threatened by the athabascan oil sands, tar sands, Alberta, Athabasca River, Canada, Boreal Forest
Tar Sands

Tantoo Cardinal on Tar Sands: No Energy More Powerful than Natural Force


From European Conquest to Tar Sands Oil: Tantoo Cardinal on the Natural Force of Mother Earth: The Canadian First Nations Actress gives voice to the Natural Force of Mother Earth, amid threats from the tar sands mining planned for the Boreal Forest of Alberta. Following is a transcript of her talk in Pasadena, California, back in 2011.

threatened by the athabascan oil sands, tar sands, Alberta, Athabasca River, Canada, Boreal Forest
Canada’s Northern Boreal Forest is one of the last intact old growth forests in the world, now threatened by the quest for tar sands oil. Photo By Garth Lenz.

The Boreal Forest – Living off the Land

I was born in Fort McMurray (Alberta, Canada), home of the tar sands. I remember when the land was clean and we lived off it. I remember catching my first fish and bringing it home. The tradition of burying your first fish, on the land, so you would always have food. Raised on moose, go picking berries, camp by the creek. Go to the water, make your tea, cook your food right there. I remember those days, but then the oil companies came in.

Where I come from, they were surveying that area in the late 1800s. By the early 1900s they already knew what was under that land. They already knew what they were going for.

And I am a part of the history…of rape. I am a mixed blood. My mother’s people are from the land. My father’s people came on a ship. Suffering scurvy, my mother’s people doctored them.

And we just celebrated Thanksgiving, where my mother’s people came with gifts that made a big dinner possible. My mother’s people showed my father’s people how this land works. How to live off it.

STORY: Post-Apocalyptic Destruction of the Tar Sands: Alberta from Above

Tantoo Cardinal - Tar Sands Oil and the Natural Force of Mother Earth

Canadian First Nations Actress and International Activist Tantoo Cardinal speaks on “Tar Sands Oil and the Natural Force, the Mother Earth Voice of Indigenous Communities.” December 6, 2011 event by Burbank Green Alliance and WilderUtopia at All Saints Church in Pasadena, California. Video By Kirk MacDonald.

living off the land, wetlands, Athabascan Tar Sands, Alberta, Canada, boreal forest
The Peace–Athabasca Delta is a large freshwater, inland delta in northeastern Alberta, home to millions of migrating waterfowl and dependent wildlife. The resource is threatened from development of the tar sands. – Photography By Garth Lenz

Culture and Traditions of the Land, Outlawed

Since they got strong enough, they outlawed our traditions. Tried to weaken us, debilitate us and kill us in every way possible, just like what’s going on with the land right now. Our language was outlawed. Our relationship with the land was outlawed. Our culture was outlawed.

We know that if you don’t touch a baby, it will die. In our traditions that have been outlawed, we have ceremonies that cultivate a relationship with the earth and all of its forces that are part of the earth. You’ve heard of sacred sites? It’s part of our law that we have to interact with these places, that part of the earth. That’s where the voice comes from.

The earth has a voice. And the fact that any native people have survived on the planet should be a clue that there’s a way that does not include money and politics. We have survived by our relationship with natural force.

We’ve always known that the earth is our mother. My father’s people just figured that out some time in the 60s. They forgot. There was a time when we all knew the earth was alive. And then the brainwashing. This smoke and mirrors thing started to happen. When I was growing up in that area that’s now the tar sands, never heard a drum. Never knew of any ceremonies. That’s how thorough the work was, of those people who had come to do their geological surveys and knowing what they wanted to get out of the land.

Cree Language: Fire is a Woman’s Heart

In my language, the word for fire is iskotew. It is made up of two words. One word is isko, which means “woman.” The other word is miteh, which means “heart.” Fire is woman’s heart in my language. Just as a clue as to why my language has been outlawed.

So, the work was thorough, after our ways were outlawed, severing our relationship with our Mother, the natural force, taking our children away for generations and teaching them that the ways of their parents were of the devil and the ways of the land is of the past. It weakens people.

And all of us have lost the traditions. I don’t care what culture you come from, what part of the planet you’ve come from, that has been ripped away from all of us. Because we have all been a part of that original blueprint. That we have a relationship with the land, this wonderful gift of creation. This was given to us to live a good life, and live in a good way.

A Return to Respecting the Natural Force

And I believe why my mother’s people suffer so hard, generation after generation, we are holding that. We keep holding that gift. We still have that gift to bring to the table. Just like we brought food to the table for Thanksgiving. We have this gift to contribute. And nobody wants to let us in. And maybe that’s the gift of the tar sands. I mean, how desperate does it have to get until we recognize that each of us has a heart and a mind, a soul and a spirit? That’s what makes energy on this planet. It’s not money.

And, so, our thoughts and our prayers and our connection with the earth are what push back that darkness. Not to buy that propaganda and to make some sacrifices in our life, and to make that commitment. That we can live a decent life. And so we have to return to respecting the forces. The natural force. It’s my faith and commitment that there’s no energy more powerful than the natural force.

