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Oil Opposition: Creating Friction in Energy Politics

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter examines mobilization against new oil development by Indigenous and environmental activists. Drawing on Canadian examples, two key themes are identified. First, anti-oil activism adopts a diversity of discourses and tactical links between particular oil development projects and broader socio-environmental issues such as colonialism and climate change. Environmental opposition often reflects a conservationist approach that emphasizes ecological risks, which compartmentalizes opposition to specific projects from broader analyses of the oil sector. Indigenous opposition is more often grounded in a rights-based approach that emphasizes Canada’s long history of colonization. Second, where there are alignments between Indigenous and environmental opposition against oil projects, appeals to treaty agreements and environmental justice are used by both indigenous and non-indigenous anti-oil activists to challenge energy projects.

Keywords: energy, oil, environmentalism, Indigenous, Canada, climate change


Anti-oil protests in Canada have increased in recent years. This includes protests aimed directly at the Alberta oil sands, as well as those against new oil pipeline infrastructure, such as the proposed Northern Gateway, Kinder Morgan, Keystone XL, and Energy East projects. South of the Canadian border, Indigenous-led protests have emerged at Standing Rock, North Dakota against the Dakota Access pipeline which, if constructed, would transport oil in an underground pipeline across several US states. Hundreds of Indigenous and environmental activists have gathered to protect local land and water sources and preserve Indigenous cultural heritages. However, as McAdam and Boudet (2012) argue in their analysis of the United States, social movement mobilization against new energy development is exceptional, rather than the norm. More often, critical attention to the oil industry does not emerge until the aftermath of a disaster, such as the 1982 sinking of the Ocean Ranger offshore oil platform in Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada (Dodd, 2012); the massive oil spill from the Exxon Valdez tanker in 1989 in Prince William Sound, Alaska (Ritchie, 2012; Widener & Gunter, 2007); or the 2010 blowout at British Petroleum’s (BP) Macondo oil well in the Gulf of Mexico (Freudenburg & Gramling, 2011; Hoffbauer & Ramos, 2014). Opposition to all of these oil developments became most contentious after disastrous events occurred.

Beyond these specific highly visible moments of contention, the normal operation of the oil industry is so tightly bound up with capitalist economies that we can define contemporary societies using terms like “fossil capitalism” (Altvater, 2007) or “petro-capitalism” (Carter, 2014; Haluza-DeLay, 2014). Similarly, Urry (2013) notes that contemporary capitalist societies are highly dependent on a “carbon complex” that is made (p. 448) up of the “carbon capital” interests of oil and gas companies, transportation and shipping companies, and car and airplane manufacturers. But the carbon complex has an even broader reach, as carbon capital provides royalties and tax revenues to governments, advertising income to mass media companies, and access to consumer goods and highly mobile lifestyles (Urry, 2013). The global impacts of recent oil price declines and ongoing volatility underscores the point that our energy systems, economic systems, and political systems are deeply connected through the carbon complex.

In this chapter, we focus on examples from Canada, where the normal operation of the carbon complex has been opposed and problematized. In particular, we examine mobilization against new oil development by Indigenous and environmental activists, with examples from Alberta and Atlantic Canada. Our discussion identifies two key themes. First, we find diverse approaches within anti-oil activism in terms of both discursive and tactical links between particular oil development projects and broader socio-environmental issues such as colonialism and climate change. Environmental opposition often reflects a conservationist approach that emphasizes ecological risks, which often compartmentalizes opposition to specific oil projects from broader analyses of the social-ecological harms of the carbon complex. By contrast, Indigenous opposition is more often grounded in a rights-based approach that emphasizes Canada’s long history of colonization through resource extraction on Indigenous lands. Second, where there are alignments between Indigenous and environmental opposition against oil projects, we see that appeals to treaty agreements and environmental justice are used by both Indigenous and non-Indigenous anti-oil activists to contest energy projects.

