberta, British Columbia, Saskatchewan, and the Northwest Territories. Northern First Nations, like the Cree, Chipewyan, and Dane-Zaa, predominantly lived in smaller family groups, which caused almost every nation in this treaty to have multiple reserves, including the Bigstone Cree. Another option given to families of Treaty 8 in 1899, was to receive 160 acres of land per family, in which families did not have to live separately from reserves. There have been multiple aspects of the treaty that were not honoured by the government of Canada, such as allowing the nations that signed this treaty to hunt and trap freely; the Canadian government also failed to pay many annuities, and additionally failed to provide adequate medical aid to these northern communities, causing strife between Treaty 8 Nations, and the Government.
Interested Stakeholders & Administrative arrangements
Connections with Interested Stakeholders
After WWII, due to a booming global economy, the need for oil was extremely high. As the main source of oil internationally was located in the middle east, which was in political turmoil, a new source of synthetic oil was targeted in Canada. Because the Albertan government invested in the oil sands industry, the government became both the regulator and the developer of the resource, effectively becoming one of the interested stakeholders along with oil sands companies in Alberta and administrative leaders in terms of management in the area. Environmental issues were not within the public's awareness until the late 1960s, and during those times, the Albertan government could not differentiate oil industry development and environmental concerns due to its standing as a regulator and interested stakeholder. This has created a conflict within the Albertan government as an effective Environmental policy legislator since they were too invested into the development of oil sands in Alberta to create effective policies to mediate oil sands pollution within the region. Although the Bigstone Cree Nation have negotiated on shared lease-holdings to develop oil sands in Northeastern Alberta with oil companies in the past, the consequence of the Albertan government's inefficacy to withhold environmental standards and private interests in the oil reserves have cost First Nations bands, such as the Bigstone Cree, both in health, rights to traditional practice, and access to quality resource.
The relationships Bigstone Cree have with interested stake-holders are not all negative. Many forestry companies like Al-pac, Foothills Forest Products, and Alberta Agriculture and Forestry have worked along with the Bigstone Cree to improve its community status. The Alberta Pacific Forest Industry Inc. (Al-Pac) is one example of a company operating on traditional lands and working alongside the Bigstone Cree community. The company was formed in 1988 and agreed to operate under strong relationship with the community. Although, the company operated under the interest of timber revenue and oversight to environmental concerns similar to the Albertan government, Al-Pac's decision to include First Nations bands involvement into its work ethics has significantly changed the dynamics between affected and interested stakeholders . As of May 13, 2021, the Bigstone Cree Nation's relationship with other forestry companies have progressed as well, they've won a conifer timber quota of 21,000 metres cubed in the Chipewyan Lake area under Forest management Unit S22, announced by Alberta Agriculture and Forestry. The Bigstone Cree is said to be working in partnership with Foothills Forest Products under their company name, Bigstone Forestry Inc.
Land-use Responsibilities + Land-use practices as affected stakeholders
Within the perspective of land-use, the Bigstone Cree along with other Indigenous tribes around the region are the affected stakeholders of the lands throughout history. Within their practices, berries that are picked were treated as kin since they are the ones that produce fruit based on the respect they are treated with. The Bigstone Cree no longer trusts foods and medicines grown within the Wabasca region due to the growing oil industry. In addition, Western science does not recognize objects such as rocks or sasquatches to be living creatures, therefore they are ignored by oil companies and the government. The plants which the Bigstone Cree harvest, have been shown to respond to many environmental influences such as pollution, mechanical movements, and changes in land use. Resources such as these are heavily relied on by the Bigstone Cree for traditional land practices for a multitude of uses, including food.
The Bigstone Cree were involved in the oil industry back when their 5-year lease was still active, and this included drilling vertical test wells across 16,000 acres of a 555,000-acre holding in Northeastern Alberta. However, the deal was categorized as a contingent resource, which was not considered to be economically sound using primary recovery methods, although Bronco Energy, whom were in charge of the project, claimed that the economics would be positive if the test wells were able to support a steam-assisted gravity drainage project.
