Reclaiming Nature? Indigenous Homeland and Oil Sands Territory

By Tara Joly, University of Aberdeen §


Settler colonial relations construct the Athabasca region as extractive oil sands territory, yet the region remains homeland for Indigenous peoples, including Métis individuals. In my doctoral research, I argue that oil sands reclamation – the process of cleaning up extractive spaces by returning the land to a “productive” or useful state – is a historically contingent product of settler colonial struggles over land and natural resources (Joly 2017; Wolfe 2006). Embedded in conflicts between Indigenous communities, industrial developers, and the state, reclamation is attributed multiple and contradictory meanings. While industry representatives and the state depict the Athabasca region as an extractive territory, Indigenous communities continue to assert their sovereignty in the region by adapting to and refusing (post-)extractive landscapes, including reclamation areas. Like the settler colonial process itself, reclamation is an ongoing affective and political process, as tensions proliferate between Indigenous and settler space.

In the Athabasca region of Alberta, Canada, oil sands (also known as bituminous sands, or tar sands) mining and in-situ operations transform landscapes on an enormous scale (Gosselin et al. 2010). Oil companies promise that reclamation will return the land to a useful nature. However, before reclamation can occur, mines are often open for 100 years, removing Indigenous inhabitants from their traditional territory for generations and polluting the land, air, and water (ibid). Reclaiming land – which is required by the Government of Alberta – requires companies to materially reconstruct the ecological functions of a boreal forest. This process often involves contouring the landscape, re-establishing hydrological systems with groundwater liners, covering the landscape with peat and mineral soil, re-vegetating disturbed areas, and remediating toxic tailings.

According to government policy, reclamation areas are intended to afford land uses including agriculture, forestry, recreation, or Indigenous land use (Alberta 2000). This utilitarian definition allows oil companies to maintain that reclamation will mitigate environmental impacts of development in project approvals and Environmental Impact Assessments (Westman 2013). EIAs suggest that while Indigenous land use will be negatively affected while a mine is in operation, Indigenous peoples will be able to practice their rights to hunt, trap, fish, and gather once reclamation is achieved. As such, oil companies celebrate reclamation as a means of mitigating impacts of their operations on Indigenous communities use of the land.

However, for Indigenous communities who uphold the landscape as embedded with spirit, reclamation is not simply about creating an ecosystem, but also requires a relational aspect of healing. Some Métis community members in Fort McMurray, Alberta, with whom I work, describe the act of extracting oil sands, associated pollution, and landscape changes as irreparably destroying the spirit of the land (Joly 2017; see also Buffalo et al 2011). Some community members suggest that the extraction of bitumen represents negative reciprocity with the land, in which resources are taken without a gift in return, thus severing social relationships with a sentient environment (Baker 2016; Scott 1996). Moreover, as the landscape’s ecology becomes dramatically altered through the extractive process, landforms embedded with stories are no longer present on the landscape and familiar ecological signs become unreadable. Oil sands extraction impacts not only material landscapes, but also the cultural connections embedded in these material forms.


Reclamation: Improvement or Healing?

Land is the key resource for settler colonial states such as Canada (Wolfe 2006; Veracini 2010). Patrick Wolfe asserts that settler colonialism is a distinct form of colonialism in that it “destroys to replace” (2006:388): settler colonial agendas attempt to eliminate and ‘improve’ upon Indigenous presence on the land. In my doctoral research I suggest that if mining can be said to embody the “destructive” force in Wolfe’s equation of elimination – removing Indigenous presence and materially altering the land – reclamation may embody its secondary action: “replacement” and “improvement” (ibid).[1]

While contemporary reclamation involves creating conditions for the growth of a boreal forest, early reclamation efforts sought to render the land “more productive, useful or desirable than it was in its original [pre-extractive] state” (Department of Energy and Natural Resources 1976). Here, Alberta defined reclamation as a process that would inherently improve the pre-existing boreal landscape by rendering it economically productive by, for example, establishing commercial forests. This state narrative reinforces Indigenous erasure: by eliminating and replacing Indigenous geographies, the land becomes productive settler space.

