Coming Back to the Treaty Relationship
Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation (ACFN) Chief Allan Adam’s opened the As Long as the Rivers Flow conference in Fort McMurray by calling for the renewal of Treaty 8 to address the ongoing impacts of oil sands development. Treaty 8 was negotiated in 1899 between the Government of Canada and First Nations who live in what is now northern Alberta, BC, Saskatchewan, and Northwest Territories.
Chief Adam reminded everyone that Treaty 8 is not a surrender document. “In reality, it was a sharing agreement. We were never conquered. Our land was never surrendered and we will never surrender our land.”
Chief Adam described Treaty 8 as a treaty of friendship, sharing and co-existence. As a boy he would go on the land with his family and listen to the elders talk about the treaty and what it meant. “I had the good fortune to sit by the fires when my mom and dad would take us into the bush and sit with the elders who knew and understood the treaties and who talked about what had to be done,” Adam said. “Our elders are gone, but their memory and their words are still imbedded in our heart and soul. The current elders continue to guide us to the true meaning of the treaty.”
According to Adam, protecting the land and waters is fundamental to the Athabasca Chipewyan. “Without the land, we are nothing. And without the water we wouldn’t be able to exist. Mother Earth relies on us, depends on us to do what is right. But because of the oil deposits, the multi-national corporations would like to extract it at a rate that is beyond our control. No one has spoken up in regard to what is going on and if we don’t speak up now we won’t have much of a fighting chance.”
Chief Adam stressed that the Athabasca Chipewyan FN people do not want to stop development, but they do want development that ignores the rights of Indigenous people, that prevents Indigenous people from pursuing their traditional livelihood, and that pollutes the air and the water. He also said that his people are opposed to development that destroys of fish and animal habitat.
According to Adam, this kind of development represents a one-sided interpretation of the treaties, an interpretation that benefits Canada only. Treaty renewal involves engaging governments, corporations, citizens and First Nations in a joint process that ensures the spirit and intent of the treaties are honoured. This includes ensuring that development does not violate the rights of Indigenous peoples.
“We would like the governments of Alberta and Canada to impose the regulations that guide industry for sustainable and responsible development in this region,” Adam said. Somewhere along the line they’ve forgotten that and as a result our way of life is threatened, because we continue to survive and live off the land.” The current elders’ council, which provides the Chief and Council with its mandate, has advised that “unless we are willing to start cleaning up some of the activities, only then can we pursue new development.”
Adam explained that treaty renewal means helping governments, corporations and citizens understand that the treaty includes them. It means collaborating, acknowledging that First Nations have honoured the treaties and shared the land and its resources, negotiating and reaching genuine government-to-government agreements that involve developing criteria for sustainable development that are compatible with the treaty principles–sharing the land and resources, and preserving clean air and water for future generations.
Adam called for collaboration and cooperation and underlined the importance of breathing life into the treaties. “We need to continue the dialogue about what needs to get done. With their guidance, we say what the elders have always said – bring back the true intent of the 1899 treaty so we can recognize the faults and the successes of what we can get done here in Canada. It’s a long journey.”