Since 2011, the government of Alberta paid First Nations in the region including Bigstone Cree to map traditional land use. Nearly half of the communities have participated. A large majority of the forested land was allocated to forestry companies. However, this task was difficult since it required an operable mill, meeting Allowable Annual Cut rate, and working management plans. The First Nation bands decided to form partnerships with forestry companies.
Under the May 2021 Conifer Timber quota, the Bigstone Cree, under the company of Bigstone Forestry Inc., are responsible for handling all logging operations in partnership with the Foothills Forest Products, which would be responsible for the marketing. The estimated spin-off effect of the timber quota would be $400,000 on local economic activities. In addition, this quota also allows an annual cut of 51,000 cubic metres of deciduous timber for an oriented strand board facility in Grande Prairie. The Provincial government estimated that the quota would have a $10 million effect on the economy and Alberta's gross domestic product.
Additional Rights and Other Land-claims
As of 2011, the Bigstone Cree have concluded a land claim settlement in Northern Alberta along with the Peerless Trout, increasing the number of communities in Northern Alberta. This allows the community to take advantage of viable new economic development
opportunities. The land-claim resolves treaty promises dating back to the late 1800s, including $259 million and 140,000 acres of unoccupied provincial Crown land to become new reserve land for the Bigstone Cree and Peerless Trout. $59 million for renovations and construction of new infrastructure were also invested by the provincial government, in addition to $28 million to construct new elementary schools with water treatment plants.
Along with other tribes within roughly the same region, Bigstone Cree Nation's traditional practices such as hunting, hunt, trap, fish, and other water rights are protected by Treaty 8. The treaties encompass all regions from Northwestern corner of Saskatchewan, Northern half of Alberta, to the Northeastern corner of BC along with its Southern regions within the entire Peace-Athabasca River Systems. However, the treaty itself were not perfect in design. The understanding of the treaty was often interpreted differently in oral terms than to written terms . First nation bands protected by Treaty 8 considered the treaty as an agreement and promise on behalf of the federal government. They assumed that their own interpretation of the treaties would be of great significance as well. They often interpreted the treaties as their traditional rights represent an attempt to protect Aboriginal economic, social, and commercial practices from non-Aboriginal economic development. so the treaties should be considered as not only an allowance to engage in their traditional activities but also the right to expect their traditional practices would bare similar products compared to the past.
The treaties' written interpretation were not designed for the better communication with first nation bands as well. Because the first nations bands were only accustomed to oral communication, much of the language used in the treaty which describes the meaning and consequence of the treaty were incomprehensible even if they were correctly translated. The indigenous communities were not culturally prepared for the complexity of colonial economics and politics. This flaw in the treaties opened up exploitative opportunities for interested stakeholders to operate without consequence.
Cultural Burning, Beliefs and Food Sources
According to Bigstone Cree culture, fire is an essential part of life and a life-giving force: in ceremonies, fire is referred to as “grandfather fire” and is respected as an ancestor. Fire is also looked at as a cleansing force, keeping the landscape clean, and being more inhabitable for animals and plants alike. Cultural fires look to reinvigorate land, through burning controlled surface fires that do minimal damage to the organic layers, and stimulate the growth of understory plants, which include Vaccinium spp., such as blueberries, which are an essential food source for the Bigstone Cree. Additionally, the low severity surface fires aid in growth of herbs, which increases food for ungulates like deer, and small rodents. Regular burning was done on traplines, in order to influence herbivores and their predators, to maximise chances of a successful hunt. These regular fires aided in the maintenance of various structurally different forest ecosystems, driving biodiversity and the growth of multiple species that are beneficial to the nation, as medical resources or food.