The Alberta Oil Sands

The Athabasca River Basin in northern Alberta contains one of the world’s largest fossil energy reserves, making the province of Alberta one of Canada’s key oil development regions. The Alberta oil sands are set in a vast boreal forest landscape, which includes the territory of Cree, Dene, and Métis peoples (Weis et al., 2014). The Alberta oil sands are responsible for a significant proportion of Canada’s carbon footprint, which is one of the highest in the world, per capita (Davidson & Gismondi, 2011; Murphy & Murphy, 2012). Under the Conservative government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper (2006–2015), the Canadian government offered a supportive political environment for the Alberta oil industry, reinforcing the long-term support of the Alberta provincial government for the oil industry (MacNeil, 2014; Murphy & Murphy, 2012). The notion that the oil sands are economically and socially beneficial for Alberta and for Canada—an idea promoted by governments and by industry associations such as the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP)—obtained near-hegemonic status in Alberta, and a great deal of cultural resonance in the rest of Canada (Haluza-DeLay, 2014).

Indigenous communities in northern Alberta challenge the social and environmental legitimacy of the oil sands on environmental justice grounds, focusing on the (p. 449) disproportionate amount of suffering endured by Indigenous communities in Alberta. The Indigenous organizations and networks who have been involved in this issue include “the Unist’ot’en Camp, the Yinka Dene Alliance, Moccasins on the Ground gatherings, the Healing Walk, and the Idle No More movement” (Weis et al., 2014, p. 16). As well, the Beaver Lake Cree, the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, and the Fort McKay First Nation have put forward legal challenges to the oil sands industry (Weis et al., 2014). In particular, the Lubicon Lake Cree Nation has struggled with extensive oil and gas development on their ancestral lands for over three decades (Laboucan-Massimo, 2014; Ominayak & Thomas, 2009).

Activists voice concerns around exposure to water pollution, leading to increased rates of illness in Indigenous communities, as well as disruption and harm to fish and wildlife populations that remain key parts of Indigenous diets and cultural practices. Ecological devastation occurs in the form of large-scale deforestation of boreal forests, alteration of the water cycle to extract bitumen, wetland destruction, and the accumulation of toxins in wastewater “tailings ponds” (Weis et al., 2014). Health problems overrepresented in Alberta Indigenous communities include “asthma and other respiratory problems, cancers of all kinds, skin diseases, and miscarriages” (Ominayak & Thomas, 2009, p. 112). According to Lubicon Cree Chief Bernard Ominayak, many Indigenous communities of the Athabasca region once characterized by self-sufficiency have experienced a “significant decline in our land-based livelihood [which has] reduced us to a state of poverty and dependency” (p. 111). Ongoing land-claim disputes between Indigenous communities and the Canadian government are complicated by the environmental politics of resources allocation in the province (Coats, 2014; Ominayak & Thomas, 2009; Thomas-Muller, 2014). These injustices fuel Indigenous resistance to oil sands development and its accompanying network of roads and pipelines (Laboucan-Massimo, 2014).

The oil sands industry is understood by many Indigenous activists as a colonizing force, “both in the sense that it disproportionately affects Indigenous communities and in the sense that it coercively plunders resources from Indigenous lands” (Awâsis, 2014, p. 254). The sociocultural impacts of the industry on local Indigenous communities are significant, as oil development “intensifies experiences of disconnection from the land and each other” (Awâsis, 2014, p. 254). Resistance to the oil sands, then, often occurs in the form of protesting any further development through decolonizing practices that assert Indigenous rights to self-determination and traditional ways of life (Awâsis, 2014).

Indigenous mobilization has drawn on a variety of tactics for protecting “land, water, and autonomy” (Weis et al., 2014, p. 16), which include the presentation of “critical evidence and arguments to the public hearings and environmental impact assessments surrounding pipeline and shipment plans”; the use of direct action and peaceful blockades in attempts to “physically disrupt production,” as well as establishing encampments on culturally significant sites (Weis et al., 2014, p. 18). Banners have also been dropped in protest on oil sands sites and Canadian Parliament buildings in Ottawa (Weis et al., 2014). Some community organizers engage in public education activities through “speaking tours and the creation of a range of Internet resources” such as (p. 450) Keepers of the Athabasca ( and the Indigenous Environmental Network ( (Weis et al., 2014, pp. 18–19).

