Our Captured Oil and Gas Regulators: Institutional Racism at Work

From the East Coast to Northern Alberta and BC, recent months provide fresh evidence that despite Canada’s formal support of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), racist decision-making permeates the practices of oil and gas regulators and their political masters.

Newfoundland and Labrador – Bay du Nord

The federal decision to proceed with the Bay du Nord oil climate bomb off Newfoundland and Labrador is being challenged in Federal Court, and not simply because its environmental assessment ignored 90% of its emissions. The failure to consult adequately the Mi’gmaw,  whose traditional territory is most affected, arguably contravenes the requirements of UNDRIP, to wit, Article 32;

States shall consult and cooperate in good faith with the indigenous peoples concerned through their own representative institutions in order to obtain their free and informed consent prior to the approval of any project affecting their lands or territories and other resources, particularly in connection with the development, utilization or exploitation of mineral, water or other resources.”

The Mi’gmaw are concerned about the risk posed by increased offshore drilling and consequent tanker traffic to their traditional resource base, especially the salmon who migrate through these waters. “Free and informed consent” prior to project approval is clearly lacking.

Any reasonable person would assume that free and informed consent implies the right to deny such consent. Canada’s regulatory regimes assume otherwise, with the same racist presumption that accompanied the seizure of Indigenous lands and resources some 500 years ago or more.

British Columbia – Montney Fracked Gas Play

In British Columbia, a province that also formally adopted UNDRIP, the captured regulator, the BC Oil and Gas Commission, has, incredibly, never included potential impact on Indigenous Treaty Rights, among its criteria for assessing the effects of fossil developments. Its eager approval of destructive gas fracking projects in the Montney play on the traditional lands of Treaty 8 signatories like the Blueberry River First Nations even accelerated when the Blueberry River FN sued the province in 2015 for violating its treaty rights. The Commission’s actions were clearly designed to help the industry do an end run around the intent of the treaties. The “public interest” the Commission is mandated to protect clearly does not include the interests of Indigenous peoples.

The fact that the Blueberry River FN won their case, after more than six years, is small consolation in the light of the damage done to the Indigenous resource base and culture in the interim. And let’s not kid ourselves, the province would likely have appealed the BC Supreme Court decision, had it not feared an injunction against further development pending the outcome of the appeal. Casual racism rules.

The province has agreed to about $300 million in compensatory funds for the Beaver River FN. A gesture, to be sure. But such attempts to quantify culturally devastating effects only betray a willing ignorance of the enormous gulf between the capitalist notion of land as a commodity and the all-encompassing Indigenous understanding of land, not as “place”, but as a relation, an intimate component of identity and culture. Compensation is no answer and racism, again, rules.

Alberta – Oil Sands Toxic Spills Concealed

In Alberta, home of the great misnomer, “ethical oil”, we have only just learned that a massive tailings pond holding life-threatening toxins, sprung a serious leak almost a year ago, potentially contaminating, yet again, the Athabasca watershed, draining north to Lake Athabasca and the Mackenzie River in the NWT. The fact this was kept from the general public by the regulator, the Alberta Energy Regulator (AER), and most importantly, from the population downstream, dependent on those waters for sustenance, and largely Indigenous, exposes its racist underpinnings. The event came to light only after another substantial spill, this time more than 5 million litres, took place this past February.

To add to the injury, neither the federal, nor the NWT governments were informed of the original spill as required by federal law and an agreement between Alberta and the NWT.

Danielle Smith’s UCP provincial government, the regulator, and Imperial Oil, the perpetrator, have each pretended this was a mere failure of communications, rather than a breach of trust and an egregious dismissal of the interests of the Indigenous peoples whose health, lands and communities are most affected. No heads have rolled and the casual racism pervading the whole incident remains unacknowledged by those responsible.

The federal government has called for the creation of a new monitoring body with representatives from federal and provincial governments, along with Indigenous representatives. The proposed group would study what to do about tailings pond releases, treatment and long-term “solutions”. That seems the least that could be done.

Racism and inadequate oversight of the oil sands operators are not the only sins of the captured AER, run as it is by industry hacks and political cronies. The number of orphan well sites to be cleaned up has only grown under its administration, or lack thereof. No one takes it seriously as a watchdog in the public interest. The time to reform its practice and personnel is long overdue, but a complicit UCP is not likely to act.


The new federal Impact Assessment Act (IAA) is flawed, but not because it intrudes into provincial jurisdiction, as its opponents, Smith and her UCP among them, like to claim. We have seen plenty of evidence to suggest that a strong federal presence on environmental issues is absolutely essential to protect all Canadians, no matter their domicile, from the ravages of monopoly corporate colonialism.

The IAA is flawed because it does not go far enough to ensure environmental assessments are robust. Whether we are talking about northern BC, or Alberta, or offshore Newfoundland and Labrador, assessments still don’t take Indigenous rights seriously. They fail to account for the cumulative effects of developments. They also ignore alternative development options and fail to assess the opportunity costs of developments that push us further from our obligations to address the climate emergency. Lethal flaws.

Indigenous nations are key players in the fight to address those and other failings in this important legislation. Calling out the racism inherent in the current day-to-day practice of our federal and provincial regulators and their political masters will help alter the balance in favour of the environment and the public interest, not to mention Indigenous rights..

Edmonton, 26 March, 2023

By Peter Puxley

Hi, I'm Peter Puxley, an economist, geographer and urban planner by academic training, and a political organizer/activist, development educator, journalist, policy wonk, researcher and political staffer by practice. I have tried my hand at poetry, fiction and non-fiction writing, some of which has been published.

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