Extractive Industries and Indigenous People

The term “extractive industries” is used to describe companies engaged in oil, gas, mining, forestry and other projects that have significant environmental impacts. Because many indigenous cultures have very strong ties to the land and environment, the effect of extractive industries on the way of life of indigenous peoples can be devastating. So the question is, how can international law be used as a tool to ensure that extractive industries do not destroy the traditional way of life for indigenous peoples or the natural environment that we all depend on?

Although the UNDRIP is not binding, it is expected to be influential when it comes to the relationships between corporations and indigenous peoples. It provides another tool for indigenous peoples to use to push for their rights. UNDRIP sets out the responsibility of governments to gain free, prior and informed consent from indigenous peoples for development projects. Even though the UNDRIP is aimed at governments, it will have a direct impact on corporations as well, especially if governments incorporate the principles of UNDRIP into their domestic laws.

The Lubicon Cree

On April 29th 2011, the Rainbow Pipeline that runs through Northern Alberta ruptured releasing 4.5 million litres of oil into the environment – it was the largest oil spill in Alberta since 1975. The traditional territory of the Lubicon Cree was part of the area affected by the spill. The Province of Alberta has said that the spill was contained, and that there would be no threat to public health, but the school had to be closed following the spill because the teachers, students and community members became sick.

The Lubicon Cree have never signed a treaty to give their land to the Canadian government, nor have they ever given permission to the Canadian Government to use their land for oil exploration. Despite this, since the 1970’s the Canadian Government has leased approximately 70 percent of the Lubicon Cree’s traditional territory to oil companies for oil and gas development. As a result, the Lubicon people can no longer maintain their traditional economy and way of life and have been thrust into poverty.

For decades the Lubicon Cree have been involved in disputes with the Canadian Government over land claims. Their main complaints are that oil and gas development on or near their traditional territory threatens their way of life, their culture and the health of their community. In 1990 the United Nations Human Rights Committee ruled that Canada was in violation of Article 27 of the ICCPR for failing to protect the Lubicon land rights from the impact of oil and gas extraction. Since then, the Canadian Government has been censured by various UN human rights agencies on multiple occasions. In 2010, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples submitted a report to the UN Human Rights Council stating that there should be no further development on Lubicon land unless the Lubicon people give their consent.

Canadian Domestic Law

In Canada, the principle that governments and corporations must consult with indigenous peoples has already been adopted into our domestic laws. In the court case known as Haida Nation v. British Columbia (Minister of Forests) the court determined that when the provincial or federal governments consider taking action that may adversely affect aboriginal rights or land title, they have a duty to consult with First Nations and accommodate their interests.