Indigenous-led Healing Walks are also a demonstration of oil sands opposition, coupled with critique of Canada’s colonial history and calls for the assertion of Indigenous and treaty rights. The Tar Sands Healing Walk was “born out of the need to heal from the destruction produced by the rapid rate of tar sands extraction in Alberta” and is understood as a “ceremonial walk of prayer” (Cardinal, 2014, p. 130). Through the Healing Walk, participants of Indigenous and settler origins engage in exercises of building community by sharing stories and resources, attending workshops, and experiencing firsthand the impacts of oil sands development on local eco- and social systems (Cardinal, 2014). The Walk also strives to maintain hope: “Healing turns the greatest adversities into the warmest and highest hopes, which our children and grandchildren can carry to light their way. This is the spirit we have brought to the Tar Sands Healing Walk” (Cardinal, 2014, p. 128). For participants in this form of action, building communities of healing is as much a part of the decolonizing process as activist organizing against the oil sands.

Specific concerns with the Alberta oil sands have been linked to broader movements for Indigenous recognition and resurgence through the Idle No More movement (Thomas-Muller, 2014; Wood, 2015). Idle No More was initiated in 2012 by a small group of Indigenous women who connected specific concerns in their communities to a broader critique of the Harper government’s omnibus Bill C-45, which weakened a slate of environmental regulations (Coates, 2015; Coburn & Atleo, 2016; Palmater, 2015). Idle No More spread into a series of social movement activities online (particularly through the extremely successful #IdleNoMore Twitter hashtag) and offline, including protests and drum circles (Coates, 2015; Palmater, 2015). The movement simultaneously put forth concerns about Indigenous treaty rights and land claims, environmental justice concerns regarding water quality, social inequalities around housing, health care, education, and missing and murdered Indigenous women. Idle No More became another site to amplify concerns with the Alberta oil sands and link this issue to a broader movement.

Environmental organizations have also mobilized against the Alberta oil sands, though environmental claims have focused on localized ecological harms such as water and air pollution and wildlife impacts (Coats, 2014; Davidson & Gismondi, 2011). However, environmental organizations have also targeted the Alberta oil sands as part of broader campaigns around climate change. The Alberta oil sands and the Canadian government have come under particular scrutiny in international venues of environmental protest, and imagery of the oil sands has been key to framing Canada as a climate villain internationally. For example, in our research on media representations of the climate policy debate, we examined coverage from the Globe and Mail and the National Post in the lead-up and aftermath of the 2009 Copenhagen Conference of the Parties meetings (Stoddart, Smith, & Tindall, 2016). We found that environmental organizations, such as the David Suzuki Foundation, Pembina Institute, and World Wildlife (p. 451) Fund, gained access to media coverage and served as critics of Canadian climate policy. Much of the environmental movement critique in media coverage of the Copenhagen Conference linked Canada’s poor performance on emission reductions to the economic power and influence of the oil sands industry. The relationship between Stephen Harper’s Conservative government and the Alberta oil industry was highlighted and problematized by environmentalists.

Environmental activists have often worked in coalitions or as allies with Indigenous activists opposed to oil sands development (Awâsis, 2014). For example, the Tar Sands Healing Walk has been a site for alliance building between Indigenous and environmental activists. As Cardinal notes (2014, pp. 130–131), “Many organizers who work on environmental protection in other parts of Canada attended the Healing Walk and have hosted workshops, including alliance building between First Nations and the growing non-Indigenous resistance to pipelines across the continent.” After repeatedly being denied a voice during decision-making processes around oil and gas development, the Lubicon Cree enlisted international support, informing journalists and environmental groups of their ongoing struggles (Laboucan-Massimo, 2014; Ominayak & Thomas, 2009). Attempts to reach out to a broader network of international supporters appear to have been successful. A 2005 United Nations Human Rights Committee declared that “Canada is violating the Lubicon people’s human rights” (Ominayak & Thomas, 2009, p. 121). Similarly, in 2006, the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights concluded that Canada has not adequately consulted with the Lubicon Nation (Laboucan-Massimo, 2014; Ominayak & Thomas, 2009).

