Chief Allan Adam on being beaten by police and Indigenous rights

im????The chief discusses the legacy of residential schools, making deals with the oil industry and the need for new treaties.

    im????$100,000 Canadian ($73,000 US) a year.The oil industry pays the highest wages in the country, albeit for sometimes-backbreaking, around-the-clock work.

    In Fort McMurray, with a population of about 110,000, the resulting "good life" looks like souped-up diesel trucks, new schools and neat rows of cookie-cutter, top-of-the-line homes.

    im????A main highway running through the city is named Confederation Way - after the Dominion of Canada and its colonies. There are neighbourhoods perched atop hillsides overlooking the mighty Athabasca River - one is called Eagle Ridge Estates, in honour of the bald eagles which once flourished in the area, but are being pushed out by encroaching development. There is every kind of amenity available in this fast-paced city surrounded by thick boreal forest.

    Battling the oil industry

    im????Fort McMurray may be far enough away from the oil-sands mining to appear unaffected by the dangers of the massive development, but the smell of tar still lingers in the air and on clear days, steady streams of smoke can be seen above the hills to the north of the city.

    The pollution from the oil sands travels up the watery highway Chief Adam's ancestors once used as a trade route - and flows towards Fort Chipewyan.

    There has been discord here over natural resources for more than 300 years - first, with the fur trade; now, with the oil industry.

    Chief Adam portrait
    Fort McMurray is a city built on the back of the oil sands - one of the world's largest single oil reserves [Jawahir Al-Naimi/Al Jazeera]

    For years, Adam squared off against oil industry executives in a David-and-Goliath-style battle to protect his traditional territories from terrible damage.

    His efforts attracted the attention of Hollywood, including actor and environmentalist Leonardo Dicaprio, who visited Adam in Fort Chipewyan in 2014 to learn of the Nation's plight.

    Adam also toured Canada with singer Neil Young to raise money for and awareness about the fight against the environmental impacts of the industry. He has lobbied world leaders to act to save his community from the contaminations of industrial pollutants upriver.

    im????Arsenic and mercury have been in the river's once pure water and found inside the bellies of animals.

    In 2009, an Alberta Cancer Board study found Fort Chipewyan had a than should be expected, as well as higher rates of rare cancers.

    Adam says too many people have died of a rare cancer called, "cholangiocarcinoma", which typically affects one in 100,000 people. Fort Chipewyan has a population of less than 1,000. He links the rampant rates of cancer to pollution from the oil sands.

    A change in tactics

    But two years ago, Adam did an about-turn and reached a deal with oil executives to secure financial benefits for theAthabasca Chipewyan First Nation.

    Some people called him a sellout who gave up on the fight to save the environment. But Adam claims he could not stop the industry, so he switched tactics - making sure his people at least received financial compensation that was long overdue.

    im????"What I did is, I went and fought for compensation for the Nation because of the high rates of cancer, pollution of our waterways, the continuation of the pollution of our natural foods. Who is going to compensate us for all of that when all of this is gone?" he says.

    The resources deep under the ground rightfully belong to First Nations people who have never been compensated for that from which Canada has grown rich, he adds.

    im????"Are we still supposed to beg for handouts from them? These companies here in Fort McMurray caused a lot of damage to the environment that they'll never, ever be able to fix for 1,000 years. The government's allowed it to happen with no compensation to the Nation."

    Chief Adam portrait
    Thick boreal forests surround Fort McMurray [Jawahir Al-Naimi/Al Jazeera]

    im????Environmental activist Greta Thunberg made a trip to Fort McMurray last autumn to meet the chief who had once championed environmental protection. He says she asked him why he backed down. He explained to her that it was his only option - and not to look at it as if the battle is lost.

    "I fought to protect the environment, and I couldn't do it," he explains, throwing his hands up in the air and shaking his head from side to side. "But, at least we got compensated for it, and now, if we do things right, in the future, we could move away from that hell hole in Fort Chip because it's not going to get any better. It's going to get more polluted every day. What will happen when they're (the oil industry) all done and out of here?"

    im????Now, Adam meets with industry executives every six months along with other Indigenous stakeholders and says he calls the shots.

    im????"They (industry executives and investors) don't go to Canada; they don't go to Alberta. They come to our Nation and ask us what we want ... We have regained some sense of security that, at least now, we have something to stand up on if things were to go wrong. Whereas before we had less than four million in the trust fund, now you could say it's probably well over $60m."

    The trust fund is set aside for future generations from his Nation.

    "If I walk away today, when my term [as chief] is done, I'd walk away with my head held up high and not walk away with my head hung in shame, because I signed an agreement with industry. When I came into this position, we weren't getting money from industry, today, we're getting money from industry because of the impacts they're doing to the land," Adam says.

    A slump in boomtown

    Fort McMurray nearly burned to the ground in 2016 after wildfires forced more than 88,000 people from their homes and caused almost $10bn in damages.

    This spring, on the fourth anniversary of the wildfires, the downtown and low-lying areas were submerged in water for days after ice jams in the Athabasca River triggered unprecedented flooding.

    "It was evident on May 3, 2016, and it is evident today: we are a region of resilience," Mayor Don Scott said in a news release from the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo on May 3.