Yet, the region also remains Indigenous homeland. In 2014, on a drive north of Fort McMurray along the regional Highway 63, between tailings ponds and open-pit mines, one of my Métis teachers explained to me that she sometimes prays at an untouched area along the highway. My teacher’s act of praying reinforced the fact that the Athabasca region is still traditional territory, not only an extractive space. In spite of oil sands development, Métis community members with whom I work harvest, pray, and enact other ceremonies in the Athabasca region. These actions strengthen relationships to the land that have been damaged – but not erased – by industrialization and processes of settler colonialism. Alberta Métis Elder and scholar Elmer Ghostkeeper (2010) stresses that enacting ceremony – a reciprocal process of “spirit gifting” – affords the maintenance of social relationships to the land. It is through ceremony and presence on the land that community members assert their own reclamation and healing in a landscape that remains alive and inhabited. Despite environmental damage, my teacher’s ceremonies affirmed that the land remains spiritually salient and embedded with stories, even if they are less visible than before development. While it may appear purely extractive, the land is also always, inherently, Indigenous homeland. As Wolfe (2006) asserts, the process of eliminating Indigenous peoples in settler colonial states remains invariably incomplete.

For Indigenous communities, successful reclamation must involve practices that align with reclaiming and healing homeland that has been temporarily occupied by industrial development. This reclamation and healing necessitates the ongoing practice of ceremony, which re-establishes reciprocal relations through spirit gifting. Current oil sands reclamation methods and policy (e.g. CEMA 2014; Alberta 2000) do not adequately address this relational element of healing for Indigenous communities.[2] To date, Métis communities in particular have not been adequately consulted regarding closure and reclamation plans. Further, most reclamation areas are on oil sands leases where they cannot be publicly accessed or used by community members. Indigenous peoples are not provided an opportunity to re-establish relationships with the land: instead, oil sands companies conduct ceremonies with Indigenous communities as a one-time spectacle of corporate social responsibility (Joly 2017; Wanvik 2016), rather than an act grounded in community self-determination. With few reclaimed areas open to the public, and with few opportunities to be part of the reclamation process, Indigenous communities are often left skeptical of reclamation areas or without opportunity to re-create relationships with the homeland from which they have been temporarily displaced.


Responding to and Refusing Reclamation

As a response to the lack of consideration for healing and reclaiming Indigenous homeland, some Métis community members I work with enact refusals of reclamation sites. They argue that the spirit in the land cannot be replaced once it is disturbed. Still others do not use public reclamation areas. In her work on refusal, Audra Simpson (2014) notes that refusing is a means of declining participation in settler colonial relations and asserting sovereignty on land that is otherwise conceptualised as settler – or extractive – space. Métis community members’ refusal of reclamation areas is, in part, a means through which they refuse the logics of settler colonialism that seek to destroy and replace socio-environmental relations. Through refusal, Métis community members are asserting their own reclamation and hoping for an alternative.

Thinking through reclamation with an eye to settler colonial relations opens space for anthropologists to begin theorizing how post-extractive landscapes are contingent on settler colonial processes, and how Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples construct, adapt to, and refuse these landscapes. The refusal of reclamation area by some Indigenous community members is due in part to the entanglement of reclamation with settler colonial processes that seek to eliminate and improve upon Indigenous homeland by creating (post-) extractive space. Yet like Wolfe’s (2006) process of settler colonial elimination, mine reclamation is perhaps always and necessarily incomplete: the material process is ongoing as ecological relations take shape, and, despite attempts at destruction and replacement, Indigenous peoples continue to assert sovereignty and enact inter-generational relationships to the land.


[1] Of course, recreating ecosystems is not an “improvement” to the pre-disturbed landscape. Rooney et al. (2012) shows that oil sands reclamation involves a massive loss of ecological productivity and stored carbon in peatlands in the Athabasca region. Indeed, many reclamation areas are less biodiverse than prior to oil sands development.

[2] Despite lack of Indigenous involvement in reclamation practices, some groundwork has been laid for participatory processes by community researchers and consultants (Simmons 2010; Garibaldi and Straker 2010; O’Flaherty and Davidson-Hunt 2007).

Works Cited

Alberta, Government of. 2000. Environmental Protection and Enhancement Act. Edmonton, AB: Alberta Queen’s Printer.