There are also key differences between environmental-focused opposition to the oil sands and Indigenous-led campaigns, which tend to position oil development as a continuation of colonization. Coats (2014), for example, describes a tension between a “conservationist approach” that characterizes much environmental movement activism and an “Indigenous Rights approach” to the oil sands. The conservationist perspective “views the tar sands as a polluting industry that needs to be stopped and cleaned up to prevent further destruction of forests, habitats, and freshwater, and to prevent further climate change” (Coats, 2014, p. 270). This perspective generally emphasizes technological solutions, and promotes action by provincial and federal governments and corporations. Environmental groups who adopt this conservationist perspective are often concerned with connecting opposition to the oil sands with critiques of Canadian climate change policy, and frame economic dependence on the oil sands as a key factor in explaining the Alberta and Canadian governments’ poor performance on greenhouse gas mitigation (Haluza-DeLay, 2014; Stoddart, Smith, & Tindall, 2016). By contrast, the Indigenous Rights perspective “holds that the colonial system in Canada and abroad fails to protect Indigenous peoples’ rights” (Coats, 2014, p. 271). Here, the oil sands are perceived as a particularly pernicious and harmful example of colonial injustices that require more substantial transformations to Canadian politics and society.

Environmentalist and Indigenous campaigns against the oil sands also differ in how much emphasis is given to the distributional and procedural environmental justice impacts of the oil sands for Indigenous communities (Thomas-Muller, 2014; Vasey, (p. 452) 2014). The distributional dimension of environmental justice refers to which groups are more exposed to environmental health risks and environmental degradation. By contrast, the procedural dimension of environmental justice refers to which groups are incorporated into the procedures of governance that decide whether or not the environmental risks of a project are acceptable, and who should be exposed to those risks. In mobilization against the Alberta oil sands, Indigenous activists are more likely to assert claims based on both dimensions of environmental justice, with a broader perspective on the social needs of Indigenous communities. By contrast, environmental claims that invoke environmental justice are more likely to focus on distributional justice issues of the increased environmental health risks for downstream communities near the oil sands.

Fracking and Offshore Oil in Atlantic Canada

The Alberta oil sands have garnered a great deal of attention and opposition from Indigenous activists and environmental groups, resulting in national and international attention for this specific mobilization against the Canadian carbon complex. Atlantic Canada, which includes the eastern provinces of Newfoundland and Labrador, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island, offers a valuable contrast to Alberta. Other than a few recent, episodic, and regionally specific moments of mobilization, the oil and gas industries in this region are less commonly targets of social resistance and protest, compared to Alberta. Instead, oil exploration and extraction are often presumed to be economically and socially beneficial, and offer an example of what Freudenburg (2005) terms “the social construction of non-problematicity.” We provide an overview of specific instances where the non-problematicity of oil and gas development has been destabilized.

Indigenous groups in New Brunswick were among the first to act in defense against hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, in eastern Canada. Fracking is an unconventional resource extraction technique in which water, chemicals, and sand are shot into impermeable shale rock to harvest oil and natural gas (de Rijke, 2013). Seismic testing in search of natural gas began near Elsipogtog First Nation, one of New Brunswick’s largest reserves, in 2011. Industrial activity by Southwestern Energy intensified in May 2013, when Elsipogtog band members, settler allies, and the Mi’kmaq Warrior Society united in defense of clean water by blocking workers from accessing equipment (Howe, 2015). Peaceful anti-shale gas protests were ongoing for many months, culminating in October 2013 when the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, equipped with assault rifles and “less lethal” rounds, stormed onto the scene to enforce a court injunction against a road blockade on Highway 134, resulting in five flaming police cars and 40 arrests (Howe, 2015). New Brunswick’s anti-fracking movement can be characterized by a (p. 453) unique dynamic between Indigenous and settler communities. As non-Indigenous communities recognized that their concerns were not being heard by the government, many turned to treaty rights and the province’s constitutional duty to consult with Indigenous populations as a way to halt shale gas development (Howe, 2015). In many Canadian cases, Indigenous resistance to oil development is predicated on a (re)assertion of constitutionally protected Indigenous treaty rights (Howe, 2015).