Cultural burning was banned in 1908, as an era of fire suppression began with a 250 dollar fine given to anyone who began a fire. Many traditionally well maintained areas, used for transportation, trapping or even for berry picking, were overgrown, and lacked biodiversity. The buildup of fuels, and overstocking of forests have exacerbated wildfire risk, and have contributed to large megafires in the boreal forest.
One of these megafires was the Horse River Fire, more colloquially known as the 2016 Fort MacMurray fire, which burned a large portion of the city, Fort MacMurray. Elders of Treaty 8 Nations have stated their displeasure with the oil extraction operations, and their contribution into the Horse River Fire, as they stated that the machinery and infrastructure burned in the fires as well, further worsening its intensity.
In 2016, there was a large shift in the behaviour of black bears in the boreal forest, as they were pushed out of their habitats due to the intense fire season. Bears are an important aspect of cree culture, as they are considered to be equals, and in many cree communities, bears are thought to understand Cree, and are seen as almost-human-like creatures. These animals are the most spiritually significant beings in Cree culture, and due to this, during traditional ceremonies, berries are used to symbolize bears.
Berries are culturally significant to the Bigstone Cree people, both as a source of food, and culturally. They have been harvesting berries from cultural fire maintained lands since time immemorial. It is believed that berries are considered kin and should be treated with respect. The Bigstone Cree elders believe that berries decide to produce fruit or not based on the respect that is shown to it, and that berries, and other flora and fauna have more wisdom than humans, as they were the last to arrive on earth. Berry picking is beneficial for the spread of berries and maintenance of berry stock. Berries have been affected by anthropogenic changes to the land such as land development which can cause a large influx of pollution which will damage or kill the plants.
Conflicts Caused by Cultural Disconnects
Oil development in the Bigstone Cree territory was originally started as a small mining operation to avoid an Environment Impact Assessment. Trappers and elders were forced to partake in a class which taught them information that they already had, as well as information and ideas that were in direct conflict and contradicted their cultural beliefs. This caused them to feel alienated by the government and the oil companies whom they already felt ignored by, as they refused to listen to their cultural knowledge. This was again further worsened by the 2016 Horse River Fire.
Conflicts Regarding Cultural Lands
There are conflicts regarding the 1930 Resource Transfer Act which requires the province to consult the natives on resource development that takes place on crown land in the area. Bigstone shares control of the area with a municipality named “Opportunity” Which is one of the wealthiest municipalities in the region. When Bigstone won 231 million dollars from a land settlement with the Alberta Government in 2011, there was hope that this money would be used to better the community for generations, much like how their wealthy neighbours bought their way to prosperity. However, due to restrictive rules and disputes between band membership, the money has stayed locked away, and the Bigstone reserves continue to have some of the lowest quality of life compared to anywhere in Canada.
There has been conflict over the commercialization of local oil due to not being in line with certain environmental policies that were being put into place. An oil crisis in 1973 allowed Alberta to diversify their economy, but created a conflict of interest in doing so because they were now the regulator and developer of the resource.
The affected stakeholders are both the nation's members living on reserve, and off reserve members, who partake in traditional and cultural practices, such as hunting and trapping, as the impacts of large companies affect common food gathering practices. The nation has been in their lands since time immemorial, and continue to depend on the land for sustenance, economic gain and cultural significance. Since the effects of oil extraction displace animals with cultural significance such as the bear, contaminate food sources with neurotoxic heavy metals and exacerbates wildfire danger near the nation's lands, there is a lot of pressure on the livelihoods of active members of the nation. The consequences of oil extraction are believed to reach further than just environmental pollution. It is also thought to have an impact in fire severity.
There are many contaminants that result from the extraction of oil out of the oil sands in Alberta, including heavy metals such as Mercury, which is neurotoxic, and bio-accumulable. There are also carcinogenic compounds in the form of polycyclic aromatic compounds, present on the lands, which have leached from the extraction sites, which are close in proximity to the nation's lands. All of these hazardous compounds are found in traditional food sources found within the Bigstone Cree Nation's lands, at different extents.