    A slump in the Alberta economy has caused real estate values to plummet in the boomtown. The average home once cost almost $600,000, but current prices average around $531,000 according to data from the Fort McMurray Realtors organisation.

    Work in the oil sands is dwindling. The construction of pipelines to transport oil to market has stalled as a result of opposition from Indigenous groups, environmentalists and an uncertain fiscal future. Yet, the Alberta Conservative Government is relentless in its pursuit of financially backing a revival of the oil industry.

    Adam knows oil money will not last much longer.

    "I want to make sure the ACFN will be able to function as a Nation. Our Nation is still in the process of coming off an era of horrors - it's ironic for me to be like this because I come from a time of trauma and always being told what to do. Do this, do that, don't say nothing. That did not represent well who I am."

    At 14, Adam moved from Fort Chipewyan to Fort McMurray with this mother. im????He soon dropped out of school, where he was bullied because he was First Nations and says his learning ability was not "up to par".

    "I couldn't adapt, couldn't adjust to it. Kids were laughing at me. I couldn't fit in. The racism. No one would play sports with me. My parents split up. I fended for myself. I didn't back down from anybody," he recalls.

    Becoming chief

    Being a chief was never on his agenda until someone from ACFN nominated him to run for council 17 years ago. He was making a steady paycheque driving a rubbish truck for industry, dumping for the big players. He was also working on healing from the nightmares of his past, he says.

    Beginning in 2003, Adam served two terms as councillor at ACFN and in 2007 was elected chief.

    im????At first, his wife Freda, who he met when he was 25 and she was 19 and they were both studying at community college,disliked him being away from home so much.

    Adam has five children between the ages of 27 and 34 and 12 grandchildren. The couple have been together for almost 30 years, and it is Freda who is the backbone of the family, Adam says.

    im????"I couldn't do what I do without her," he reflects.

    Chief Adam Portrait
    An illustration of Chief Allan Adam with his wife, Freda [Jawahir Al-Naimi/Al Jazeera]

    im????She supports him and keeps him grounded, he adds. But she would like for him to be home more.

    Freda, who was handcuffed and taken to jail with Adam but released without charge, helped calm him after the violent encounter with the RCMP. But, he says, she was traumatised by the incident.

    im????"It took them (the RCMP) 70 days to apologise to me and my wife. It was because of pressure [from the media]. When the story broke, they apologised to me."

    im????"At first, I wanted to do something right off the bat," he says about why he waited almost three months to go public with his story.

    "The morning I got out [of jail], I wanted to put it on Facebook and tell everyone I got beat up by the RCMP and I wanted to create havoc in Fort McMurray. Believe me, I wanted to f***** ransack this f***** city. There were other chiefs available that were going to do it with me."

    However, on the advice of his lawyer and with the COVID-19 pandemic, he decided to wait.

    im????But when video surfaced of the murder of George Floyd at the hands of police in the United States, Adam decided he could not wait any longer.

    "I was mad. Then the young First Nations woman [Chantel Moore] got killed in New Brunswick, and the young man who got hit by a cop vehicle in Nunavut, and I thought to myself 'this is enough.'"

    "They're (the police) doing it (violence) at a rate where they don't even have a sense for human life any more."

    He spoke out because he has a platform and wanted to use his voice for those who do not, he adds.

    A report released by the correctional investigator of Canada earlier this year revealed that in Canadian prisons are Indigenous despite making up just 5 percent of the overall population.

    Canada oppressed "Indigenous peoples here through the residential schools right until 1996, and they still do the same with the high incarceration levels of Indigenous peoples in the justice system. There's no liberation for Canadian Aboriginal people," he says.

    A time for new treaties

    im????Adam believes reconciliation between Canada and Indigenous people is going nowhere fast.

    "If he (Prime Minister Justin Trudeau) wants to come clean, there's so much that needs to be done. We've got the 'Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls' crisis that has to be implemented; we've got the TRC just collecting dust, child welfare crisis . If you can pull out how much money in just three months for COVID-19 benefits for Canadians? About a trillion dollars was it? But how many years have First Nations been under a boil water advisory in Canada?"

    It is just a matter of time before Canada goes through an uprising similar to the protests that broke out in the US following the killing of George Floyd, he says.

    im????"I think at some point and time there's going to have to be a movement in regard to where First Nations take this issue. The ordeal I've gone through ended in the courts but doesn't mean the ordeal is done."

    "For the people who went through the same experience I did, don't give up. Don't go into silence and don't go into shame cause you've nothing to be ashamed of. Put them (the RCMP) up against the wall and say, 'Look at what you've done.' Let them be shamed," he says.

    As far as what will help stop police violence and systemic racism in Canada, Adam thinks it is time for a fresh start. Go back to the drawing board and create new treaties in the spirit and intent of the original treaties Canada was established on, he says; a sacred covenant of agreements to respectfully live side by side as sovereign nations and to share the lands and resources for all time.

    "Maybe it's time we open the Canadian constitution again and let's start dealing with the Royal Proclamation that sets out guidelines for opening government institutions to take over Indian land," he says as a grin forms across his face. "That's not the case anymore; we know what they're doing."

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera News



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