An anti-fracking movement gained momentum as Indigenous-led resistance to the hotly debated form of drilling in New Brunswick earned international attention. In 2012, Toronto-based oil and gas corporations Black Spruce Exploration and Shoal Point Energy proposed onshore to offshore fracking projects in three locations on the west coast of the island portion of Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada’s easternmost province. The proposed projects are near—and in the case of Sally’s Cove, actually fall within—Gros Morne National Park, one of the province’s most important tourist attractions and a UNESCO World Heritage site (Smith, 2016). Against the backdrop of intense critique from local communities, as well as resistance from outside the province, the provincial government declared a moratorium in November 2013, which was renewed with the release of the final report by the Newfoundland and Labrador Hydraulic Fracturing Review Panel in 2015.

A diverse network of individuals and groups coalesced against fracking development along the west coast of Newfoundland. The NL-Fracking Awareness Network, composed of over 20 organizations from various environmental and non-environmental sectors, serves as an umbrella organization and key network for mobilization and awareness-raising. Networks of anti-fracking or “fracking awareness” organizations communicate and organize both online (emails, listservs, online conference calls, social media platforms, and blogs) and offline (hosting public movie screenings, educational events, petitions, and letter-writing campaigns) (Smith, 2016).

However, research by Smith (2016) shows that local residents’ perceptions of rural places differ, and correlate with either supportive or oppositional positions on fracking. While proponents conceptualize “place” as a resource extraction landscape, opponents understand “place” as a restorative landscape for leisure/tourism activities. Fracking opponents understand rurality as idyllic and restorative and employ a discourse of protection by calling on the provincial government to enact a buffer zone around Gros Morne National Park. Those against development near Gros Morne share concerns about fracking’s potentially negative impacts on tourism, the fishery, and ground and surface water reservoirs. Apprehensions are expressed about fracking diminishing the coastline’s unique “sense of the rural” (Smith, 2016). As well, some opponents link local fracking risks to global climate change. There is also worry about how fracking might hinder residents’ and tourists’ experiences of hunting, fishing, hiking, and star-gazing (Smith, 2016).

Fracking opponents value expert (scientific, technical) and local ecological knowledge forms, but criticize the government-appointed Newfoundland and Labrador Hydraulic Fracturing Review Panel for lacking objectivity, diversity in representation, and for omitting topics they identify as important, such as community consent (p. 454) and climate change considerations (Smith, 2016). The panel’s composition received public criticism for being too industry- and engineering-heavy, lacking women and Indigenous panelists, and for lacking representatives from health, environment, tourism, and fisheries sectors (Fusco, 2015; Rollmann, 2015). Opponents emphasized the need for a strong precautionary principle approach with regard to fracking in Newfoundland (Smith, 2016), whereby industry ought to prove “in advance of the risk” that proposed projects are not exceedingly harmful to human or environmental health (Agyeman, 2005, p. 21).

Another oil development controversy in Atlantic Canada emerged around the Old Harry proposal for offshore oil exploration in the Gulf of St. Lawrence (Bourgault et al., 2014). This development, proposed by Corridor Resources, would be located off the west coast of the island of Newfoundland. In Newfoundland and Labrador, offshore oil development is rarely criticized in public discourse because of the economic and social benefits it brings to the province in terms of employment and provincial revenues (Fusco, 2007). In our research on the Newfoundland and Labrador tourism industry, we find that tourism operators often view nature-based tourism and offshore oil as separate forms of development that do not intersect, as tourism uses of the coastal environment do not share the same ecological space with offshore oil (Stoddart & Graham, 2018). The main concern is risk of an oil spill, but this risk is often viewed as relatively minor and appropriately managed by government regulation. If anything, the oil industry is sometimes seen as providing positive spillover effects for nature-based tourism, as the industry draws new people to the region, or contributes resources to local amenities and infrastructure that support tourism. The tourism industry, which relies on images of unspoiled landscapes and wildlife to draw visitors, often demonstrates an acceptance of the oil industry as separate and coexisting modes of development for coastal environments. This makes the controversy over the Old Harry development unusual and a particularly valuable case to examine in more depth.