- Mercury is a heavy metal, which is toxic to nerve tissue, that can be biomagnified. Selenium is thought to be able to counter the neurotoxic effects of mercury and methylmercury, which is extremely toxic to both animals and humans, as it can easily pass through biological barriers, such as the blood-brain barrier. Heavy metals, like mercury are persistent in humans, and will not degrade readily in the human body, and as mercury is not water soluble, it is excreted in minimal amounts in animals. Plants and animals both contained mercury on the lands of the nation in 100% of the cases tested. Animals had higher amounts of mercury concentration than plants, and aquatic animals had higher concentrations than terrestrial. Old man's beard, a lichen commonly eaten by species such as caribou during winter seasons, showed extremely high concentrations of total mercury. As traditionally, trapping and hunting, along with berry picking have been culturally significant practices to the Bigstone Cree, many of the individuals continue these practices on their lands, in spite of the circumstances.
- Polycyclic Aromatic compounds are carcinogenic, toxic and immunotoxic compounds which are naturally parts of fossil fuels. With the extraction of fossil fuels occuring nearby, many of these compounds are released into the environment, and many of these harmful chemicals are taken up into both plants and animals. The consumption of these chemicals is extremely harmful, due to similar reasons as mercury, as the chemicals are known to be persistent within environments and within living beings, as the molecules classified as such are chemically stable, causing them to have long half-lives. There are many classes of PACs that are released into the environment with the extraction of fossil fuels.
The government moved for forests to be left in their natural state, but failed to realize that the natural state of the forest was one that had been cultivated by the Indigenous people for centuries. These moves include the 1908 ban on cultural burning. Since many Albertan Indigenous communities are located within the forest protection area, these communities are unable to burn without a permit and are held to the regulations and laws that have been set by the government which limits Indigenous communities’ self-determination. There is strong positive correlation between traditional ecological knowledge and scientific data when it comes to indigenous burning for landscape maintenance. This is despite avid skepticism from textbooks published in 1973 that describe these practices as "not habitual or systemic". Assimilation policies and racism increase vulnerability of indigenous peoples and the impacts of wildlife. Some indigenous communities can no longer explain why some traditional ecological practices such as burning are in place due to a government suppression of oral tradition, and the passing down of traditional Indigenous knowledge. This suppression also leaves indigenous people more susceptible to destructive wildfires. Management practices performed by indigenous groups in Alberta are contradictory to the west’s traditional ideas of preservation of nature, which consist of a romanticized view of “pristine” green spaces. The indigenous model of small scale burnings as a land management done by indigenous groups have shown to be the effective land management model when it comes to opening pathways, and promoting healthy growth and sustainability of essential vegetation groups/species.
Aims and Intentions of the Management of the Bigstone Cree Nation
The Bigstone Cree Nation is one of the most successful nations when it comes to both connections with forest companies and oil companies alike. With the recent gain of land from the Albertan government in 2011 of 140,000 acres, and 259$ million dollars shared with Peerless Trout, which used to be a part of the Bigstone Cree Nation, this nation is advancing reconciliation in Alberta. As the Bigstone Cree have had working relationships with multiple companies, such as S-11 Logging, Alberta-Pacific Forest Industries, Bronco Energy, and Foothills Forest products, in which they have been able to provide work and money to the community. The new agreement with Foothills Forest Products provide many benefits to the Nation, bringing 400 thousand dollars to local economic activities, also coming with additional benefits for band members, such as scholarship programs provided by the provincial government's Forest Jobs Action Plan. As Foothills is working directly with the Nation, Chief Silas Yellowknee has stated his satisfaction with the management of the stand, since they would be implementing their "culture, traditional land use and knowledge" in order to sustainably manage their lands. There are ongoing issues within the nation, such as poverty, conflicts within the nation and with other parties, which prove to be complex.