And the natural force has a personality. It’s very strategic. There’s wisdom in all of this. There are scientific explanations. About the winds, all of this kind of [climate] stuff that’s going on now. There’s also personality, and character. And specificity.

Remember that love is the most powerful force and that each of us has something we can do. It may seem like a small thing, but it goes into a pile with someone else’s small thing and we have to hold out faith and keep on moving in that direction. And remember, there have been a lot of lies told. A lot of untruths. For the purpose that everyone has their own idea what survival is. And, if the tar sands isn’t stopped, we are going to have a whole new set of problems.

STORY: How Indigenous People Will End Tar Sands Pipelines – EcoJustice Radio

tar sands oil, Alberta, Canada
Athabscan Tar Sands of Alberta, Canada. Photography By Garth Lenz

Water is sacred. Air is sacred. And we all share that. It belongs to all of us. That water gets poisoned up there [in Alberta], it will not be safe for anybody. Anywhere. We have to stop that thinking. Go back and pull some of those wonderful ideas that the oil companies sabotaged. Had they not been, what kind of society would we have now? With some of these wonderful ideas that were not as destructive, didn’t make that much money for them, but our kids would have had a life.

Ceremony, Medicine and Natural Laws

So many things to talk about. Thanks for listening. It is a hard thing to pay attention to. I come from that world where the land was barren because of the preparations they made by outlawing all of our ceremonies, our way. And the medicines that have already been destroyed is a crime in itself.

There are natural laws. On the [small piece of] land [they reclaimed from the mining], where [reintroduced] buffalo peacefully graze, a lot of medicine went down there. There’s medicine that can cure those cancers, that can cure AIDS. Every disease we have on this planet can be cured with the medicines from the earth. And those are being destroyed, not only in the tar sands. In the rainforests, everywhere. Before my father’s people came here they burned their healers. They burned their healers at the stake. Because they carried that medicine. And were interfering with the pharmaceutical industries.

See what I mean, we can go on all night long, but thank you for being here. Thank you for hearing this. Say good prayers. God Bless our Mother. Thank you.


Athabascan Tar Sands of Alberta, Canada
World’s Dirtiest Oil – Alberta, Canada. Photography By Garth Lenz.

Worlds Dirtiest Oil – The Tar Sands

The Athabascan Tar Sands of Alberta, Canada, the largest industrial project in human history, continues to destroy the environment and harm indigenous societies. Its planned expansion of open pit (strip) and in situ (underground) mining of an area of Boreal Forest the size of Florida has set the stage for an epic political battle continuing despite the Obama Administration delay of the Keystone XL pipeline’s northern segment.

One of the world’s last intact ecosystems, the Boreal, close to the Peace-Athabascan Delta, remains home to lynx, caribou, grizzly bears, and about one million species of birds, including tundra swans, snow geese and nesting ducks. The silty deposits just underground contain small amounts of crude bitumen, washed by combining steaming hot water (175 degrees Fahrenheit) and sometimes caustic soda that separates the globules from the sand.

The process requires vast amounts of natural gas and four to seven gallons of water for every one gallon of oil produced.  Flames from stacks of an “upgrader” crack the tarry bitumen at 900 degrees Fahrenheit and convert it to synthetic crude, sent down pipelines to refineries in Edmonton, Ontario, and the USA. Controversial pipeline projects including the Enbridge Northern Gatweway and the Keystone XL promise to spread the wealth around for multinational oil companies. The carbon-rich fuel will burn up to three-times dirtier, sure to further destabilize the global climate. Stay tuned, this issue is not going away.


First Nations Actress and International ActivistBorn in the capital of tar sands open pit mining, Ft. McMurray, Alberta, First Nations Actress and International Activist Tantoo Cardinal has spoken out against the destruction of the Boreal Forest and the impact on indigenous communities living downstream on the Athabasca River. She also has been a voice of conscience against the Keystone XL pipeline. In August 2011 she was arrested along with 60 others for violating a protest permit by sitting in front of the White House after being asked to leave. She was also present for the first ever Hands-Around-The-White-House on November 6th, again to protest the pipeline.

An accomplished and celebrated actress, Tantoo Cardinal has advanced Aboriginal performing arts throughout the world. Known for her authenticity, she has brought to life complex and diverse Aboriginal characters and has worked to dispel stereotypes. Her performances on stage and in both film and television have helped to blaze a trail in an industry where few roles for Aboriginal women previously existed. Her 80 plus credits include North of 60, Shattered, Legends of the Fall, Dances With Wolves, Black Robe, Loyalties, Education of Little Tree, Luna, Spirit of the Whale, Unnatural and Accidental, Sioux City, Silent Tongue, Smoke Signals and Mother’s and Daughter’s.

Tantoo Cardinal is a founding member of the Saskatchewan Native Theatre Company, she serves as an inspirational role model to aspiring youth. Her performances in projects like the “Vagina Monologues” seek to raise awareness of the shocking level of violence against Aboriginal women in Canada and to support women who are struggling with the issue of violence.

Photo Credits: Garth Lenz – Energy and Ecology Project

Updated 3 March 2021

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  2. Pingback: How Indigenous People Will End Tar Sands Pipelines – EcoJustice Radio

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