The Old Harry proposal has drawn together opposition from tourism operators and organizations, environmental groups, and community organizations in Newfoundland and Labrador, as well as across the other four provinces that border the Gulf of St. Lawrence: Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick, and Quebec. In our research on the Old Harry case, we identify four related discourses that are used to articulate opposition to the project, and which build and maintain an environmentalism-tourism alignment grounding opposition to this specific oil development (Stoddart & Graham, 2018). These discourses are circulated by environmental organizations (including national groups like the David Suzuki Foundation) and by coalitions of environmentalists, tourism operators, fishers, local communities, and Indigenous groups. Two organizations, the St. Lawrence Coalition / Coalition Saint-Laurent and Save Our Seas and Shores (SOS), serve as contact points for bridging environmental concerns and the concerns of regional Indigenous groups. Furthermore, in 2013 the Innu, Maliseet, and Mi’gmaq Nations of Quebec formed their own National Coalition to speak out against oil extraction in the Gulf, in part because of risks to crab fisheries and their economic importance for Indigenous communities (St. Lawrence (p. 455) Coalition, 2013). These discourses enable bridges to be built across environmental groups, tourism organizations, and community organizations in ways that problematize the specific Old Harry development, but rarely disturb the normalized acceptance of the Atlantic Canadian offshore oil industry in general or engage in broader critiques of the regional carbon complex.

First, there is a “wilderness and wildlife” discourse that focuses on the potential harms of oil spills and exploratory seismic activity for whales and other marine life in the Gulf of St. Lawrence that serve as an important tourism attraction. This discourse also argues that Old Harry will pose ecological risks to Gros Morne National Park. Besides the ecological risks, local residents also worry that the visual presence of oil-related activity will harm visitors’ experience of this protected area and make it less desirable as a destination. This is also a prominent theme in Smith’s (2016) study of community interpretations of fracking near Gros Morne.

Second, there is a discourse focused on protecting the existing social-ecological networks of tourism and fisheries communities in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. This discourse creates a distinction between offshore oil development elsewhere in the province, which doesn’t pose direct risks to established tourism economies, and potential development in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, where tourism development is already established in the social-ecological space of potential oil development.

Third, there is a discourse that focuses on the ecological impacts of a potential large-scale oil spill. While the wilderness and wildlife discourse relies on imagery of whales and wildlife, unspoiled seascapes, and rugged coastlines, this ecological risk discourse repeatedly invokes the BP Macondo blowout and oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico as an iconic image of oil disaster. This imagery is often coupled with assertions that the Gulf of St. Lawrence is a more rugged and difficult operating environment due to sea ice, high winds, and rough weather, and that it is a more enclosed ecosystem, which would make the dispersion of an oil spill even more difficult.

Finally, there is a discourse that focuses on contesting the political jurisdiction of oil governance in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. The Old Harry project falls within the political jurisdiction of Newfoundland and Labrador, which is the province that will gain the most economically from the development. However, it would create risks for ecosystems and communities in all five provinces that border the Gulf. As such, the development is problematized, particularly in provinces other than Newfoundland and Labrador, for representing an illegitimate distribution of risks and benefits. The issue of intersecting social and ecological scales is also raised to problematize the notion that Old Harry is an object of concern only for the Newfoundland and Labrador governments, rather than the much broader region of the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

The discourses used in mobilizing against the Old Harry project are productive for bridging the tourism industry and environmentalist interests in protecting the Gulf of St. Lawrence. These discourses work in part because they compartmentalize Old Harry, which is positioned as a specific controversial project, from the rest of the Newfoundland oil industry, which is treated as non-problematic. By contrast, there are signs that Indigenous resistance to oil development in the Gulf of St. Lawrence (p. 456) is less characterized by this compartmentalized approach and bears similarities to Indigenous resistance to the Alberta oil sands and fracking in Elsipogtog. For example, the objectives of the Innu, Maliseet, and Mi’gmaq National coalition for the protection of the Gulf of St. Lawrence are to recalibrate relationships between government and decision-makers regarding oil extraction in the Gulf (The lnnu, Maliseet, and Mi’gmaq National Coalition for the Protection of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, 2013).


