COVID-19 increases pressure from resource extraction on Indigenous communities

Gabrielle Slowey

Gabrielle Slowey

In a new paper published in The Extractive Industries and Society journal, Gabrielle Slowey, an associate professor at York University, examines how vulnerable First Nations communities have been put at greater risk by resource extraction during the COVID-19 pandemic. Slowey co-wrote the article with the University of Manitoba’s Warren Bernauer.

Titled, “COVID-19, extractive industries, and indigenous communities in Canada: Notes towards a political economy research agenda,” the paper outlines how corporate profits are being placed ahead of the health of some Indigenous communities that are being pressured to accept resource extraction projects despite challenges to community health and environmental protections brought by COVID-19.

While prices for oil and other resources have declined globally due to collapsed demand during the pandemic, extraction companies are looking to download the cost of economic recovery and take advantage of the crisis.

Across the country, First Nations communities are being pressured to keep mines open, governments such as those of Ontario and Alberta are being lobbied to weaken environmental regulations and monitoring, while employers are seeking concessions on employee wages and benefits. Further, the industry is calling for reduced consultation and engagement with communities as a means to attract new investment.

As Nations’ leaders try to balance the economic needs of their communities with the environmental, health and cultural protections they feel are important, governments and companies have the ability to divide communities over resource projects, Slowey said.

“The community that lives there, the people that stay there, they should be the ones to ultimately benefit from whatever extraction is taking place in their territory,” Slowey said.

She noted there’s often a “carrot-and-stick effect” wherein companies claim their projects will bring jobs and economic benefits to communities, but in many cases these benefits don’t come to fruition.

Whether they oppose extraction projects that have been forced upon them, embrace them as a driver of development or seek to be pragmatic about the situations they are in, many Indigenous communities see resource extraction proceed on their territory with or without their consent.

Slowey says the communities that actively engage with the industry are at less of a disadvantage. “Either resource extraction happens to us, or we're part of it,” is a refrain she has heard often in communities seeking to advocate more effectively for themselves.

However, even in communities with a long history of self-governance, many Nations’ abilities to make collective decisions are being hindered during the pandemic as well, making them more vulnerable to pressure

“A lot of these communities make decisions based on consensus, and a lot of that involves speaking with elders and community members,” Slowey explained.

While public health orders to stay home have interrupted decision making at the local level, the federal government continues to negotiate land claims and treaties as companies work to advance extraction projects.

In the context of economic struggles intensified by the pandemic, there is potential for the divisions within and between communities regarding resource extraction to deepen as leadership seeks to balance the pursuit of local benefits like jobs and economic activity with potential impacts to community health and the environment.

Based on the ideas outlined in this paper, Slowey is developing a partnership with First Nations across the country to better understand the challenges communities face and how perspectives differ across Canada.

Beginning with Mikisew Cree, a Treaty 8 First Nation, she hopes to have community-guided conversations that will identify the different and specific challenges that Indigenous people are facing, to better understand how the resource industry is pressuring governments and First Nations to walk back environmental and health advances in the name of productivity.

“COVID-19, extractive industries, and indigenous communities in Canada: Notes towards a political economy research agenda,” can be read for free online.

By Aaron Manton, communications officer, YFile

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