The Dene Suline of Cold Lake: Reasserting Aboriginal Title and Opposing the NATO War Machine
The Primrose Lake Air Weapons Range (PLAWR) in Northern Alberta, Canada is a favored North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) playground where numerous missiles, bombs, weapons and aircraft that are currently being used in the "War Against Terrorism" are being tested. Since June 2001, the Dene Suline, aboriginal people of Cold Lake, have established a camp at the main entrance of the weapons range. They are opposing the theft and destruction of their traditional territory to feed the war machine and the oil industry.
Since their earliest memories, the Dene Suline have lived peacefully on the land that is now the PLAWR. Through hunting, fishing, trapping and food gathering, the Dene Suline have sustained themselves as a people in the face of genocide from the Canadian government and NATO.
The Dene people live from northwestern Canada down to Black Mesa in Arizona. The US and Canadian governments and corporations have stolen their land, killed their people and forced the Dene onto reservations. Like the Dineh people at Big Mountain, the Dene Suline of Cold Lake have faced forced relocation.
The first Europeans on Dene Suline territory were Hudson Bay Company fur traders, and by 1867 a treaty, known as Treaty Number Six, was forced onto the Dene Suline. In 1952, the Canadian government, under the pretense of protecting the freedom and safety of Canada, stole the land encompassing PLAWR, land that was guaranteed to the Dene by treaty.
When this happened, the Dene Suline had a seven-day sit-in at Suckerville, on the shores of Primrose Lake, refusing to move until their land was returned. After heavy coercion from the government, a deal was made: a lease of 4,490 square miles for military use only which was to be returned, or a new lease negotiated after twenty years.
Before 1952, a large deposit of oil was discovered on their territory and by the early '70s the technology had been developed to extract that oil. Since then, the oil companies, primarily Alberta Energy Corporation and Petro Canada, have been taking billions of dollars worth of oil yearly and destroying the environment in the process. In recent years further developments in technology have made the extraction of oil in the tar sands possible increasing the oil potential. This region has more oil reserves than Saudi Arabia.
The voices of opposition from the Dene Suline have been ignored by the government. Not surprisingly, after the original 20-year lease was up, the government still maintained control over Primrose Lake and did not renegotiate the lease.
The territory of the Dene Suline is being bombed and decimated every day. Burial grounds, traplines and hunting and fishing grounds are destroyed by the greed of the oil industry and the bombs of the NATO war machine. Through residential schools, poverty, alcohol, destruction of the environment and forced assimilation, the government has tried to break the culture and strength of the people.
Many other indigenous nations on Turtle Island have seen the effects of the war machine's testing on their territories. The Western Shoshone people in Newe Segobia (Nevada) have suffered from massive nuclear testing on their lands. Many people have developed cancer and other illnesses from nuclear radiation and the destruction of the land and the sustenance it provides. Thousands of low-level planes fly over the territory of the Innu people in northeast Canada every year, negatively affecting their environment, food sources and culture.
In the 50 years since the Department of National Defense stole this land, Primrose Lake has become one of the largest airforce bases in the world. The "Tomahawk" cruise missile was first tested at Primrose Lake, and then used in Iraq, Yugoslavia and now Afghanistan.
As a people who have lived close to the land for thousands of years, the Dene Suline are intimately aware of the impacts of NATO and PLAWR on their environment. They have seen an increase in disease in both humans and animals. Their lakes and rivers are being polluted by the waste of the oil industry and NATO bombs and missiles.
The ancient boreal forest around PLAWR is home to moose, elk, buffalo, timber wolves and bears. These ani mals are being killed and displaced by the bombardment of their habitat.
For six weeks every year at the PLAWR, more than 18 NATO countries use the range for "Operation Maple Flag" in which they test new laser and ballistic missiles and depleted uranium (DU) bombs. DU is the left over element from the fission of Uranium 235, which is used for fuel for weapons and nuclear reactors. DU contains alpha and beta emitters which cause damage to cells in the lungs, bones, kidneys, prostate, guts and brains, eventually leading to cancer. Depleted uranium contaminates the land, air and water for millions of years.
The "War Against Terrorism" is colonization in the 21st century. Land is turned into military occupied zones. The environment is destroyed, the people are forced to give their oil to the hungry western market and assimilate their culture and economy into the world capitalist market place.
What NATO and Canada have done to the Dene Suline and their territory is what they want to do to the world. People have been lead to believe the "War Against Terrorism" is a war for freedom and democracy, to liberate Afghanis and other Muslims from repressive governments and radical fundamentalists. But the Taliban's treatment and oppression of women and non-Muslims is no different than the Canadian treatment of the Dene Suline and other indigenous people on Turtle Island. As "Operation Enduring Freedom" continues, there is only going to be more genocide committed against the native people of Turtle Island and destruction of their territories in the name of military testing.
For the past six months, the Dene Suline have asserted their aboriginal title and opposed the NATO war machine by reoccuppying their traditional territory at PLAWR. On June 3, 2001, the Dene Suline blocked the Alberta Energy Corporation (AEC) access road and the weapons range and established a camp there. They are re-asserting their title to their homelands by physically living on them, and by doing so, they are implementing the 1997 Delgamuukw Supreme Court decision, which affirms the inherent rights of native people in Canada.
On December 12, the government was able to pass through their next stage in the theft of Dene land by working with the Band Council government to pass a referendum which gives the Dene $25.5 million and a measly 5,000 acres of land in exchange for the 4,500 square miles of their territory that encompasses the whole weapons range. This works out to only $35 an acre and $2,500 for each Cold Lake band member.
This deal was fast tracked past the people by the government and Band Council with little information given about alternatives. This deal reflects the current phase of genocide in Canada, whereby the Canadian government works with Band Councils to cut deals and "settle land questions." For a people that have been oppressed for so long and suffer from chronic unemployment, alcoholism and poverty, the offer of money has an immediate short-term appeal and these deals are able to pass despite dissent from traditionalists and other members of the nation.
The Dene Suline are not giving up or backing down because of this latest tactic by the government. Around 20 people are still at the camp regularly, despite bitter winter cold. They recently finished building their first permanent cabin and are in the process of building more. Dene Suline Warriors are promising direct action against PLAWR, the government, Alberta Energy Corporation and anyone else in support of this deal. The Dene people have survived this long in the face of genocide and they will continue to fight to defend their people and territory against devastation by Canada, the oil industry and the NATO war machine.
"We need the world to look closely at this act of aggression. We need human rights and environmental groups as well as the peace/anti-war movements to act on their resolutions and defend the territories," said Dene Warrior Brian X.
How to support: The Dene Suline are desperately in need of funds. To contribute, contact the phone number below; or transfers can be made to Cold Lake Dene People's Fund, acct. 230 6017 0l-maximizer, Cold Lake Credit Union, Cold Lake, AB. They need communications gear (video cameras, cell phones, radios). You can also support by organizing actions against any of the government bodies, the Department of National Defense, corporations and NATO. To join their actions on the front lines, contact the number below. The Dene Suline want this information to get out to people, so please help by spreading the word.
For more info contact Dene Suline of Cold Lake, POB 8497, Cold Lake, Dene Suline Territory, "AB" TOM 1M2 Canada; (780) 639-4952; (780) 812-0306.
© Earth First! Journal February-March 2002
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