In this chapter, we have provided an overview of environmental and Indigenous-led protest over oil extraction in Alberta and Atlantic Canada, offering insight into the different ways in which energy can become controversial. In Atlantic Canada, criticisms of the oil industry tend to be project-specific, making anti-oil mobilization more of a sporadic than an ongoing campaign. In Alberta, opponents to the oil sands make connections to a broader resistance to the oil industry and concerns about global climate change, as well as assertions of Indigenous rights. By contextualizing the oil sands mobilization as a component of climate change activism and a step toward decolonizing Canada, the basis of support for anti-oil activism in Alberta includes international organizations and groups seeking to “green the economy,” as well as groups fighting for environmental justice. These types of global linkages are not as prevalent in the examples of Atlantic Canadian oil and gas protest (an exception being the fracking protests at Elsipogtog, which were also linked to Idle No More). These differences do not necessarily mean that oil sands protests have been more successful or meaningful than mobilization in Atlantic Canada. It is possible that the Atlantic Canadian protests, because they are more regional and project-specific, are able to recruit more new activists at the local level and may have more direct influence over local government and industry decision-making. By contrast, in Alberta the level of involvement by organizations and activists from outside the province has led to public debates about foreign money and influence, and the degree to which anti-oil sands activism reflects local interests. Whether a more localized model of resistance or a more internationalized model of resistance is more politically effective remains a key question for further comparative research on Indigenous and environmental movement mobilization against oil development.

Indigenous and environmental movements often use similar strategies to encourage opposition to oil development, as they highlight environmental degradation and potential environmental health impacts on communities near the sites of oil extraction. However, there are also key differences. Environmental groups often put more emphasis on environmental destruction and environmental health impacts of specific projects, without necessarily engaging in critique of the carbon complex as a whole. By contrast, Indigenous-led resistance to oil development appears less likely to adopt this compartmentalized approach that focuses on project-specific environmental harms. (p. 457) Instead, Indigenous-led resistance more often positions oil extraction within a broader critique of colonial and cultural assimilation projects. Indigenous mobilization to oil development is often based on reasserting cultural values and upholding treaty rights, and protecting land and water from environmentally compromising activities is inherently linked with preserving Indigenous ways of life. This demonstrates a more all-encompassing approach to oil resistance, which goes beyond the “isolate and regulate” approach put forth by many conservationists. As such, our discussion echoes Naomi Klein’s (2015) recent assertions that Indigenous groups can play a pivotal role in making the transition toward less carbon-intensive societies as a response to climate change. However, while we agree that Indigenous mobilization offers a productive model of engaging with the social-environmental issues of oil development, we are wary of projecting a romanticized role as heroes and saviors of petro-capitalist societies onto Indigenous groups. Rather, Indigenous movement discourse should encourage environmental organizations to also work toward more holistic engagements with the environmental and social impacts of oil development, both in relation to specific projects and the industry as a whole.

As in many countries, the Canadian political economy is heavily tied to the success of what has been called “fossil capitalism” (Altvater, 2007), “petro-capitalism” (Carter, 2014; Haluza-DeLay, 2014), or the “carbon complex” (Urry, 2013). The cases we have examined are examples of unconventional oil and natural gas, which are often more energy intensive and expensive to extract and are located in more challenging operating environments. Corporations are increasingly turning to unconventional forms of oil development, such as hydraulic fracturing, oil sands, and offshore extraction in deep ocean or northern environments, due to technological advancements as well as the depletion of conventional sources. An increased focus on tough oil and gas around the world means that we are likely to see more episodes of contention over oil development. This is likely to be exacerbated as societies grapple with the need to respond to climate change and decisions about whether to continue the pursuit of unconventional fossil fuels, or to make the transition to more renewable energy systems.


We would like to thank Howard Ramos for his comments on the development of this chapter. This chapter builds on research supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC).


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