Discussion of critical issues or conflicts in this community and how they are being managed
Although the Bigstone Cree have made progress in getting involved with land-use with interested stakeholders, not all of the discussions between the interested and affected stakeholders were successful. First Nations bands including the Bigstone Cree requested more monetary compensation from companies within the oil industry working on their traditional lands. The provincial government's laws have been rallying behind the rights of the Nations in question, with the 1930 Resource Transfer Act, which states that First Nations have rights to be consulted about resource development near their land. Many multinational and local oil companies have agreed to go through with the increase of compensation, however companies such as BlackRock Ventures have refused to pay additional fees. These conflicts will continue, with companies pushing back against additional payments towards First Nations, in which they state that payments such as these only occur in the "Third World--say in South America--but you don't expect to find it in Alberta". As the capitalist nature of oil companies and the government's will to increase GDP work against reconciliation efforts such as making economic concessions to First Nations, there will continue to be difficulties in the conflicts of the Bigstone Cree Nation, especially due to the turbulence in the crude oil market. In terms of restoration of cultural practices, such as cultural burning, many nations have continued to burn on their lands in Alberta, however they are not permitted to burn on crown lands, which cover over 60 percent of Alberta's total land, with most of it being in the northern part of Alberta, where Treaty 8 is located. Due to their lack of their ability to control fuel loads and inability to work with companies such as Firesmart in order to minimize losses in the case of a wildfire, fires continue to be a largely critical issue in this community, especially after the 2016 megafires in Northern Alberta.
Assessments and Recommendation
Assessment of Governance – Multilevel
In summary of all evidence condensed from above, the customary rights of the Bigstone Cree are not well-recognized or tolerated. The recognition of their traditional practices have not been increasing in global environmental politics. Additionally, the discourses have met with relatively moderate results with very few negotiations. First Nations groups have minimal impact on forestry in Alberta with a minimal cut of provincial forest tenure allocations at 4.7% of the total Annual Allowable Cut (AAC). Additionally, with historical mistreatment, and continued ignorance of rights in Treaty 8 territories, the Bigstone Cree Nation has little power in both Provincial and National governments. Jason Kenney, the current premier of Alberta since 2019, has notably disregarded local Indigenous Peoples' rights, by including a plan to auction off traditional Treaty 8 lands in his platform, when running to be premier, stating that this action was done in the past, and was beneficial to the Albertan government. These lands continue to be used by First Nations in hunting, fishing and gathering, and hold historical significance, as there are archeological sites present. This negligence to consider the cultural impacts and long term social effects of these actions indirectly proves that the current Albertan government has little regard for the Bigstone Cree, and other nations in Treaty 8.
As the Nation's food and safety is being impacted by the extraction of natural resources near their territories, and the continuous fire suppression efforts launched by the Albertan government, it would be beneficial to continue pressuring the government to make amends with their Nation, and with other nations suffering from similar circumstances. With the increased cognizance of the public, and the international community of Canada's shortcomings with their past and continued maltreatment of Indigenous communities, the Nation, and other Nations feeling this maltreatment could leverage this force, to catalyze change in the national or provincial government. Recently, there has been changes enacted by First Nations groups in British Columbia, and forest fire scientists, who have been funded by the Canadian Council of Forest Ministers’ Wildland Fire Management Working Group. They have created a project titled the "Indigenous Cultural Burning Storytelling and Practices Project", in which they looked to reintroduce cultural fires to both the Shackan Indian Band and the Xwisten First Nation in March 2019, which is a subproject in their First Nations Adapt Program, in which they aim to bring cultural aspects back into prescribed fires, and bring awareness to governmental powers that processes that mitigate wildfire risk while managing for cultural values is a possible plan of action. Although cooperation efforts such as these are still nascent, finding support for efforts such as these would prove to be fruitful to this Nation, in order to continue to preserve cultural burning traditions.
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