Baker, Janelle Marie. 2016. Do Berries Listen?: Wild Food Contamination and Reciprocity in Alberta’s Oil Sands Region. In Canadian Anthropology Society (CASCA) Annual Conference. May 2016 Halifax, NS.

Buffalo, K., C.E. Jones, J.C. Errington, and M.I.A. MacLean. 2011. Fort McKay First Nation’s Involvement in Reclamation of Alberta’s Oil Sands Development. In 35th Annual B.C. Mine Reclamation Symposium. Lake Louise, AB.

CEMA (Cumulative Environmental Management Association). 2014. Guidelines for Wetlands Establishment on Reclaimed Oil Sands Leases (3rd Edition). Westhawk Associates. Fort McMurray, AB: CEMA.

Department of Energy and Natural Resources. 1976. A coal development policy for Alberta. Department of Energy and Natural Resources, Edmonton, AB. 38pp. plus appendices.

Garibaldi, Ann, and Justin Straker. 2010. Moving from Model to Application: Cultural Keystone Species and Reclamation in Fort McKay, Alberta. Journal of Ethnobiology 29(2): 323–338.

Ghostkeeper, Elmer. 2007. Spirit Gifting: The Concept of Spiritual Exchange. Raymond, AB: Writing on Stone Press.

 Gosselin, Pierre, Steve E. Hrudey, M. Anne Naeth, et al. 2010. The Royal Society of Canada Expert Panel: Environmental and Health Impacts of Canada’s Oil Sands Industry. Ottawa: The Royal Society of Canada.

Joly, Tara. 2017. Making Productive Land: utility, encounter, and oil sands reclamation in northeastern, Alberta, Canada. PhD Thesis. Department of Social Anthropology, University of Aberdeen, Aberdeen, UK.

O’Flaherty, Michael, and Ian Davidson-Hunt. 2007. Scoping Exercise for Indigenous Ecological Classification of Wetlands in the Athabasca Oil Sands Region. Fort McMurray, AB: Cumulative Environmental Management Association.

 Rooney, Rebecca C., Suzanne E. Bayley, and David W. Schindler. 2012. Oil Sands Mining and Reclamation Cause Massive Loss of Peatland and Stored Carbon. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 109(13): 4933–4937.

 Scott, Colin. 1996. Science for the West, Myth for the Rest? The Case of James Bay Cree Knowledge Construction. In Naked Science: Anthropological Inquiry into Boundaries, Power and Knowledge. Laura Nader, ed. Pp. 259–275. New York: Routledge.

Simmons, Deborah. 2010. Renewing the Health of Our Forests – An Aboriginal Road to Reclamation. Fort McMurray, AB: Cumulative Environmental Management Association.

Simpson, Audra. 2014. Mohawk Interruptus: Political Life Across the Borders of Settler States. Durham: Duke University Press.

Veracini, Lorenzo. 2010. Settler Colonialism: A theoretical overview. Palgrave MacMillan.

Wanvik, Tarje I. 2016. Governance Transformed into Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR): New Governance Innovations in the Canadian Oil Sands. The Extractive Industries and Society 3(2):517-526.

 Westman, Clinton. 2013. Social Impact Assessment and the Anthropology of the Future in Canada’s Tar Sands. Human Organization 72(2): 111–120.

Wolfe, P. 2006. Settler Colonialism and the Elimination of the Native. Journal of Genocide Research 8(4): 387-409.

Tara Joly is a PhD student in social anthropology at the University of Aberdeen (UK). She recently defended her thesis, entitled Making Productive Land: Utility, encounter, and oil sands reclamation in northeastern Alberta, Canada. Her research revolves around questions of human-environment relations in post-extractive landscapes, Indigenous rights, and industrial development in northern regions. She also works as an Indigenous consultant with her research partners in Alberta, and as a researcher at the University of Saskatchewan under a SSHRC-funded project, Taking Research off the Shelf: Synthesizing existing sources of knowledge about impacts, benefits, and participatory or consultative processes around extractive industry in northern Alberta.

This post is part of our thematic series: Life on the Frontier: The Environmental Anthropology of Settler Colonialism