In the Athabasca region of Alberta, Canada, oil companies are working with scientists to develop methods for constructing peat-producing wetlands, known locally as muskeg, in a post-mining landscape. Over half of the pre-mined boreal landscape contained muskeg, supporting indigenous peoples’ livelihoods for generations. For those communities whose homelands are disturbed by oil sands extraction, reclaiming muskeg is entangled with indigenous rights and the “spirit in the land” (Buffalo 2011). Yet indigenous concerns are often subsumed within scientific and bureaucratic discourses that favour classification and quantification. Rifts erupt between industrial, bureaucratic, scientific, and indigenous reclamation narratives. For whom and on what terms is muskeg being reclaimed?
The Government of Alberta requires oil companies to reclaim disturbed land by achieving “equivalent capability” of land use (Alberta 2014:97), or rebuilding the productivity of a landscape. With shifting definitions of “productive” land – economic, ecological, or somewhere in-between – reclamation practices in Alberta evolved from creating cattle ranches and agricultural lands to constructing muskeg. Oil companies continue to translate these bureaucratic definitions of reclamation by telling indigenous communities that it seeks to “put the land back”. Yet for these communities, reclamation requires not only achieving ecological or economic productivity, but also reclaiming a cultural landscape.
Drawing on ethnographic and archival research with wetland scientists and the Fort McMurray Métis community, this chapter discusses how contested, converging, and entangled narratives of muskeg reclamation are rooted in competing legal systems (Borrows 2010, Merry 1988). I begin the chapter by outlining indigenous and settler histories in the Athabasca region. I describe how settler colonialism (Wolfe 1999) in Canada served to reframe the land in terms of its productivity or utility value, analogous to a Lockean labour theory of property that holds ownership is born from the exertion of human labour upon natural resources. I then trace how this labour theory perpetuates through historical and contemporary government narratives about muskeg and reclamation, often in terms of “improving” muskeg’s productivity for valued uses: roads, forestry, and, more recently, biodiversity and traditional land use. Finally I explore how a Lockean framework of “productivity” can be at odds with indigenous perspectives of land use. To illustrate, I describe how muskeg reclamation requires communities to grow with environments, compelling attention to indigenous legal orders (Napoleon 2013) and relationships of reciprocity and ethical relationality (Donald 2009, Couthard 2015). I explain how reclaiming muskeg involves more than just returning ecological productivity for indigenous communities: it is a process of healing and resurgence in which culture and ecology must grow together.
I conclude by reflecting on the importance of incorporating multiple narratives of land use for indigenous participation in reclamation efforts. For muskeg reclamation to be successful for indigenous communities, reclamation policy and practice must reconcile their reflections of historically contingent settler colonial conceptualisations of utility, which continue to inscribe indigenous homelands as resource territory. Indigenous legal orders, including recognition of indigenous rights and growing with environments (both wet and dry), must be a key component of mine reclamation policy in Canada.
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